The Bavarian village of Oberammergau has staged the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ nearly every decade since 1634. Each production of the Passion Play attracts hundreds of thousands, many drawn by the spiritual benefits it promises. Yet Hitler called it a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry, and in 1970 a group of international luminaries boycotted the play for its anti-Semitism. As the production for the year 2000 drew near, James Shapiro was there to document the newest wave of obstacles that faced the determined Bavarian villagers. Erudite and judicious, Oberammergau is a fascinating and important look at the unpredictable and sometimes tragic relationship between art and society, belief and tolerance, religion and politics.
About every 10 years since 1634, the residents of Oberammergau, nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, stage their version of the Passion play, attracting large international audiences. In 2000, the six-hour production will be performed five times a week, from May to November, earning $30 million in ticket sales. During off years, tourists come to Oberammergau to see the theater, buy woodcarvings, meet the actors and enjoy the scenic beauty. Yet controversy has consistently dogged the Passion play: its version of the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has entailed blaming the Jews and aroused anti-Semitic fervor. Hitler praised the play for its Jew-hating message, and many Oberammergau villagers became members of the Nazi party. In recent years, as Catholic-Jewish relations have improved (marked by an encyclical absolving the Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus), the play has become an anachronism. Jewish organizations have successfully pressed for changes, and the 2000 version will be largely cleansed of its undesirable features. Moreover, Jesus will be referred to as "Rabbi" and will utter a Hebrew prayer. The fascinating story of Oberammergau, and the myths and the people surrounding it, are told in abundant detail by Shapiro, a professor of English whose interest in art and anti-Semitism led to an earlier book, Shakespeare and the Jews (1995). His two books contribute enormously to our understanding of the power of theater to transcend entertainment and engender alarming beliefs. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 11, 2001
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Excerpt from Oberammergau by James Shapiro
Oberammergau is justly celebrated as one of the few places in the world where theater still matters. Communal and personal identity have become inextricably bound to the Passion play that has been staged in this village, generation after generation, since 1634, and probably longer. Over the past four centuries, millions of visitors have traveled to Oberammergau to see these villagers reenact the suffering, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, and most have left profoundly moved by the experience.
Oberammergau is also notorious for staging a play -- praised by Hitler himself and sharply attacked by Jewish organizations -- that has long portrayed Jews as bloodthirsty and treacherous villains who conspire to kill Jesus. That it is performed in the country responsible for the Holocaust has only intensified this criticism.
As a theater historian I found myself fascinated by the ways in which the tradition of Passion playing in Oberammergau was rooted in the world of medieval and Renaissance drama. But as someone who also writes and teaches about the interplay of art and anti-Semitism, I was disheartened by the ways in which this unbroken tradition had helped sustain the troubling legacy of medieval anti-Judaism. Like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Richard Wagner's music, and Ezra Pound's Cantos, the Oberammergau play appeared to be one of those works of art whose virtues were deeply compromised.
In 1998 I learned that the villagers had voted to let reformers -- rather than traditionalists -- direct their Passion play in the year 2000. I had also heard that these reformers were interested in ridding the play of its anti-Jewish elements. The questions swirling around the Oberammergau Passion play were ones that I had long been wrestling with: Should offensive art be censored or boycotted? Why did the reconciliation of Jews and Catholics set in motion by Vatican II seem to have ground to a halt? How was one to deal with mutual accusations of collective guilt: that the Jews (as the Passion play had long maintained) were responsible for the death of Jesus, and that the German people were collectively responsible for the Holocaust?
The making of the millennial production of Oberammergau's Passion play offered a rare opportunity to confront these issues directly.