World Travel – The Morning of the Passion Play

WE walked about the village for awhile. The streets presented a scene of great activity, for visitors were pouring in from every direction. We saw numerous Germans, Austrians, and French, and of course there were a very great many English and Americans. It seemed a shame that all these people were to see the great play, and that we were to wait until Monday or go without seeing it. Finally, I made up my mind to ask again whether there were any seats left. I returned to the Information Bureau. ” We’ve walked all the way through Tyrol,” I told the gentleman there, ” expecting to see the play to-morrow, and we don’t want to wait until Monday. Hasn’t some one returned a couple of seats, or can’t you find some which have been overlooked? ” The man laughed. ” Well,” he said, ” I guess I can give you these two, at two marks each. They are good ones, you’ll find, right next to the ten-mark seats. I hate to see you boys disappointed.” I thanked him for his kindness, and hurried to where I had left Jack waiting for me. He could hardly believe that I had been successful. ” You see,” I told him, ” it always pays to be persevering, and to try again.” ” Oh, yes,” said Jack. ” I’ve heard that before. I guess you must have given the man a tip.” And he won’t believe to this day that I got those seats without paying extra for them.

The Scene of the Passion Play

We were sorry that we couldn’t get tickets for our Austrian friends, as well; but as they had acquaintances in the village they didn’t mind having to stay over Monday. And now that we had secured ours, we had next to secure accommodations for the night and the morrow. From the looks of things, and from what we had heard, we thought this would be a difficult matter. The town was already crowded, and more were arriving by every train. Everyone in Paris had told us that rooms were high and hard to get, so it was with great anxiety that we looked about. We had been visiting the theatre where the performance takes place, and were returning to the main street, when we passed a very neat cottage. There was a well in front of the door, and as we were thirsty, we asked fora glass of water. The housewife treated us so kindly that we gave her one of the little souvenirs which Jack had been handing out at the Exposition. She was delighted with it, and couldn’t do enough for us. She asked us to sit down, and was altogether so pleasant that I asked her whether she couldn’t accommodate us with board and lodging over Sunday. She hesitated a minute, and then said that she guessed she could. When we asked her price, we found it comparatively no higher than we had been paying along the road over the mountains, so we lost no time in accepting the room she offered us. It seemed to us that we were to be very fortunate while in Ober-Ammergau, for we had been more successful than we had expected, both in getting seats for the play and finding a place to stay.

On Saturday evening the village presented as lively an appearance as any city ten times its size. The public square was crowded with tourists, and the various stores did a rushing business in souvenirs and photographs. We boys walked about observing things until half-after nine, and then we thought we had best be going to bed, as we were thoroughly worn out with our day’s work. Our feet were still somewhat sore, too, and there was nothing so good for them, we found, as lots of rest. So we went back to the little cottage on the hill, where we had to climb a ladder to reach our bedroom in the upper story. Once there and in bed, we slept soundly until we were wakened at five in the morning.

At five forty-five we heard the church-bells ringing, and went to service in the handsome church which is the pride of the village. It was much more rich in decoration than one would expect to find a church in so small a place, but no doubt the profits from the Passion Play every ten years have been sufficient to furnish the building in this fashion. The service on this morning was beautiful. There was an orchestra of several pieces, and an organ which would compare favorably with many in larger city churches. There was naturally a great congregation, for most every visitor had risen early in order to see the villagers at worship. Every one was curious to see the people who were to take the leading parts in the Passion Play, and it was usually easy to tell them from their photographs, because no ” make-up ” is allowed on the stage. All the men who are in the production wear their hair long, because they are not permitted to wear wigs, and. it would, of course, look strange to see Bible characters with short hair. At the church we had pointed out to us the man who was to take the leading part of Christ, and he looked so much like the pictures one sees of the Saviour that it gave us a shock to see him. Then there were his disciples, Peter, John and the rest, and among the women present at the service were Mary Magdalene and Mary, Mother of Christ. These people must get used to being called by Bible names, for every-one seemed to speak of them as they are in the play.

The Auditorium

After church we had our coffee and bread, and then there was only a short interval, until at half after seven the booming of cannon announced the time for gathering in the theatre. People poured in then from every direction. Jack and I were in our seats early in order to see the vast auditorium fill up, and before the half hour was over there was not a vacant seat to be seen anywhere. The theatre was of better construction than we had imagined it would be. It has evidently been built to stand, for the ceiling is upheld by iron girders, and the material used is of the best. The auditorium is roofed, but the stage is open to the sky, so that in the various scenes the surrounding mountains may be visible to the audience. Jack and I thought the stage must be at least two hundred feet wide, and certainly it was the largest we had ever seen.

Promptly at eight o’clock every one grew very still, and the orchestra underneath the stage began to play. Then there marched out on the stage thirty-five men and women dressed as prophets. These thirty-five had more to do than any other persons in the production, recause they appeared before every scene and de-scribed what was to follow. They were most impressive in appearance, all wearing long hair, and garments which made them look very strange to nineteenth century eyes. They had good voices, and some of the solos were well worth hearing. The leader of the thirty-five, an elderly man with a long gray beard, told in prose the story which was later to be shown in picture, then one of the singers sang a solo describing it further, and the whole number finally joined in an inspiring chorus, at the close of which the curtains were drawn aside, and one saw a tableau representing some event in the Old Testament. The first scene of all, however, was the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, and as the curtains parted we saw him riding an ass in the city street, surrounded with a crowd of six hundred followers, who scattered flowers in his path and shouted hosannas. Jack and I sat up straight in our seats. We had not expected to see anything half so real as this. Everything seemed so true to life that we might well have imagined ourselves in the streets of old Jerusalem on that memorable day. The’ great throng filed across the stage to the front of the Temple, where Christ expelled the money-changers, as in the Bible story. Then the curtain was lowered and the first part of the performance was proceeded with.

The Progress of the Play

The first tableau showed the sons of Jacob resolving to put their brother Joseph out of the way, and it was so moving that we saw not a few tears in our neighborhood. Jack told me afterward that he felt like crying himself, when he saw the boy Joseph there in flesh and blood, and looking so pitiful. When the tableau was finished, the curtain was raised on a scene representing the council of the high priests in Jerusalem, and there followed a long discussion among them about what should be done with Christ. We, of course, could understand but little of what was said on the stage, but we had a book giving a translation of the play, and could follow the action without difficulty. The play moved very rapidly. The first part, which occupied all the morning, was divided into seven acts. Before each act the chorus appeared and described what was to follow. Then came one or more tableaux representing some scene from the Old Testament, and following that a scene in Christ’s life, which was more or less similar. The latter scene was always acted, and we thought each one better than the last. In the tableaux we saw King Ahasuerus and Vashti, Moses and Aaron in the Wilderness, Jacob’s sons selling Joseph into slavery, and Adam and Eve with their children. The arrangement of these pictures could not Be surpassed in any metropolitan theatre, and the costumes and everything used were of the best material. We had not supposed that so much time and money were expended upon the production, and the whole affair was to us a great surprise.

During the morning, we saw only the chief events in Christ’s life, from the entry into Jerusalem to his apprehension on the Mount of Olives; but these scenes were enough to move us wonderfully, and give us a great respect for this village folk who could act difficult parts so perfectly. After the council of the high priests there was acted the scene of Christ taking leave of his mother in Bethany, the one on the way to Jerusalem, and then the Last Supper. After these came the scene of the Garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas. Each succeeding scene seemed more moving than the last, even though we didn’t have the advantage of being able to appreciate the inflections in the actors’ voices. With each minute we became more and more in the spirit of the occasion, until at last we sat there almost spellbound, drinking in these wonderful scenes which we had never expected to see acted in such a manner. All the characters fitted their parts most beautifully, and we could imagine no better presentation of the great drama. It isn’t likely that any others than these people of Ober-Ammergau could go through with it with much success. Their success is probably due, in a large extent, to the fact that they have been in training for their parts all their lives.

How It Was Inaugurated

At half-past eleven in the morning the first part of the play closed with the betrayal of Christ, and there was then an interval of an hour and a half for dinner. Jack and I had been so much interested in what we had seen on the stage that we had not noticed being tired at all ; but we were glad to sit down to the good dinner spread for us by our good landlady on the hill. While we were eating, she tried to tell us something of the play, and when she saw that we couldn’t understand her very well, she hurried to fetch another of her guests, who could speak English. Through her, she told us that she had taken part in no less than six productions of the Passion Play, before she felt herself too old to stand the rehearsals. It had been given, she said, every ten years, except in 187o, when many of the villagers had been called to fight the French. It had been given in 1871, that decade making an interval of eleven years. The first performance had taken place away back in the year 1633, in accordance with a vow made by the people of the village. They had been visited by a great plague, which destroyed many lives, and they said that if the plague ceased they would perform the play to the glory of God ever after. For a while it was given every year, but in 168o they decided that it would be best to give it only once in every decade.

She told us that the original text of the play dated from the fifteenth century, but that the one now in use had been prepared in 1815, by one of the monks in the monastery at Ettal. The music had been composed by one of the villagers at the same time, and though, she said, they all admitted that the play and music could be much improved, they feared to allow any changes to be made, on account of the danger that it might be so much improved that they would be unable to interpret their characters. ” You know we’re not professional actors,” she said.