Theatre and Theology: Performing the Passion

Crucifixion from the Passion Play at Oberammergau
Crucifixion from the Passion Play at Oberammergau

by Adriana Watkins


This time next year, in the spring of 2020, many men in the German village of Oberammergau will be in desperate need of a visit to the barber-shop. Their long hair and beards are, indeed, part of a fashion trend—one established over 400 years ago, when Oberammergau first began staging its famous Passion Play. The performance, which has occurred every 10 years since the 17th century, is the town’s lasting legacy of gratitude to God—and it’s part of a greater history of honoring the Easter mysteries with theatre.

Though it’s difficult to imagine watching a play during Mass today, such performances were common in Europe (especially Germany) in centuries past. These began around the 11th century as small dramatizations of key moments in the Gospels—like the women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, or Sts. Peter and John running to confirm the news of the Resurrection. As the plays became longer and more dramatic, they moved out of the Mass, from the Church to the town. Understandably, both the audience (laypeople) and the performers (usually clerics) were drawn to the stories surrounding the Passion. These were the topics of many plays.


Elaborate performances like these fit well into the Catholic tradition, which seeks to captivate not only the soul, but also the senses. Jesus told the doubting St. Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29). Though Catholics born after the Resurrection necessarily “see” by faith and not by sight, the Church has encouraged many ways of engaging the senses in order to draw the heart, mind, and soul to God. Incense, images, and music are three examples—and for centuries, theatre was another.


Oberammergau joined this tradition under sad circumstances. In 1634, the little Bavarian village watched a plague sweep through neighboring towns, quickly making its way towards their own people. As the death toll climbed and panic rose, the citizens made a promise to God: if He spared them, they would commemorate His Easter mysteries with a Passion Play, to be performed regularly from then on.


The end of the story, however, is no mystery—the people of Oberammergau survived the plague, and their Passion Play is now preparing for its 42nd run. Performers—who must be longtime residents of the village—are cast a year in advance, and begin their careful preparations, including (for the men) growing out their hair and beards. The first performances took place in a graveyard, but today it runs in an enormous open-air theatre and draws an international audience, making this the most famous Passion Play still performed today.


The centuries see some traditions come and go, and it’s been centuries since those small liturgical dramas were included in the Mass—but the survival of Oberammergau’s play attests to the enduring power of the Passion in the heart and imagination. As striking as it can be to read the written Gospel, it seems only human to be drawn to physical participation and representation—an urge, perhaps, to be close to Christ’s sufferings. The dedication of the townspeople in fulfilling their ancestors’ promise reminds modern Catholics of their own vocation of gratitude, a vocation which seeks fulfillment both in prayer and in action.


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