The beginning of the Passion Play
It all began with the pledge by the people of Oberammergau to act out the Passion Play once every ten years.
Pastor Daisenberger writes in his village chronicles: “The first decades of the 17th century went by in peaceful calm for the people of Oberammergau. But then followed the Thirty Years’ War with all its hardships from 1618 until 1648, which under the name of the Swedes’ War lives on the memory of the people. As early as 1631, infectious diseases spread in Swabia as well as in Bavaria. This village was spared by dutiful vigilance until the church festival in 1632, when a man named Kaspar Schisler brought the plague into the village. Faced with the great distress that the terrible illness inflicted upon the population, the leaders of the community came together and pledged to hold a passion tragedy once every ten years. From this day forward, not a single person perished, even though a great number of them still showed signs of the plague”.
1st Play year
During the Whitsun celebration, the people of Oberammergau held the first presentation of the “Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ” on a stage which they erected on the cemetery over the fresh graves of the Plague victims.
Pastor Joseph A Daisenberger writes in his chronicles: “It is likely that the story of the Lord’s suffering was acted out before the year 1600, even in Oberammergau, as an act of religious edification, for instance during the fasting period. In my own opinion it seems as though the pledge of the community in the year 1633 didn’t intend to introduce a new, formerly unfamiliar custom, but to preserve an age-old custom for all eternity by promising to perform it regularly”.
There is no evidence for this assumption. For the years 1600-1650 around 40 passion plays are proven to have taken place in the Bavarian-Austrian area and more than 250 for the time period 1650 to 1800.
4th Play year
In 1662, the schoolmaster Georg Kaiser creates a transcript of the oldest surviving passion text of Oberammergau to be used in the Passion Play 1664. In 1880, it was discovered that this text was taken from two even older plays, which had been combined even before 1634.
A majority of the 4902 verses originates from a medieval passion play of second half of the 15th century, a handwritten version of which was found at the Augsburg Benedictine monastery St Ulrich und Afra, and from the passion tragedy “The passion and resurrection of Christ” of the Augsburg Meistersinger Sebastian Wild, which was distributed in 1566. It is to be assumed that the writer of the first Oberammergau play - probably a monk of Ettal - disposed of a third text. However, this compilation of excerpts from other texts was no independent act of poetry.
This original text was edited for the year 1664 and “renovated again”. The word “again” indicates that this text had been used in previous play years and that an alteration was made.
5th Play year
The following phrases, presumably written by the vicar Michael Eyrl, have survived: “The passion was completed ever so smoothly. Seats are to be arranged for the spectators which are standing close by”. This indicates that the number of spectators increased and the service for the guests began.
Eyrl complements the text of 1662 with excerpts of the Weilheim passion play written by the city pastor Johannes Älbl in 1600.
The community decides to switch to a rhythm counting from one ten-year to the next.
Michael Eyrl is the first-ever director of the Passion Play mentioned by name. He was born in Oberammergau as the son of the Ettal judge. Following his ordination, he acted briefly as an early mass priest in Oberammergau and then moved to Mehring to act as a pastor there.
1680 - 1700
6th to 8th Play year
1680 is the first ten-year to host the Passion Play. The oldest surviving community bill of 1690 names expenditures for the Passion Play of “45 guilders and 45 Kreutzers”.
One Bernhard Steinle is paid as director of the Passion Play in 1700, according to a community bill. This bill also shows that there was musical accompaniment of the Passion Play, since “the gentlemen trumpeters of Ettal” were paid 2 guilders for their involvement. The rendition of the Passion Play of this year means debts for the community of 60 guilders.
The community bill lists:
- 12 guilders 30 kr. to Bernhard Steinle for conceptualising and leading the play.
- 19 guilders to the painters Würmseer and Faistenmantl for painting and paint.
- 10 guilders to the actors for drink.
- 2 guilders to the gentlemen trumpeters of Ettal.
- 12 kr. for powder.
The apparel for the actors was borrowed from the monastery Rottenbuch.
9th Play year
In 1710, Prebendary Thomas Ainhaus takes over the role of the play director and edits the texts. Ainhaus also maintained the financial books. Thomas Ainhaus is born in Oberammergau and ordained as a priest in Vienna in 1697. In 1705, he is offered the post as vicar in his home community. He acts as early mass priest and director of the Passion Play until his death on 17th July 1723.
10th Play year
Father Karl Bader of Ettal (1662- 1731) edits the text for the play year 1720. Preserved parts of the text document a Baroque scenery stage. In this year, Thomas Ainhaus again is the play director. He records a loss for the community of 73 guilders and 37 kreutzers.
11th Play year
For the year 1730, the Augustinian Anselm Manhart of Rottenbuch (1680-1752) edits the text and introduces the allegorical characters Envy, Greed, Death and Sin as Jesus’ opponents. The early mass prebendary Max Anton Erlböck directs the play for the first time. There are two performances and the end result is a deficit of 84 guilders of the community cash registry.
12th Play year
Max Anton Erlböck is again the director of the play. The Augustinian Clemens Prasser of Rottenbuch (1703- 1770) revises the text. Erlböck is born in Oberammergau on 15th July 1690. He goes to Salzburg to study law and decides to become a priest following the death of his lover. Ordained in 1723, he is offered the Benefice in his home community in the same year. He works as an early mass priest for 47 years until his death on 7th August 1770.
13th Play year
The Benedictine Father Ferdinand Rosner of Ettal, a powerfully eloquent expert of the theatre stage, writes a new Passion Play, “Passio Nova”, which in its religion and artistic character is consistently shaped by the form language of the clerical Baroque theatre. The plot is interrupted seven times by “observations” accompanied by music in which “living images” are shown with scenes from the Old Testament. The allegories Lucifer, Envy, Greed and Sin are included in the plot. Jesus is the centre of a dramatic conflict between God and the powers of Hell. Rosner’s text is widely distributed in Bavaria making Oberammergau a role model for other plays and shaping the style for the Bavarian passion plays of the period.
The new staging is a great financial strain to the community with the deficit amounting to 88 guilders, even though almost 11,000 visitors come to see the play.
Father Ferdinand Rosner is born Karl Joseph Ignatius Rosner in Vienna. In 1726, he makes his order vow at the Benedictine monastery Ettal. For a total period of twelve years, he teaches rhetoric at the prince bishop Lyceum in Freising. Aside from numerous speeches, Latin and German poems he also writes many short plays. Rosner’s work characterises the school theatre of his time.
14th Play year
This year sees two more shows of the Baroque Passion Play by Father Ferdinand Rosner of Ettal. Despite 14,000 visitors, a loss of around 156 guilders is sustained and balanced out by the community cash registry.
There is no Passion Play
On 31st March 1770, Elector Maximilian III has his Clerical Council impose a ban on all Passion Plays. To justify his decision, he states that “the theatre stage is no place for the greatest secret of our holy religion”. Oberammergau sends a group of deputed parties to Munich who try to achieve an exceptional permission. On 22nd May 1770, the request of Oberammergau is rejected. The expenditures accrued by that point amount to ca. 156 guilders and must be borne by the inhabitants.
15th Play year
With the new Elector Karl Theodor (since 1778) opposing the plays less strictly, the people of Oberammergau again request to be exempt from the general ban. They state that the play was “cleansed of all unsuitable improprieties”. The Benedictine Pater Magnus Knipfelberger (1747-1825) of Ettal carried out a review of Rosner’s passion. He restricts the appearances of Hell to musical interim scenes, moderates almost all realistic scenes, such as the despair of Judas, and calls the play “The Old and New Testament” to avoid any reference to the subject of the passion. Oberammergau receives a unique privilege to show the Passion Play.
Pater Magnus Knipfelberger, who was born Johannes Knipfelberger on 4th September 1747 in Reutte (Tyrol), joined the Benedictine Abby Ettal in 1764 and was ordained as a priest in 1772. He initially taught at the monastery seminar, then, starting in 1788, as a school teacher at Lyceum in Freising, where he acted as professor for rhetoric and head of the school theatre from 1791-94. He then taught at the Ettal seminar again and, following the dissolution of the monastery (1803), he became an assistant priest in Stetten near Kaufbeuren. He died on 14th June 1825 in Schongau am Lech.
16th Play year
Once again, passion plays are forbidden in Bavaria. However, in 1780 the privilege of Oberammergau is confirmed. For the first time there is a note appearing in a newspaper and tickets are issued. Five performances are played with 11,000 visitors.
17th Play year
Oberammergau again receives the privilege to act out the passion story. The play was now called “History of the Suffering and Death of Jesus Christ”. The Napoleon Wars reduce the visitors’ numbers to 3,000 and leave a deficit of 205 guilders in the community cash registry. On 12th June 1800, combats between the Emperor’s troops and the French army break out in the area around Oberammergau.
The French loot the village. Due to these events, the Passion Play is only shown five times this year and scheduled performances must be cancelled.
Many Austrian people - who hold Oberammergau occupied - are among the spectators. On 26th June, following an order by General Günde, there is a special show for Austrian soldiers with the entries being guarded by soldiers of the Emperor.
18th Play year
In this year, the plays of 1800 are continued with four performances in order to decrease the community debt. On 11th September 1801, the Munich government declares Oberammergau’s privilege expired.
There are no shows.
Elector Max IV. Joseph (King from 1806 - 1825) and his minister Maximilian Joseph Freiherr Graf von Montgelas enforce secularisation and thus bring the church under control by the state. The Prince-Bishopric Freising is abolished on 27th November 1802 and its worldly goods are nationalised.
Maximilian Joseph Freiherr Graf von Montgelas
In 1803 the Bishopric Freising is relocated to Munich. Ideological reasons now forbid any church customs, including processions, Olivet prayers, Christmas mangers, the holy grave and other renditions of religious content. In this context, the minister also declares Oberammergau’s privilege expired and bans all shows for the year 1810.
19th Play year - 5 performances
Following the presentation of new text by Father Dr. Othmar Weis of Ettal (1769-1843), the passion play ban is revoked in 1811.
The most significant change is the transfer from verses to prose, which allows a free, realistic language and direct quotes from the bible. The allegories are removed, but the sequence of scenes and the living images are almost completely preserved in the way that Rosner and Knipfelberger created them. Weis deletes many mythological and legend-like elements and places a high value on the texts closely following the Gospel. The choir appearances are now preceded by lengthy observations that are very similar to a Sermon on the Mount. He structures the music into recitatives, arias and choir.
The composition of the music is implemented by Rochus Dedler (1779-1822), a teacher from Oberammergau. This music, which accompanies the “living images” still is one of the characterising elements of the play. Nothing is left of this music, unless he took over certain numbers in his processing of 1815.
Father Othmar Weis is born Georg Weis on 21st April 1770 in Bayersoien. He joins the Benedictine monastery Ettal in 1795 and assumes the name Othmar. Following studies at Ingolstadt University, Father Othmar Weis becomes the head of the Ettal Monastery school for particularly gifted pupils. Following the secularisation and the accompanying dissolution of the Ettal monastery in 1803, Father Othmar Weis continues to work as a teacher, in Oberau among other places. One of his pupils here is Joseph Alois Daisenberger, who will later become the pastor of Oberammergau. Father Othmar Weis goes on to work as a pastor in Jesenwang, where he dies on 26th January 1843.
20th Play year – 11 performances
The review and alteration of the text by Weis and of the Music by Dedler continues. The play now begins with the entry into Jerusalem. Weis not only creates an impressive mass scene but also establishes a stark contrast between the enthusiastic “Hosianna” and the “Nail him to the cross” in the second part of the show. Moreover, he manages to bring the play to a deeper psychological level, which becomes particularly apparent in the monologues of Judas.
The texts for the choir are changed most significantly with Rochus Dedler creating yet another music for the Passion Play.
The community appoints the priest Nicolaus Unhoch (1762-1832) to build a new stage. He wrote in his diary: “I designed the layout, built a model and in the month of October I began the building process.
During the entire wintertime the carpenters worked on the cemetery, the joiners in the community stable outside of the village and the painters at Hansjörgenwirt in the upper room. These works continued until Whitsun”. Ultimately, he is paid badly for this work and writes in his diary: “Several theatre experts from Munich and Augsburg had but the highest praise for the theatre, even though the people of Ammergau were not very pleased by it”.
21st Play year – 10 performances
Father Othmar Weis acts as play director one last time. This year is the last time that the play is shown at the cemetery next to the church.
This year marks the beginning of the remarkable popularity of the Passion Play. The number of visitors increases to 19,000 - twice as many as in 1815. In these days, a journey from Munich takes two days. Several bills for advertisements in the “Münchner politische Zeitung” and in other Augsburg newspapers have survived.
On 25th July, builder Anton Baumgartner sees the play and writes down his experience in “Bayerisches Nationalblatt”. This report is the first-ever known witness report of the Passion Play. He writes: “The actor who played Christ attempted to imitate his Master’s calmness of spirit, severity and humility” and “Judas was no caricature, no completely flawed person. The role of the watching officer was spoken entirely in the spirit of military subordination” (Bayrisches Nationalblatt 1820, 3.Jg. Nr. 32/33)
Adherence to the hair and beard rule, it seems, was not yet as stringent. A receipt tells us that 8 wigs were bought. The tailor Schauer receives 7 guilders for the “fitting and Baroque adjust” (the adjusting of the wigs).
22nd Play year – 11 performances
King Louis I. allows the Play under the condition that the stage is no longer erected at the cemetery, so the stage is relocated to the northern border of the village. Nicolaus Unhoch designs this new stage as well, plans and oversees the building works. The new theatre can hold up to 5000 spectators, but only 13,000 people come to watch the 11 shows. According to a newspaper article by Lorenz von Oken of 27th June 1830, 300 people were involved in the Passion Play.
Sulpiz Boisserée, art historian
Goethe received an enthusiastic letter about the Passion Play by S. Boisserée and publishes it in the magazine “Chaos”.
Joh. Nicolaus Unhoch, born the son of a wood carver from Oberammergau on 6th December 1762, attends the school in Ettal and then the Jesuiten-Kollegium in Augsburg. In 1801, he becomes an early mass Prebendary in Oberammergau. During his time in Oberammergau, he also works as the Elector’s school inspector for Ammergau. Following a conflict with the community, he leaves his home in 1823 to become an early mass priest in Garmisch. He dies on 24th May 1833 in Schongau, where he had become the head of the St. Nikasi Benefice in 1826.
23rd Play year
35.000 visitors. The positive development is based on the newspaper articles in 1830.
Critics such as G. Görres, I. F. Lentner, L. Steub, E. Devrient, M. Deutinger, J. Sepp became aware of the Passion Play and help spread its popularity.
The community erects a fixed stage foundation and buys costumes from Mittenwald and Kohlgrub, where the plays have since discontinued.
In 1840, the English merchant Joseph Brooks Yates writes the first-ever report in English. The guests included Crown Prince Maximilian of Bavaria, Friedrich August II. King of Saxony and his wife Karoline Ferdinande of Austria.
Crown Prince Maximilian of Bavaria
Karoline Ferdinande of Austria
Friedrich August II, King of Saxony
24th Play year – 14 performances
Joseph Alois Daisenberger (1799-1883, pastor in Oberammergau since 1845) made some changes to the text and acts as play director. An elected “passion committee” organises the play. For the first time, reports on the Play are also written in French and English. The 14 performances of the Passion Play are very well attended with the number of visitors increasing to ca. 45,000. The community gives 6,500 guilders of the proceeds of the Play to charity; 10,000 guilders are paid to the involved people. The oldest surviving photograph from the Passion Play shows Tobias Flunger as Christ in 1850.
The guests included Elisabeth Duchess in Bavaria, who later became “Sissi” of Austria, Queen Marie of Bavaria and the English writer Anna Mary Howith.
Elisabeth Duchess in Bavaria, who later became “Sissi” of Austria
Queen Marie of Bavaria
Anna Mary Howith, writer
25th Play year
In 1858, Daisenberger thoroughly edits the text upon request by the government and following criticism of 1850. He gives priority to the Gospel of John and attempts to focus on the dramatic character of the passion. Instead of updating Othmar Weis, he focuses on general applicability; realism takes priority over idealisation and psychology over politics, for instance in the character of Judas. Referring to the antique and classic format of tragedy, he aspires for the common touch by introducing legends (Veronica, the wandering Jew) and content of the way of the cross (e.g. Jesus meeting Mary).
Josef Alois Daisenberger
Josef Alois Daisenberger is born on 30th May 1799 in Oberau. Before attending Wilhelmsgymnasium in Munich, Daisenberger is taught by Othmar Weis. From 1817 to 1820, Daisenberger studies theology in Landshut, among others at Johann Michael Sailer. He is ordained as a priest in 1821. After this, he works as assistant priest in Grassau, Schlehdorf and Farchant. From 1831 to 1845, he works as a pastor in Uffing am Staffelsee. In 1845, he is named pastor of Oberammergau. In 1850, he is given the post as play director of the Oberammergau Passion Play. Alois Daisenberger dies in 1883 at 83 years of age. He is buried at the old community cemetery in Oberammergau.
A view of the Passion Play from 1860
The guests included many members of the clergy, among them Archbishop Gregor von Scherr, Archbishop of Munich Karl Cardinal Reisach and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Bishop of Broad Church, Dean of Westminster in London.
Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Bishop of Broad Church, Dean of Westminster in London.
Archbishop Gregor von Scherr, Archbishop of Munich and Freising
Karl Cardinal Reisach, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, cardinal of the Roman Curia
1870 / 1871
26th Play year
Daisenberger versifies prologues in antique odes to accompany the Living Images. The community rejects his proposal of a passion in verses. On 17th July 1870, the prologue on stage announces the beginning of the war against France (Deutsche Erinnerungsorte, volume 3). Following an interruption during the war, the Play is continued in 1871. In the years 1870/71, there were 40,000 visitors. According to a report by Emil Knorr, around 500 people are participating on stage.
The stage in the year 1870.
Ludwig II., König von Bayern
On 25th September 1871, King Ludwig II. attends the Passion Play in a special show, joined only by four companions in the otherwise empty auditorium. He is so impressed that he gifts the community with a large sculpture, the “crucifixion group”.
The crucifixion group arrived in Oberammergau on 15th August 1875 and was inaugurated at Osterbichl on 15th October 1875.
For three years, King Ludwig came on each 15th October to the crucifixion group for a silent prayer before being driven away by the curious spectators, who steadily increased in numbers.
The crucifixion group was visited regularly by King Ludwig II. for prayer.
The Living Image “The expulsion from Paradise”.
Once again, the guest list includes some well-known names: the composer Franz Liszt, the British banker Leopold de Rothschild, the composer Richard Wagner and the later King of England, Edward VII.
Crown Prince Albert Edward, the later King of England Edward VII.
The composer Franz Liszt
Leopold de Rothschild, British banker
27th Play year
The number of visitors increases to 100,000. The extension of the railway line to Murnau makes the journey easier. Thomas Cook discovers the potential of Oberammergau for the flourishing tourism. One of the guests is George II, Duke of Meiningen, who coined the historicising theatre style of the period. The costumes are manufactured at Hoftheater Munich.
Queen Victoria of Sweden, the priest and travel pioneer Thomas Cook and the Prussian crown prince Friedrich Wilhelm attend the Play.
Anton Bruckner attended the Passion Play in Oberammergau on 22nd/23rd August 1880. He fell in love with Marie Bartl, a young woman from Oberammergau. He sent her one of the photos taken at Marienbad. The letters to the mother are preserved in St Florian.
A report by Ferdinand Groß (1848-1900): “I felt English: Sons and daughters of Albion (English people), more and more of them, as if they reproduced on their way here, an invasion from Frankfurt to Murnau. They have a British travelling office, tickets for wagons, apartments, accommodation and billets… An Englishman would even buy a ticket for the judgment day. The rental vehicle in Murnau costs 25 marks for Englishmen, 15 marks for the rest of mankind. “Christ” Mair has 50-60,000 “friends” who visit him. His carvings are like relics; English women want to have them blessed in Rome by the Pope”. (Oberammergauer Passionsbriefe, Leipzig 1880)
Caricature from the year 1880
Queen Victoria of Sweden
Travel pioneer Thomas Cook
Composer Anton Bruckner
28th Play year
New erection of the stage by the internationally renowned Munich theatre technician Carl Lautenschläger (separation of the side houses, neo-renaissance façade, technical modernisation), partial roofing of the seats, new staging in the style of Hoftheater with naturalist-historicising set designs and costumes. 124,000 spectators in 40 shows. The Catholic priest receives a seat and vote in the Passion Play Committee.
Visitors include Isabella II. Queen of Spain, Michael Augustine Corrigan, the archbishop of New York, the Sultan of Jahore and the painter Franz von Lenbach.
Amalie Deschler as „Magdalena“
Sketch by Fritz Bergen „To the theatre“
Isabelle II., Queen of Spain
Abu Bakar al-Khalil, Sultan of Jahore
Franz von Lenbach, painter
Postcard of the view of the stage in 1890