"The play's the thing," as it has been since the Sumerians staged their New Year festival dramas in ancient Mesopotamia. Combine our inclination to be stage-struck with a play on Christianity's origins and it becomes clear why a sleepy, south Bavarian town of 5,000 can attract 500,000 visitors to its celebrated Passion play every ten years. From May 21 to October 8 this year, audiences have been assembling from every continent for the six-hour performance, whose cast of 2,200 involves almost half the people of Oberammergau.Along with a success that lures visitors with an almost pilgrim-like dedication to this spectacle, the play has also evoked controversy in recent years. At Oberammergau, locals have simmered over qualifications for participating in the cast, the role of women, selection of the director, and disputes over script and staging. And the now-anticipated charges of anti-Semitism, which hounded the play in 1970, 1980, and 1990, have again surfaced, though in muted tones due to significant changes in the script.In the past, only Roman Catholics in good standing could become members of the cast, and then only if they had lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years. Six of the town's Turkish Muslim citizens, who have met the 20-year requirement, are part of this year's cast but only as pagan Roman soldiers.The changes involving women are more substantial. Before the 1990 performance, only unmarried women younger than 35 could take part in the play. The reason? According to some men in the conservative community, "We don't want ugly women on stage."The women's response: "What about all the ugly men who have been on stage for years?"More seriously, this restriction often made Mary younger than Jesus in the play. The women went to court, and several months ago, won their case on the basis of German civil-rights law. Now, 600 of the 2,200 players are women, including older Marys.Christian Stückl, the 35-year-old director of both the 1990 and 2000 productions, supports the women's cause and kept important parts for women in reserve until they settled the case. He also had to battle conservative townspeople about revisions in stage design and changes in the script, winning his 1990 directorship by just one vote (though increasing his majority to 55 percent this year). Hardly a red-eyed radical, Stückl wages his crusade to balance change with tradition.


Far and away, the most controversial aspect of the Oberammergau Passion Plays has been the charge of anti-Semitism in the script and staging. The older productions of what the Bavarians call their Passionsspiel gave a medieval portrayal of the Jews as "Christ-killers." Judas was dressed in coward's yellow, probably reflecting the yellow Star of David that Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. The Jewish cry at Jesus' trial before Pilate—"His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25)—was repeated four times as late as the 1980 performance. In addition, much of the play focused on Jesus' hostile encounters with Jewish leaders, their animosity augmented for dramatic purposes—all of which led Adolf Hitler to call the 300th anniversary performance in 1934 "a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry."Indeed, since Germany is the land of Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen, and the rest, a sensitized world has inevitably scrutinized the script of the play each decade since World War II. The play booklet for Oberammergau 2000 fully appreciates this reality: "We must nevertheless admit that this Passion Play, too, contributed in various ways to prepare the soil which eventually yielded the terrible harvest of the extermination of the Jews."The people of Oberammergau, then, have hardly been deaf to claims of anti-Semitism, charges that came not only from Jewish sources but also from Roman Catholics and Protestants. In the 1980 production, a preface in the play booklet warned against shifting blame for Good Friday to any ethnic group rather than to all of humanity. This has been enlarged in the 2000 version, a concern that fairly dominates the preface.Since 1980, the harshest language of Jesus' opponents has been moderated or cut. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea now speak up for Jesus before leaving the Sanhedrin in disgust, accurately demonstrating that not all Jews concurred in Jesus' condemnation. The point was further underscored when a sizable number in the crowd before Pilate cry out in Jesus' behalf. This was not a case of deviating from the Gospels in order to please critics, as Luke 23:27 demonstrates.Further improvements came in the 1990 version: Jesus and his disciples assumed prayer shawls at the opening of the Last Supper, showing that he was a Jew among Jews. Judas no longer wore coward's yellow, nor Caiaphas a horned hat—a demonic symbol in the Middle Ages. The Blood Curse of Matthew 27:25 was pronounced only once. The 2000 edition not only maintains these changes, but has added more. Pontius Pilate no longer shouts the blood curse at all. More texts from the Old Testament appear. Jesus offers a blessing in Hebrew at the Last Supper. Judas now is motivated not by greed but by political considerations: his disappointment in Jesus for not leading a revolt against Rome. Jesus' Jewish defenders during Holy Week are given more lines and more enthusiasm.But the biggest surprise is the "conversion" of Gamaliel, who now appears solidly in Jesus' camp with much more dialogue. While such a characterization might be drawn from the way this revered member of the Sanhedrin spoke in behalf of the Jerusalem apostles, according to Acts 5:34ff., it is extremely doubtful that Gamaliel ever became a Christian: his disciple Saul of Tarsus would not have persecuted the earliest Christians had that been the case, and Jewish history would not have accorded Gamaliel such high praise had he converted.Are such changes enough to satisfy those who raise the charge of anti-Semitism? Almost. While some differences remain, the Anti-Defamation League agreed that "substantial improvements have been made from the 1980 to 1990 production and even more far-reaching ones for the 2000 Play." The American Jewish Committee finds "vast improvements over earlier versions."My one major complaint about the Passion play is how the Easter event is given such short shrift. The Passionsspiel runs 115 pages in the play booklet, but only three pages are devoted to the Resurrection, and half of these are idle chatter by the guards at Jesus' tomb. Not that the play denies the Resurrection: the risen Jesus does stand in luminous centrality at the close of the play. But he speaks no lines, makes no movements. While this may succeed for dramatic purposes, it fails in terms of historic Christianity.Criticisms aside, the play and players must be doing something right. Otherwise, in this secular age, a six-hour drama on a supremely religious theme would fail to attract a sellout audience of 4,700 each time it is presented.

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Paul Maierteaches ancient history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He is the editor and translator of Eusebius: The Church History (Kregel).

Related Elsewhere

See today's other ChristianityToday.com articles related to the Oberammergau Passion play: CT Classic: Who Killed Jesus? | After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? CT Classic: A Passionate Passion | Oberammergau's drama not only survives, it thrives.The official city of Oberammergau site , available in German and English, has daily news, ticket and travel information. (Check out the Web cams to get a feel for the town.) Better yet is the official Oberammergau Passion Play site, which offers a rich, illustrated history of the play.This University of Dayton site allows you to view pictures from past Oberammergau plays and learn more about the history of passion plays .Other media coverage of the Oberammergau Passion play includes:An Oberammergau pilgrimage | German Passion play draws visitors from around the world—The Boston Globe (Aug. 13, 2000) The Wrong Passions | A scholar examines art and anti-Semitism in the ancient play of Oberammergau.—The New York Times (July 9, 2000) Despite Changes, Many Jews Still Critical of Passion Play —Catholic News Service (June 6, 2000) The Oberammergau passion play has a new scriptChicago Tribune/Detroit Free Press (July 2, 2000) Putting a New Spin on an Old Show —AP/The Washington Post (May 29, 2000) The controversial Oberammergau Passion Play —Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (May 26, 2000) New-age Passion Play opensJerusalem Post (May 23, 2000) A German community keeps a tradition —Reuters (May 23, 2000) Passion Play redo cuts anti-SemitismRocky Mountain News (May 22, 2000) Oberammergau Passion Play tries to exorcize its anti-Semitic flavorLos Angeles Times (May 22, 2000) Updating (and Retouching) an Old Passion PlayThe New York Times (May 12, 2000) Celebrating Easter, Yet Respecting Beliefs of OthersThe New York Times (Apr. 22, 2000) Passion runs high | This year's Oberammergau play has been revised to rid it of anti-semitism. But, says Stephen Bates, nobody seems to be satisfied with the changes. What will happen when it opens next month?—The Guardian (Apr. 22, 2000) Passion Play persists in modern times —CNN (Dec. 24, 1999) Cooling the Passions Over a 17th-Century PlayThe New York Times (Dec. 27, 1998)The preface to James Shapiro's Oberammergau: The troubling story of the world's most famous passion play, is available at The New York Times site. James Shapiro talks about his book Oberammergau at his publisher's site.The December 1996 newsletter of the Association of Contemporary Church Historians focused on Oberammergau, and included an eyewitness account of Hitler's visit to the play in 1934.

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