Virtue alone is not enough


The history of the Passion Play Oberammergau is also one of deliberate exclusion. The right to be part of the play has been and still is an indicator of whether a person is part of the community: Those who have the right to play, have really been accepted in the village. In the 19th century this was basically not a problem, out of the 1000 people inhabiting the village, between 600 and 700 were involved in the play, “that is anyone who could and wanted”, says play director Christian Stückl. The fact that everyone was catholic, was self-evident anyway. And that there was a special focus on the protagonist of Mary, too. She was young and unmarried mostly. However, Stückl quotes a text by heart about the cast from 1880 that hints that virginity alone was not the decisive criterion: “Choosing the female characters is especially difficult, they are to be pretty, single and if possible talented. This time we succeeded in finding a pretty, talented actress. The Passion Play committee chose a Mary that is the living proof that virtue alone is of little use in art.”

After the Play in 1900 the village grew rapidly due to industrialisation. A five-year regulation was introduced in order to preserve the bond of the play to the village: Only those who had lived in Oberammergau for this period, were allowed to participate in the Play. In 1922, the age of the participating women was limited to 35 years since after the First World War there were far more women than men. The exclusion of women persisted for decades, even when there had not been a “women surplus” for a long time anymore. In the 1970s, the municipal council was entirely male, just like the specially elected Passion Play committee that decided about the playing right, cast, text version and other important questions concerning the Passion. “This election was only reserved for men that were entitled to participate.”, says Monika Lang. “Women were neither allowed to choose nor to be chosen.”

Anastasia Krach as Mary 1880 (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau)

Rosner Rehearsal 1977 (Foto: Municipality of Oberammergau)

In 1977, in the so called Rosner-rehearsal, an older, allegorical text version was rehearsed between the actual Plays. Monika Lang played the sin, a snake. The chairman of the SPD, Xaver Seemüller, that played Lucifer, asked her in the wardrobe of the allegorical figures why she put up with the fact that she was not even allowed to elect the committee. In the following year, Lang and Seemüller filed a popular lawsuit at the Bavarian Constitutional Court: in favour of women´s suffrage at the committee election. They were dismissed on the ground that there was no existing legal norm. Besides that, the Passion Play was the “very own tradition of Oberammergau”.

However, in 1984 - the year of the jubilee play - all the women entitled to participate, that means all unmarried women under 35, became eligible to vote. Some of them even stood as candidates for the committee but were not elected. “That was grist to the mill for our opponents”, says Lang. Nevertheless, everyone was sure that the women´s issue would be finished by the next Passion Play anyway. But this was not the case: in 1988 the resolution for the passion 1990 was announced – and everything was just like it used to be. Even though Christian Stückl, the new play director, had found a clause in the Passion Play regulations that stipulated: “Women can be called on, if this raises the quality of the play.” This passage had only been applied to singers and musicians up until now, not to actresses. But Stückl wanted Elisabeth Petre to play Mary, a married mother of two sons. “Since everyone in town knew that she is an extremely good actress, the community council approved the exemption”, says Stückl. “This is how in 1990 consciously a married woman played the role of Mary for the first time.” For everybody else the rule was still the same: only unmarried women under the age of 35. That is why Lang, together with Hella Wolf-Lang and Annelise Zunterer-Norz, filed a lawsuit again.

It passed from one authority to the next and ended in the The High Administrative Court of Bavaria. The attorney of the community argued that there were no women on the streets of Jerusalem either. For them the “boundary was the threshold of the house that they could only pass exceptionally without threatening their reputation”. Furthermore, the stage was “overcrowded” anyway, additional women would only hinder the view on the crucifixion. With a quote by Livy, he got to the heart of it: “Now our freedom of choice, which has already been taken away from us at home due to the imperiousness of women, is being destroyed at the forum as well and is being trampled all over.” The emancipation of women: A horror vision in Ancient Rome – and in Oberammergau in the year 1990. Misogynous statements of the past were used as a justification for the unequal treatment here and now and were seen as a “mainly historical and religious demand”.

Elisabeth Petre (Mary) with Stefan Reindl (Jesus) 1990 (Foto: Municipality of Oberammergau)

The plaintiffs Monika Lang, Hella Wolf-Lang and Anneliese Zunterer-Norz with supporters and play director Christian Stückl in front of the Bavarian Administrative Court in Munich (Photo: Municipality of Oberammergau)

On the 22nd of February 1990, the sentence was passed: The exclusion of women from the election of the Passion Play committee and from the Play itself was unlawful. 1000 women from Oberammergau, that were now entitled to participate, were approached. Stückl, who was play director for the first time back then, had 400 costumes resewed and integrated the additional women into a popular scene. “Of course, it was a run on the spit”, says Lang.” It was totally narrow in the wardrobes and many people did not have a positive attitude towards us, even women”.

After this sentence for equality, nobody could be excluded because of their confession anymore. The fact that in 1990 a protestant spoke the prologue for the first time, caused a further uproar in the community. Nowadays, the grumbling has become quieter. Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims and atheists act together. “What annoys the Church most”, says Stückl smiling. “Up until now, one thing was for sure: In Oberammergau nobody abandons the Church, as they would not be allowed to be in the Play anymore.” Opening up the Play is not in everyone´s sense, even though it increases the quality. And this is what is important for play director Stückl, much more than the biographical background of his actors and actresses.

The only criterion left is the so called “20-years-regulation”: Only those who have been living in the village for 20 years are allowed to be in the Play (except for children). In 1960, the regulation was changed from 10 years to 20 years in order to “exclude the refugees from the eastern regions”, says Stückl. He thinks of it as an “extremely long time”: “A young refugee has been living with my parents for three years now, he is not allowed to be in the Play. You cannot measure integration by the time you have been living here”, says Stückl. “You come here as a young person and can only be in the Play as an elderly.” Those who finally have the playing right and want to be part of it, have to be put on stage by the play director. The law is the law. “And many people want to. There are more and more.” In 2020 it will be more than 2000.

Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: Archive of the Municipality of Oberammergau