Halted in full swing


On 19th March, an announcement that quite a few people have been expecting or dreaded for some time was determined with absolute certainty: Play director Christian Stückl had to declare that the 2020 Passion Play cannot take place because of the Corona pandemic and that it had to be postponed until 2022. For over a year, preparations had been going on for the premiere, which was to take place on 16th May. An exceptional situation reigned in the whole village, ranging from preparations to rehearsals to renovations and planning. Around 500,000 guests were expected to come to Oberammergau in the summer months to see the Passion Play.

Play director Christian Stückl at the pressconference for the postponement (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Now, one month later, Oberammergau, just like all of Bavaria, all of Germany and almost the entire world, grinded to a halt. Instead of rehearsing, Christian Stückl is now giving interviews, is "reversing" his Play. He sounds quieter than usual on the phone, slowed down. At the beginning of March, he realised that not everything could go as planned. "I was doing a major rehearsal with 400 people back then," he recalls. "And then I realised, and it came quite as a shock to me, that there were too many elderly people on stage, that it was dangerous." The next day, he called the mayor, saying that he needed to summon a Municipal Council meeting to discuss how to proceed. “We have up to 1,000 people on stage and over 4,000 people in the auditorium. So we really needed the assessment by the district administrator and the health department," Stückl said. He cancelled the rehearsals for the time being.

Up until two days before the decision, he was still uttering "motivating slogans", but he had already suspected the risk to be too great. "Even my main actors stopped believing the premiere would take place, in some cases tears were shed. When we were told about the cancellation, I was emotionally devastated nevertheless," says Stückl. Before forwarding the notice by Administrative District Office Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the press, he once again gathered his main actors. Only a few appeared. Perhaps the disappointment was too great. After all, the preparations for the Play had been going on for almost two years. Everyone had let their hair and beards grow for over a year. Students took a semester off to be able to act, working people took unpaid leave. In Oberammergau, locals adapt their own life to the ten-year cycle of the Passion Play. All this has now given way to overall disarray.

"But you can't put on a Play like this - under these circumstances. You can't be linguistically precise and work on the details of the scenes," explains Stückl. "In the end, we all agreed that it's sad, but it's also a relief after all this back and forth." It was briefly discussed whether to hold the Play at a date in 2021, but on the one hand hundreds of thousands of tickets have to be refunded first, and on the other hand nobody knows exactly when this situation will dissolve and the world will return to normal again. So 2022 simply seemed to be a more realistic date.

This is not the first time the Passion Play was cancelled. In 1770, Elector Maximilian III. ordered every Passion Play to be banned, for “the greatest secret of our holy religion simply does not belong on the stage.” In 1780, Oberammergau was granted the sole privilege of performing the Passion Play. In the context of secularisation, the Play was banned once again in 1810. However, this ban only lasted one year and turned out to be the last of its kind. After that, the wars caused problems for the Play: in 1870, at the third performance, the outbreak of the war between Prussia and France was announced in the prologue: since some actors had to go to war, the Play was not resumed until 1871. The Play of 1920 was already postponed to 1922 in 1918 because of the many dead and wounded in World War I, in 1940 the Second World War made it impossible for the Play to take place.

Elector Maximilian III. Joseph

And now the year 2020 will also be added to the series of cancelled Passion Plays. This time the reason is a new pandemic. Not the plague from which the Play once emerged, but the Corona virus. But the people of Oberammergau will continue this time as well. However, they will have to rehearse again, two years is a long time after all. Stückl, however, would like to keep the cast, if at all possible. "I very much hope that everyone will be back," he says. "Let's see where it goes."

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photo: Sebastian Schulte