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Oberammergau’s Passion play: the villagers who never broke their promise to God

During the 1630s plague, the villagers of Oberammergau invoked God, asking Him to cure them, in return for them putting on a play of the Passion, every ten years… until the coronavirus.

By Francesca Merlo

It was the year 1632 when the Bubonic plague broke out in Bavaria, Germany. The little town of Oberammergau, located in the Bavarian mountains, did everything it could to keep the plague out. Then one night that same year, a man who was returning home for Christmas, as the story goes, managed to enter…bringing the plague with him. By 1633, 84 people had died. By that point, too many families had known death and so the villagers made a vow to God. They promised Him that if He cured the village of the plague, they would put on a Passion Play every ten years. It is said that from that moment, nobody else died from the plague. Those who were healthy stayed so and those who were ill were cured.

Since then, Oberammergau has put on their internationally known “Passion play” every 10 years. Over 2000 of the village’s 5000 inhabitants take part, as actors, choristers, musicians, stage hands and more. The rules are simple: you have to have been born in Oberammergau, or have lived there for 20 years. They spend two years preparing for their performances, each of the 21 lead roles are cast to two actors. The men spend a year prior to the performance, growing their hair and beards.

The theatre hosts 5000 spectators who come from all over the world. The tourism created by the Passion play has a major economic impact on Oberammergau. A local expression “Die Passion zahlt" translates as “the passion play will pay for it”. It has, in fact, paid for a community swimming pool, community centre and many other improvements to the village.

There have been few other postponements of the play. In 1770, Elector Maximilian III, then Duke of Bavaria, banned all passion plays, as part of a drive against extravagance. A new ruler reviewed the play, and performances were allowed once again in 1780. The 1920 performance was postponed due to post-war economic conditions, and the 1940 performance was cancelled due to the onset of the Second World War in 1939. Now, 90 years later, the 42nd edition of the Passion Play scheduled from May to October 2020, has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2010, all 103 performances were completely sold out. This year, as Germany faces lockdown and all large gatherings are banned, the Passion Play will have to wait. Health officials have said that even if restrictive measures were lifted in time, “the risk would be too high”.

16 April 2020, 13:20