By Renzo Allegri
OBERAMMERGAU, Germany, MAY 31, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The residents of Oberammergau, Germany, prepare for the years that end in zero (like 2010) when thousands of tourists will pour into their town.
That's because since 1634, villagers from this Bavarian locale have been presenting a Passion Play. Over the centuries, both the play and its popularity have evolved, so that this year, for the 103 scheduled performances, they are expecting half a million people.
The Oberammergau Passion Play dates back to 1634 and a vow the townspeople made amid a particularly difficult period of history. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had claimed countless victims and in the midst of it, a plague ravaged the town. It was in the face of this plague that the townspeople pleaded to God to remove the scourge, promising to thank him through the centuries by representing Christ's passion and death.
That ceremony, which was a small Holy Week tradition in their parish, would become the event to proclaim to the world their gratitude to God.
And as it had to be something truly grandiose, it was decided to perform the work every 10 years, to have the time to prepare it with exceptional grandeur and solemnity.
The plague disappeared and the first performance took place the following year, on the day of Pentecost of 1634.
Henceforth, the periodicity of 10 years was respected, moved to a date that ended in zero, so that it would be easier to remember.
During the 18th century, the event grew so that it attracted spectators from many other German and European states.
At the beginning of the 19th century, it met with currents that wanted to suppress it, but they did not succeed.
At the end of the 19th century, it was again a performance with a great audience. The representation of 1870 was so successful that it sparked the curiosity of Ludwig II, king of Bavaria.
He asked that a performance be prepared just for him and his friends. It took place on Sept. 25, 1871.
The king was enthusiastic and organized a dinner in his castle of Linderhof, near Oberammergau, with the leading actors.
At the end of the dinner, he gave each one a silver spoon, except Judas, who received only a metal one.
Adolf Hitler was present at the performance of July 1930.
And in the 1950 representation, the guests of honor were Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of West Germany, and Dwight Eisenhower, future president of the United States.
In the second half of the 20th century, the fame of the Passion Play continued to grow until more than 100 yearly performances were scheduled to begin each decade.
Though the Passion Play of 1634 took place in the parish church, the number of spectators who began to arrive in succeeding years obliged the organizers to move into the open air.
In 1800 the decision was made to build a theater, which was inaugurated in 1815, a building that was later modified and completely redone in 1930.
At present, the theater is equipped with the most recent technology. It can seat 4,800 spectators under cover. The stage, however, is still in the open air to have the mountains as a backdrop.
The scenes unfold with texts and imagery from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, alternated with episodes from the Old Testament. Music composed in the 19th century by Rochus Dedler accompanies the action of the modern play.
The performance, which takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays lasts five hours, divided into two parts. This year, it will run through early October.
According to a strict norm, all the participants in the performance must have been born in Oberammergau, or have lived there for at least 20 years.
In preparation for the "0 years," the men let their hair and beards grow to physically better represent their characters.
In 2010, there are some 2,500 involved in the production: 1,800 adults and more than 630 children. With an Oberammergau population of only about 5,000 persons, more than half of the town's residents are working in this great performance.
By Renzo Allegri