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Exploring Europe at the British Library

01 April 2018

Public Passions: the Oberammergau Passion Play

The tradition of Easter Passion Plays, re-enacting the Biblical story of Jesus’s last days, crucifixion and resurrection, dates back to the Middle Ages, but the world’s most famous Passion Play, performed once every decade in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, has its origins in the 17th century.

View of Oberammergau

Oberammergau and its Passion-Play theatre in 1890. From John P. Jackson, Album of the Passion-Play at Ober-Ammergau ... (Munich, 1891) 1871.d.24

During a plague epidemic in 1633 the villagers swore an oath to re-enact the Passion every ten years if they were spared from further deaths. The death-toll allegedly fell to nothing and in 1634 the villagers duly staged their play for the first time. The regular performance year was later moved to the last year of each decade.

Facsimiles of an early script of and programme for the Oberammergau Passion Play
Opening of the oldest surviving version of the script (1662), and a programme for the 1780 performance. Reproduced in Norbert Jaron and Bärbel Rudin, Das Oberammergauer Passionsspiel: eine Chronik in Bildern (Dortmund, 1984) YV.1987.a.740.

The play combines the action of the Passion story with sung choruses and tableaux of Old Testament scenes interpreted as prefigurations of the life of Jesus. As Oberammergau had no existing Passion play tradition, the first play-text was put together from various sources. In its first two centuries it underwent various revisions and rewrites, reaching its longest-lasting form in 1860 in a version by the local priest, Joseph Alois Daisenberger.

Tableau of Jacob and his sons from an 1850 performance of the play
‘Jacob receives Joseph’s bloodstained coat’. Tableau from a performance in 1850. Illustration by Friedrich Pecht from, Eduard Devrient, Das Passionsschauspiel in Oberammergau und seine Bedeutung für die neue Zeit (Leipzig, 1851). 11746.l.16.

In the mid-19th century, the Oberammergau Passion Play began to attract wider attention, as more visitors from outside began to attend the performaces and to publish accounts of their impressions. One such account of the 1850 play by the actor Eduard Devrient was particularly influential in establishing the play not just as a moving religious experience but also as an expression of the ‘German national spirit’.

Cover of 'Das Passionsschauspiel in Oberammergau' with a picture of the actor playing Jesus
Cover of Devrient’s, Das Passionsschauspiel in Oberammergau ...

It was the former aspect (as well as improvements to transport and the development of international tourism) that began to draw ‘pilgrims’ from beyond Germany to the play. Even those prepared to be cynical, fearing crude performances by uneducated peasants, tended to find themselves overwhelmed by religious feeling. Gerard Molloy, writing about the performances of 1871 (the regular cycle had been disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War), quotes a number of emotional responses from British visitors, including a woman who ‘forgot all but the wonderful story of our salvation and cried all day.’ A less overwrought account is found in Jerome K. Jerome’s Diary of a Pilgrimage (Bristol, 1891; 12331.i.36.), which combines a comical description of the author’s journey to Oberammergau in 1890 with a fairly straight discussion of the play itself.

Photograph from the play showing Jesus blessing his disciples
Jesus (played by Josef Mayr) blessing John (Johannes Zwink) and Peter (Jakob Hett) in the 1871 production. From Gerard Molloy, The Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau, in the summer of 1871 (London, 1872) RB.23.a.26273.

As the play’s international popularity grew, guidebooks and programmes began to appear, featuring not only details of the performances but also advertisements for local hotels, restaurants and shops, and advice about places to visit nearby. The play was becoming a focus for package holidays and an important part of the local economy.

Covers of three guidebooks to Oberammergau and the play from the 19th and 20th centuries
Guidebooks to Oberammergau and the Passion Play from 1880 (10240.e.3), 1900 (11791.c.55) and 1930 (11795.p.21.)

Some of the local performers also began to enjoy a degree of celebrity. Their portraits featured in many accounts, and one lavish souvenir volume of the 1890 performances even includes pictures of the principal performers’ houses. Anton Lang who played Jesus from 1900-1920 published an autobiography which ran to two editions. But despite all the publicity and the commercial aspect of the festival, the people of Oberammergau continued (and continue) to see the play first and foremost as a solemn religious undertaking.

Portraits of the principal characters in the 1890 Passion Play
Above: Portraits of the principal performers in 1890, from John P. Jackson, Album of the Passion-Play; Below: Title-page of Anton Lang, Aus meinem Leben (Munich, 1938) 10710.a.47, with a portrait of Lang in the character of Jesus

Title-page of Anton Lang's autobiography with a frontispiece photograph of Lang in the role of Jesus

In 1934 additional performances of the play took place. These marked the 300th anniversary of the original production, but were also used by Germany’s new Nazi rulers to link the play and Devrient’s conception of its ‘German national spirit’ with their own regime. The introduction to the 1934 edition of the play-text makes this clear, speaking of ‘the fortune of a new life which unites us all in our race’ and of ‘the suppression of the antichristian powers in our fatherland’.

Title-page of the 1934 playscript with a woodcut frontispiece of the crucifixion
Title-page and frontispiece from the official 1934 play-text, Das Passions-Spiel in Oberammergau (Munich, 1934)

One feature of the play that particularly appealed to the Nazis was the strongly anti-semitic slant of the text. This troubling aspect was highlighted as early as 1901 in a book by an American Rabbi, Joseph Krauskopf, who had seen the play in 1900 and was shocked and angered at ‘seeing one gross misrepresentation of the Jewish people after the other’.

Title-page of 'A Rabbi’s Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play' with a frontispiece photograph of Joseph Krauskopf
Title-page and frontispiece portrait from Joseph Krauskopf, A Rabbi’s Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play (Philadelphia, 1901.) Text available online at:

Astonishingly, however, even after 1945 the issue of antisemitism was not addressed for some decades, in spite of growing international complaints and a partial boycott of the 1970 performances in protest. Although the play had a history of being revised and rewritten, Daisenberger’s 1860 text had somehow acquired a canonical status which the organisers were obstinately unwilling to challenge, and it was used more or less unchanged until the 1980s. It was only in the following decade that Oberammergau began seriously to reconsider the play’s depiction of Jews and Judaism. Change has been gradual, but recent directors have worked with both Jewish and Catholic experts to create a script and presentation more in keeping with a modern understanding of the New Testament story, and in particular to remind audiences that Jesus himself was Jewish.

How well these challenges have been met will be apparent when the play is next performed. It is to be hoped that this remarkable , nearly 400-year-old tradition of community performance can survive in a form fitted to our times, to be appreciated by religious and secular audiences of all backgrounds alike.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Further reading:

The Oberammergau passion play: essays on the 2010 performance and the centuries-long tradition, edited by Kevin J. Wetmore (Jefferson NC, 2017) YC.2018.a.11909

Tomas Dashuber, Ecce Homo: die Entstehung des Oberammergauer Passionsspiels (Munich, 2000) LB.31.b.20379

James Shapiro, Oberammergau: the troubling story of the world's most famous Passion play (London, 2000) YC.2000.a.8555.

Roland Kaltenegger, Oberammergau und die Passionsspiele 1634-1984 (Munich, 1984) YV.1987.b.1758