For over a year now, a cloud has hovered over the village of Oberammergau, location of the world-famous Passion Play. My wife and I recently visited this Bavarian village, spending some time with persons vitally concerned with the course of the upcoming decentennial commemoration of the crucifixion of our Lord, due in 1980.

The mood of Oberammergau has for months been one of uneasiness, due to the controversy over the form and staging of the coming presentations. The text used in recent presentations has been adapted from a script written 300 years ago. Until recently, there were few major objections to it. From time to time members of the Jewish community have felt that parts of the script made too much of the role of Jewish authorities in the trial and death of Jesus. However, the major stimulus to controversy came with pronouncements in the midsixties of the Vatican Ecumenical Council, which sparked suggestions for a radical revision of the Passion Play script that would avoid reference to, or suggestion of, Jewish responsibility for the death of our Lord.

The village of 4,200 has for a decade been divided into two camps, that of the “no-change traditionalists” and the “now-play progressives.” The latter have campaigned for a replacement of the seventeenth-century script with a more recent one, in which the forces of evil leading to the death of Jesus are shown allegorically. This would serve to absolve the Jewish religious authorities of our Lord’s time of responsibility for the crucifixion event. As the controversy has progressed, however, it has become clear that the demands for the elimination of that, plus the correction of some historical errors, have served as a pretext for a demand by some for a thorough updating of the play. Such a script has been prepared. The traditionalists, who call themselves the “1980 Passion Play Citizens’ Action Group,” reject the new version as newfangled and irreverent. Anton Preisinger, who played the part of the Christus in 1970, feels the new version is unsuited to Oberammergau and to amateur players.

We were privileged to go behind the scenes and see the displays of costumes and properties. A survey of the materials made ready for the revised presentation (and there have been three rehearsals with the new format this summer) indicates that there is a wide departure from the historic Play. Such props as the cross, the staging, and the costumes for most of the lead characters, suggest a thorough modernization of the upcoming presentations of 1980. The August rehearsals, which were an immediate sellout, seem to have been trial balloons, by which sentiment for or against the new form could be determined.

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There are other significant departures in the proposed new version. Formerly this presentation was designedly “amateur,” using (with a solitary exception in 1950) only villagers as characters. The newer format would require not only cast members from outside Oberammergau, but some professional actors as well. The part of Mary, formerly reserved for a single woman of the village under age thirty-five, may now be played by one not meeting these specifications.

By the best information that visitors from outside Oberammergau can secure, the alteration goes much further. Responsible citizens of Oberammergau have held that the proposed new version will radically alter the deeper meaning of the play. Originally planned and presented in response to a vow, made as the village was spared in the plague of 1633, the Passion Play was essentially that—a pledged dramatization of the death of our Lord. The new version is said by persons familiar with it to be more in the manner of a medieval morality play, out of keeping with the original design.

The play as given in recent decades has been embellished by a number of supportive scenes, given by groups from the two wings flanking the main stage. These scenes are introduced by a narrator whose lines highlight the coming main-stage presentation. The wife of the narrator, who served as a personal guide to our party, confided to my wife and me the misgivings of her husband, and the feeling that he would probably not narrate in 1980 if the revised script were used.

The modernization proposed would, it seems clear, alter greatly the thrust of the play, and thus appeal to a somewhat different audience than has been the case in the recent past. It was reported that some of the supporting scenes would, if the new plan were adopted, reflect Bavarian folk festivals, rather than the emphasis originally intended. Some have maintained that the proposed musical alterations would include adaptations of the Bavarian Schuhplattler and the introduction of some rock music.

Although much of the pressure for modernization has come from the younger townsfolk, whom the conservatives view as being overly reflective of the secularized German society, there have reportedly been some older people favoring change. The people who want the traditional script regard themselves as guardians of the historic vow and spirit of Oberammergau. These people are also distressed by the commercialization of the Passion Play, as visitors from distant lands seek out the village’s major event and repeatedly fill its 5,200-seat theater with its mammoth open-air stage.

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Word has just come to the effect that the issue has been resolved, at least for the present (according to the Washington Post, March 7, 1978). It seems that the municipal council in charge of the affairs of Oberammergau had decided that on the basis of the response to the three presentations last August, it was prepared to go along with the use of the modernized version in 1980. Then in March in the municipal elections, the present council was voted out, and one was elected that opted for the traditional presentation.

This decision does not, of course, settle the matter of the feelings of the world Jewish community, to whom the presentation of the passion of our Lord is, quite understandably, offensive. Whether or not the script is needlessly expressive of the involvement of first-century Jewish leaders in the crucifixion, it remains that any such presentation, if true to the Gospel narratives, can scarcely be regarded as complimentary to them. We attended the play in 1950, 1960, and 1970. We followed the German text carefully, and did not ourselves feel the material to be as negative toward the Jewish leaders as some regard it to be.

The naïve person would, of course, say that Jewish organizations today should take this in stride, just as do persons of other nations or races when they see presentations that are not especially complimentary to them. However, as Christians we must remember that none of us has experienced any national or racial catastrophy of the extent and the malignancy of the Holocaust during the nightmare called Hitlerism.

Bearing the Holocaust in mind, one can understand the fears of Jewish people that even if the Oberammergau presentation expressed only the New Testament narrative, yet it is a selective presentation, and is seen by well over 200,000 persons from all parts of the world every ten years. Fear of anti-Semitism is understandably a constant with the Jewish community, and the fear of actively reviving this disease is a very real factor in the thinking of Jewish people, and especially those who narrowly survived the Holocaust or who lost loved ones during this nightmare.

As Christians we need to understand this aspect of the question that revolves around Oberammergau. Although it would alter the entire economics of this delightful Bavarian village, one could wish that the observance of our Lord’s Passion could be less commercialized, less showy, and perhaps inclusive of a smaller number of people. The controversy catches evangelicals between their concern for God’s ancient people on the one hand and the integrity of the passion narratives in the Gospels on the other. I feel this dilemma keenly and have no final word of resolution for it.

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