The Passion Plays Tradition in Europe
by Elena Miceli
1633 Germany doesn’t seem like it would be a relatable year to someone living in 2022, but if you were told the only way to save your village from plague was to act out the Passion of Christ, both people from respective years would respond with a resounding “yes!” This is the origin of Oberammergau, Germany’s Passion Plays. Hundreds of citizens participate every ten years in the open-air interpretation of Christ’s last hours, stemming from faith that God would deliver them from evil. If the open-air theater concept wasn’t enough to convey the authentic feeling of living the tragedy, in the year 1750 (the 13th Oberammergau Passion Play) “living images” were instituted, showcasing scenes from the Old Testament with real people. Official trailers are released for every production, and their website offers seemingly limitless access to information about the actors, plot, orchestra, and a comprehensive history of every Play dating back to 1634. The 43rd Passion Play was due to take place in 2020, but it ironically had to be postponed for the very reason it was established – pandemic. Two years later, the Plays will take place from May 14th – October 2nd, 2022.
This tradition spans all of Europe, not just Germany. In Sordevolo, a small town in the Piedmont region of Italy, the Plays are not a mere hobby, they are a lifestyle. Every five years, more than half of the town’s 1,300 residents are active participants in some way, with ages ranging from 3-80; practically cradle to casket. Roles are treated as family heirlooms, bequeathed from generation to generation. The town celebrated the 200th anniversary of their Passion Plays in 2015. These events have been lucrative for the town not only through the Plays themself, but also the market they’ve created. Abandoned homes have been turned into B&Bs for tourists, a museum was created to display the artifacts of the Plays, and the 2,400-seat amphitheater that was constructed for the Plays, is used for other events as well. And while Sordevolo’s 40,000 spectators in 2010 seems meager compared to Oberammergau’s 500,000, it is an Italian point of pride that their productions are volunteer only, while the German participants are paid.
When one thinks of The Passion of Christ, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the critique “needs revising.” However, it is not the plot that requires changing, but the language itself. The staple of any timeless piece of literature is the ability for its message to be adapted in a way that the current audience can understand. The quote by William Shakespeare “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,’ doesn’t exactly spike a 14-year-old’s heart rate, but make “The Fault in Our Stars,” a tragic teen romance novel and suddenly the dusty and irrelevant play Julius Caesar doesn’t seem so dusty and irrelevant anymore. For Oberammergau’s 13th Passion, the Benedictine Father Ferdinand Rosner of Ettal rewrote the script using the style of the day, Baroque theater. The characteristics of the Baroque style emphasize “art imitating life” and “the world as a stage,” two elements that certainly fit well with the plot of The Passion. The script was altered once more by Father Dr. Othmar Weis of Ettal in 1811 (19th Passion Play), switching from verses to prose, allowing the acting to seem more natural and realistic. Direct quotes from the Bible are also used. With visitation augmented to 45,000 for 1850’s twenty-fourth Play, reports are published in both English and French for the first time.
While the Italians of Sordevolo did not follow the German’s lead of adapting the actual script to fit the time period, they still found a way to reach their audience. Despite using the original 15th century script of intricate Italian, the actors take this as an opportunity to do just that; act. This rendition of the Passion emphasizes physical performance over a verbal one, using tone, emotion, and body position to transport the audience to 33 AD Jerusalem. After all, the purpose of these plays is to spread the word of God, and there is no better universal language than emotion.
Grassina, settled in the Tuscan hills near Florence, is another Italian town that celebrates this tradition during the Easter season. To take part in this age-old tradition, one need not purchase a plane ticket – watch history come to life through our Live Stream of Grassina’s Passion Play! https://rockyruggiero.com/shop/events/events-in-the-u-s/live-stream-performance-live-via-crucis-from-grassina-italy/