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Every Pilgrim's Guide to Oberammergau

Author(s): Michael Counsell

ISBN13: 9781853118913

ISBN10: 1853118915


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  • A brand new edition of a bestselling guide to the worlds most famous Passion Play which has been performed every ten years in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau for the last 350 years.

    The play is performed about 100 times between May and October and is watched by over half a million people. This illustrated pocket sized guide and companion includes:

    ?À The history and background of the play
    ?À A scene by scene description with relevant Bible readings
    ?À A complete travel guide to Oberammergau and places of interest nearby
    ?À Practical tips for travelling in Germany
    ?À A simple language guide
    ?À Maps and a street plan
    ?À Colour sections and b/w photographs throughout

    Michael Counsell has visited the Play several times, and in 1990 and 2000 ran the English-language Church Welcome Centre there. In 2000 he was there for the whole season, and wrote the first edition of this book. It is now updated with information about the performances in 2010.
  • Michael Counsell

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    This year the decennial celebration of the Passion play is taking place at Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. This little paperback packs within its hundred pages all the essential information which anyone visiting the place and the play will need.

    The author is a retired Anglican clergyman with a passionate interest in the shrines of the Christian past. He has already written a guide to the journeys of the Apostles - a subject of much interest to many would-be pilgrims now that visiting the Holy land itself is so beset with danger and distasteful security measures. But he has also written a little book about Englands holy places - in many ways a much neglected subject - especially for Irish people.

    His book on Oberammergau has been brought right up to date. He includes not only an account of the history and background of the play, but also the relevant readings from the Bible. Other parts deal with the more touristy information, just as important if the visitor is to have an easy time. It is illustrated with striking images of the play itself.

    The book does not, however, include the actual current text of the play. That can be bought at the theatre. (The Central Catholic Library in Dublin holds earlier versions of the play going back to the mid-19th Century, some illustrated with real photographs tipped in by hand.) Selling these scripts along with the local carvings has been one revenue stream (as we say these days) to support and preserve the Passion play.

    The idea of Christian drama goes back a long way to when, in fact, Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The old Greek and Roman drama had for the most part dealt with the divinities of the now suppressed classical faiths. Greek drama had its origins in religious festivals - and even the comical and satirical plays that were produced alongside the great tragedies had had their origins in religion.


    The fathers of the Church, however, felt that the new dispensation also needed to be revealed in this way. The earlier plays are now little known. Far more familiar are the medieval Mystery Plays, such as Everyman and Noahs Flood. When I was at school we had to read some of these, and indeed they are an essential prelude to an understanding of where the sudden efflorescence of Elizabethan drama came from.

    The predecessors of my Jesuit teachers had from the founding of their schools been very keen on cultivating not only drama, but also ballet and choral song. As we saw over Easter the presentation of the drama of Easter week is now presented, as it was in the middle ages, very much as a dramatic dialogue between priest reader and congregation.

    Sacred drama

    Many years ago in a little book about English drama Graham Greene observed (with scholarly backing) that the Mass itself was essentially a sacred drama, a re-enactment of the Passion and death of Jesus.

    All of this long tradition lies behind the Oberammergau Passion Play. There every year since 1634 an interval of ten years the villagers present their play. They do so as the fulfilment of a solemn vow made in 1633 in a time of plague for their preservation.

    People in other places have tried to imitate what has been in Bavaria, even here in Ireland; but without the same lasting success. Oberammergau has a special feeling and enthusiasm lacking elsewhere.

    The play, with its magnificent set-pieces and costumes, lasts some five hours. It opens on May 15 and will run until October. There are 102 performances with a cast of 2,000 actors, singers, musicians, technicians, and some 50 animals. The music by Rochus Dedler, dating from the early 19th Century, is a very important part of the event - Dedler has been compared to Weber and Schubert.

    Ordinary people

    As in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the parts are all played by ordinary people, with ordinary lives and jobs. These people are all members of the village community. The men in the cast prepare themselves by actually growing their beards - no fakery is allowed.

    It is expected that over half a million people will make the pilgrimage, as so many have done in the past. The play has drawn many unusual visitors, such as the explorer Sir Richard Burton and his Catholic wife, the humorist JK Jerome (who wrote his own little book about it) and many, many others.

    Curiosity motivates some, faith others. The play itself has a controversial past. The text had to be renovated in line with current Church teaching to remove the disparaging remarks about the Jewish people - Nuremberg where the Nazi Party, born out of Bavarian politics, held its rallies, is nearby.

    Sins of humanity

    When indeed those voices in our own churches and in the Passion Play call for the liberation of Barabbas and the condemnation of Jesus, they are speaking not for the Jews, but for all mankind. It is the sins of humanity, our sins and the sins of our priests, that formed the real burden of Christ during his Passion. And that passion and death for Christians becomes only complete in the Resurrection that follows.

    Michael Counsell is right to draw his readers back to the scriptures. What the visitors to Oberammergau see - indeed what Mel Gibson tried to capture on film - is merely an interpretation of a story. It is a fact worth emphasising for some in this Year of Evangelisation: the real narrative of the story is to be found only in the Bible, its true re-enactment in the Mass.

    - The Irish Catholic, 8th April 2010


Every Pilgrim's Guide to Oberammergau

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