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Episode 9--Oberammergau Passionsspiele, Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010
Episode 9—Friday 5/21/10: Oberammergau

amm10.JPGPower vs. Weakness. Which is stronger? The movers and shakers of the world or the dreamers? The chorus tells us “Those in power are plotting an act of violence. But without fear Jesus goes his way. He puts his trust in the Lord as did Moses who escaped from Pharaoh’s warriors.” And the
tableau vivant shows us the parting of the Red Sea. After a miracle it all seems understandable, if not inevitable, but standing on the shore beforehand, looking at the water, it’s hard for people to have. The Chorus pleads on our behalf: “When we cannot see your goals, let us have faith in your guidance!”
Act 2 shows Jesus in Bethany at the home of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. They are excited at the prospect of Jesus being crowned king of the Jews. He’ll throw out the Romans. Jesus tries to tell them that it’s not going to be that way. He’s going to be handed over to the priests and killed. They don’t want to hear that. They start to worry about what’s going to become of them if Jesus is killed. “Such concerns trouble the godless! Seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be given to you.” Judas is especially worried because the cashbox will be empty if Jesus is gone: “Make provisions to cover our future expenses!” Then he complains that the oil poured out by Mary Magdalene could have been sold to support the poor. “Such expensive oil! What a waste!”
I lost track of the play at this point, because the theatre was getting darker as the sun set and I couldn’t read the libretto as well, but also because I make stained glass windows for a living and this is an argument I often hear. Churches are always faced with deciding between “beautification” and “serving the poor.” Jesus speaks for the ages when he says, “Why do you criticize something done for love? She has done a good work for me.” Feeding the poor or beautifying the church—either one, done in love—is a good work “done for me.”
In this production even Judas is portrayed with sympathy: “Why should I follow you? I don’t much feel like it.” He was first attracted to Jesus by the great deeds but they have come to nothing. “You are not grasping the opportunities that offer themselves to you. Now you talk of leaving and dying and give us empty promises in mysterious words of a future that for me is too far off.”
Judas is tired of believing and hoping. He doesn’t see anything to come except more poverty and degradation. Instead of sharing in Jesus’ reign, all he can foresee is persecution and imprisonment. Peter is shocked by his disbelief, but Judas closes the act with the haunting words: “Who feels like bearing those? I don’t. I don’t.”
The next act’s tableau is the Golden Calf, where Moses shouted, “Whoever belongs to the Lord, come over and stand with me!” At crunch time, we must vote with our feet. There is no neutrality. And circumstances make it harder and harder for the disciples in this act. They must either embrace him or abandon him. One by one they leave and those in power conspire to crush the dreamer. Caiaphas speaks for all the “practical” leaders of the world: “It is better that one man should die than an entire nation should perish.”
Judas agrees to betray Jesus, accepting the fig-leaf that the High Priest only wants to talk with him.
Act Four’s tableau is the Paschal meal before the Exodus. Jesus offers himself as the Paschal lamb and gives himself in the bread and wine. It is a beautiful act with wonderful exchanges between Jesus and the disciples during the foot-washing, and exchanges among Jesus, Peter, and Judas. Very moving and subdued. And as Jesus says “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you; no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others,” Judas leaves.
Act Five in the Garden of Gethsemane was also very moving. There is a tension in the staging and a sense that events are spinning out of control. There is the normal cast of heroes and villains, but the play introduces a new character simply called “Angel.” Angel laments the Prince of Heaven being struck and mocked and laughed-at by his own creation. No one can see him except Jesus who watches silently as Angel kneels and writes on the ground—recalling the gesture Jesus made when the crowd wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery.
The disciples, exhausted, fall asleep as Jesus agonizes alone: “Father! Do not abandon me! Sins, humanity’s sins! You crush me! My Father! Father! Your son!” Angel, who has remained squatting now rises and walks ever so slowly toward the prostrate Jesus. He lays his hand on Jesus’ shoulder and carries the Father’s message: “Take on the pain! Allow yourself to be pierced by their crimes and crushed by their sins. Heal them through your wounds!” Jesus replies “Yes, Father, your will be done!”
And that was the end of the first part.
The intermission lasted three hours. We walked back to the youth hostel for supper and then walked around the village some more—visiting the woodcarver’s museum. We mainly talked about the play of course, and agreed that it was surprising how quickly it seemed to be going. We talked about the debate between “beautifying the church” and “feeding the poor.” The dichotomy troubled me but I couldn’t explain why. After the museum we meandered back to the theater.
 The second part began with the trial before Annas when Judas discovers he’s been fooled. The high priest doesn’t want to talk with Jesus; he wants to kill him. The exchanges between Jesus and the priests come faster and faster until they reach their climax with Caiaphas imploring “In the name of the living God! Speak! Are you the Messiah, the Son of God who is highly praised?” Jesus replies, “You say it—I AM,” speaking the tetragrammaton YHWH, standing for the name of God that was never to be spoken. Caiaphas tears his robes at the blasphemy and the die is cast. They are going to find a way to kill him.
In Act Seven, Peter denies Jesus, and the play compares his betrayal with Judas’. Peter begs forgiveness and John tells him that Jesus looked on him with love. Peter promises, “Nothing will ever separate me from you again!” Judas tries to redeem himself by giving the 30 pieces of silver back. The priests just laugh at him. He despairs of ever being forgiven and the act ends with him making a hangman’s noose, “Come, you serpent, coil yourself around my throat! Strangle the traitor!”
Act eight shows Jesus before Pilate and Herod. The living tableau presents Moses expelled by Pharaoh before the exodus. The rulers of the world don’t like to be told they don’t have the final say. They don’t like to be reminded that they, too, are subject to a higher law. They always seem to assume that you can kill a dream by killing the dreamer, or kill an idea by killing the thinker, or kill God by killing His messenger—even if the messenger is His Son. They flog Jesus and crown him with thorns and in act nine Pilate washes his hands of the matter and condemns Jesus to death.
Act ten is the Way of the Cross, with the Tableau presenting the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, when God provided a sheep for His own sacrifice. In a way Mary is the central figure of this act. It is through her eyes that we see the crucifixion and it’s terrible sadness. In the beginning of the act she laments what is happening much as any mother might lament the terrible things that are being done to her son. But standing at the foot of the cross Mary realizes that the suffering is part of his mission: “What shall I say? And what can I tell you, since you yourself have done this? –Lord, my God, I am suffering agony! Be with me!” And when the centurion pierces Jesus’ heart with a spear, she screams.
Taken down dead from the cross, Jesus is laid in her arms. John, the beloved disciple, says “See Mother, peace rests on his face!” and she replies in perhaps the most beautiful speech of the play: “Peace is also returning to my heart. See, humanity, the light came into the world, but you loved darkness more than the light. God sent him to you, to liberate the world through him. For God so loved the world that he gave his Son! So that everyone who believes in him might never perish.”
Much of act eleven, the final act, takes place inside the proscenium and because of our seat we could not see it directly. But we could see the dramatic lighting indicating the resurrection. In some way perhaps that indirection closely represents the life of faith—where the glory of God can never be seen directly in this life and is always seen only in reflection. And Mary Magdalena, finding the empty tomb is sent by the Angel as a missionary to the apostles, and has the last word: “He is with us all the days until the end of the world! Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices! Oh, could I proclaim it throughout all the world, so that the mountains and cliffs and heaven and earth should re-echo with the words: Halleluja! He is risen!”
And thus, little Oberammergau was also raised from the plague to something more grand and more glorious than ever could have been expected by those villagers huddled together in fear 400 years ago. They wanted to do something beautiful for him, and I think he has greatly blessed it. Should the money have been better spent on the poor?
We stopped for coffee and Schnapps and red wine after the play. It was a lovely warm little quarter-timbered restaurant with a buxom Bavarian waitress wearing a starched white apron over a low-cut black and white peasant’s dress with puffed sleeves. There was a cheerful fire in the fireplace and it was gray and rainy outside. Wow.
Slept soundly in our little bunk bed and didn’t fall out even once.
 (to be continued)
Episode 8--On the way to Oberammergau, Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010
Episode 8—Friday 5/21/10: Off to Oberammergau

Early to bed, early to rise. Nice breakfast of bread and sliced meats and cheeses with coffee. The clerk gave us so much we made a picnic lunch with the leftovers. It was less than a block to the bus station. We told the driver (who didn’t speak English) where we wanted to go. As we were idling at one of the little intermediate stops the driver pointed out another bus, telling us that it was going to Oberammergau as well, and by a more direct route. We switched buses. I swear there are the nicest people in Bavaria and Austria.

Arriving in Oberammergau we found the youth hostel on the map and I quickly got us marching along the footpath beside the creek in the wrong direction. I promise I will never forget my compass again!! If I do, I’m buying one overseas. After pulling the carry-ons about 100 yards over gravel we got turned around and found the hostel right at the base of the mountain called “Ammergau.” The little town called “Oberammergau” means “Upper Ammergau.” There is also an “Uberammergau,” meaning (you guessed it!) lower Ammergau.


amchurch.JPGIn the early 1600s this entire mountain valley was decimated by plague. The residents of Oberammergau met in their Catholic church and made a solemn vow. If they were spared they would enact a play about the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. They were spared, and true to their vow they spent a year writing a play, setting up scenes, and practicing. In 1633 they put on their first Passionsspiele and have renewed their vow every 10 years since then. This year’s play had more than 2000 parts and they only use local actors. Some of today’s performers started as children, then teenagers, then young adults, taking a part every 10 years throughout their life. This kind of commitment shows. There were no “hams” on stage, and no one “phoned in” a performance. From the smallest child in arms to the most elderly “beggar” everyone was sensitive to staging, and movement, and those nuances that make an excellent performance a magnificent one. But I get ahead of myself. First we had to get ourselves settled in the youth hostel.


I had my doubts about this youth hostel thing. I pictured a rickety building with graffiti covered walls and mattresses on the floor. Not my idea of a good time. But I was in for a very pleasant surprise. When we arrived we were greeted by what looked to be a 1960s 2-story college dormitory. The walkway was guarded by a chainsaw-sculpture bear sitting on a log. He was charming and kindly let us pass. There were picnic tables on the wide front porch (complete with ash trays) and a lobby packed with a busload of Korean tourists also well past the “youth” stage of life. You couldn’t stir them with a spoon. I headed for a computer that could be “rented” with a 2-euro coin to check my email. Georgia is much skinnier than I am and wriggled her way to the check-in desk. We had to pick up our own sheets and towels. We put fitted sheets on the mattress and covered ourselves with duvets—those giant pillows we were given in Zurich. We had them everywhere. I like ’em.

I though we’d have separate rooms—a boy’s dorm and a girl’s dorm, but no! This dorm was co-ed. Georgia got the lower bunk and I got the upper! The bathrooms were co-ed too, with no urinals but lots of private stalls. I wasn’t really looking forward to getting to know our busload of Korean tourists all that well but then Georgia discovered some dedicated men’s and women’s toilets in the basement. I still took a pretty quick shower in the morning but felt a bit more secure.
We arrived just in time for lunch. It was delicious. There were 3” long cigar-shaped potato dumplings with green peas and a meat-gravy. Several different kinds of bread, of course, with tossed salad, and lemon pudding for dessert. We plunked down at a table next to two pretty college girls from Frankfort and Hamburg. One was studying mechanical engineering. Her friend had dropped out to earn travel money before she sunk beneath the waves of higher education. She’d saved up enough for this trip to Oberammergau and then was flying to Jerusalem. Her friend seemed torn—wanting to go along on the adventure, but feeling like she needed to be “steady” and stick with the schoolwork. It’s a hard call I know, but if I had it to do over I would want to see the world before college. But then, when I was that age my Uncle Sam was sending all the rambling young-uns on an all-expense paid trip to Southeast Asia. He even supplied the armament you’d need. He gave me a grenade launcher so I could defend General Abrams’ swimming pool. The Viet Cong never took it.

amm3.JPG     amwoodcarve.JPG   amm7.JPG
The walk over to the theater was pleasant. Turns out our guardian bear was not the only lovely carving in this town. In between Passion Plays the town lives on woodcarving and alpine pursuits. From our front yard we could see hang-gliders drifting lazily down from the surrounding peaks. The valley floor was flat as a griddle, and there were no gradual “hills” before you got to the mountain peaks. Perfect for hang gliding or hiking along the ridges. You just take a chair-lift to the top and either grab a walking stick and take off at a brisk clip, or grab a hang glider and step off a sheer cliff. I’m sure we would have been game for either activity but, after all, we had tickets for the show and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss a play that only comes around every ten years just so you could step off a cliff while hanging onto a brightly colored triangular umbrella!



The Passionsspiele was to be performed in a modern building, clean and functional, but hardly luxurious. It was about 100 yards long and 75 or 80 yards wide. The stage was open to the sky but the rest of the building was under roof. It was threatening rain so they had arranged some triangular “sails” over the stage to direct any moisture away from the actors. Our seats were in the second row on the far left of the theater. Talk about close. The set was very simple. It looked like the central plaza of an ancient village ringed by terra-cotta buildings. There were three main action centers separated by archways depicting alleys that allowed actors to enter and exit the stage easily. The left and the right areas could represent either private or public buildings. The larger center space had a more formal feel and seemed to be a roman temple. The “floor” of this temple was steeply slanted to face the audience and could be closed off by a curtain. From time to time, this curtain would draw back to reveal actors frozen in portrayal of an episode from the Old Testament prefiguring something about to happen on-stage. And this overall stage was enormous—almost the entire width of the theatre. There were easily 1000 actors on stage during the crowd scenes. There was no way it could be curtained.

            Acts and scene changes were indicated by changes in lighting and movement as people shifted from left to right and back again. Once the play began the only pause in the action came from the chorus filing on-stage to tell you what was about to happen. And oh, that chorus. I think there must have been about 80 unisex choristers, dressed in beige head to foot with robes, capes, and a soft medieval hat that completely encased their hair. They were all arranged according to height standing shoulder to shoulder in a single line from far left to far right, at the very front of the stage. The cantor was located at the exact center and dressed all in black. The shortest singers were located about half way down each “wing” and at the wingtips. This placement produced two lovely sine curves and the intonation of the singers was perfect. It was both visually stunning and musically lovely.
            From our seats on the far left we couldn’t see to the back of the central proscenium. It would have been nice to have more central seats but our tickets came as a package deal with the youth hostel, and they were a good bit cheaper than the more central seats. I was very glad, though, to be close to the stage. I loved watching the expressions on the actor’s faces—even the bit actors. I know I keep saying it, but there were no slackers. These productions are little Oberammergau’s gift to the world. It gives me chill bumps to think of a tiny Bavarian mountain-valley village touching so many lives for so many centuries.

            At first the stage was completely empty. Then a few children waving palm fronds came running down the “alley” on the right side of the central proscenium, across the center and up the alley on the other side. Then two disciples followed, leading a donkey. Then the chorus comes out for the first time to welcome us and announce that this Holy One will lift the burdens off Eve’s poor children. They then form two long lines leading toward the proscenium where the curtain pulls back to reveal a tableau vivant portraying Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden by an Angel wielding a flaming sword.
            When the curtain closes the chorus files off. There is music and laughter as crowds come down the alleys and spill out onto the stage—completely filling it. There are even “villagers” on the roofs of the buildings looking down on the plaza. There must have been a thousand people. It could have been just chaos but the first thing that struck me was how the director had used color to organize the melee. The Jews were dressed in yellow and white. The temple officials were dressed in black and white. The disciples were in earth tones. The citizens were dressed in blue, and the beggars were in black. And right in the center of this traffic jam was Jesus, dressed all in white and sitting on the back of a little donkey. (During the play there would also be horses and sheep and even camels on stage.) And movement! There was constant movement. But not random. The groups would move kaleidoscopically. The blues and yellows and blacks would swirl and mix in new and different combinations with only the white center of attention remaining relatively fixed.
            Rather than leap immediately into the “cleansing of the temple” this newest production set up the action by having Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount to this crowd. And the sermon was delivered in counter-point as though it was a public argument with the temple officials who hate the Romans. Jesus agreed that they should resist the Romans but says “do it this way: If he slaps you on the right cheek, then offer him the other one as well!” It’s startling to hear the actors’ raucous laughter. And when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” he stoops over to pick up a little child. And holding the child Jesus looked out over the crowd on stage as well as the audience. You could have heard a pin drop. Jesus tells Caiaphas that if he had faith he could call on the mountains to arise and they would obey: “Nothing will be impossible for you.” The chief priest accuses Jesus of being a dreamer, and all the officials laugh. Jesus doesn’t understand power politics. Quickly we hear Jesus questioned about paying taxes to Caesar, and whether the woman taken in adultery should be stoned to death. And through it all there is this counterpoint between Jesus’ sayings and Caiaphas’ understanding of what is required to get along in the world. It’s an argument that’s been going on now for two thousand years, but I felt as if I was seeing how it began.
It was all very affecting and I found myself wondering how it would come out.
 (to be continued)