In a pleasant valley of the Highlands of Bavaria is a picturesque village, situated on the banks of the River Ammer, just where it issues from a deep and narrow gorge. The inhabitants, who are simple and primitive in their ways, depend for their livelihood chiefly on the art of wood carving, to which they are greatly devoted, and in which they have attained a high degree of perfection. This little village, which, from its position, is called Ober-Ammergau, is the last resting-place in Germany, and, I may almost say, in Europe, of a kind of religious drama that was common enough in times gone by.
It happened, in the year 1633, that a fearful pestilence swept over the districts of Southern Bavaria. For some weeks the secluded valley of the Ammer was free from its deadly breath. All ingress and egress was rigorously forbidden by the local authorities, and every pass was carefully guarded, to shut out the dreaded contagion. At length, however, a native of the place, who had been working in a neighbouring district, wishing to return to his family, eluded the vigilance of the sentries, entered the valley by a secret path, and unconsciously carried the infection with him. In two days he was a corpse. The contagion spread: and, before the end of three weeks, eighty-four of the villagers, about one-fourth of the whole community, had been laid in their graves.
The terrified survivors, having lost all hope in human aid, met together and bound themselves by a solemn promise to God, if He would stay the plague, to give a representation every ten years of the Passion and Death of Christ. From that moment, as the tradition goes, the pestilence was arrested in its course; and they who were already infected quickly recovered. Faithful to their vow, the grateful villagers gave the first representation in the following year 1634; and, ever since, as each ten years have gone round, the Passion Play has been repeated, with constantly increasing taste and skill, and without any diminution of that reverent religious spirit in which it first began.
But the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau has not been without its vicissitudes. More than once its very existence was threatened; and for its preservation we are chiefly indebted to the pious zeal of the inhabitants. The history of this matter is well deserving of notice.
There are many reasons why the religious drama of the middle ages should be found ill suited to the condition of modern society. First of all, it is scarcely reverent to expose the most sacred things to the ridicule, or even to the indifferent criticism, of free-thinkers; and we all know there will be many free-thinkers, at the present day, amongst a large audience in a public theatre. Besides, many of these religious plays were mixed up with profane and grotesque associations; and, though they may have been looked upon with reverence in ruder times, they would be more likely now to excite feelings of repugnance and disgust. Again, there is the danger of such representations being turned to account, by ingenious speculators, as a means of making money. And, lastly, there is the temptation to intemperence and riot which is always present when large, promiscuous crowds of people are assembled together.
Influenced by these and other such considerations, the Archbishop of Salzburg, in the year 1772, issued a manifesto with a view to the general suppression of religious plays. The civil power lent its aid; and, during the next ten years, vigorous measures were taken for their extinction in the various towns and villages of Southern Germany. But the people of Ober-Ammergau urged the religious obligation of their vow. They represented, too, that their Play, which had been conducted under the enlightened guidance of the Benedictine monks attached to the neighbouring monastery at Ettal, was free from the abuses that existed elsewhere. Their prayer was heard, and a special exception was made in their favour.
In the year 1810 the Passion Play seemed once again on the point of extinction. The monastery at Ettal had been unhappily suppressed some years before; and when the monks were gone, there seemed to be no longer any sufficient guarantee that the religious character of the Play would be upheld. A decree was accordingly passed by the authorities at Munich forbidding its further celebration. The energetic villagers, however, sent deputies to the capital to plead their cause before the king; and their Play was spared. From that time it has been left unmolested, and it now remains, tolerated rather than encouraged by the civil and ecclesiastical rulers, a solitary example of the ancient Christian drama.
In addition to the constant revision which the Play received, for many generations, from the hands of the Benedictine monks, it has been greatly improved and embellished within the present [19th] century. When the monastery at Ettal was suppressed, one of the monks, Dr. Ottmar Weis, was made Parish Priest of Ober-Ammergau. By him the design of the Play was recast, and a great part of the text was written anew. About the same time the music which is now in use [as of 1872] was composed by Rochus Dedler, the village organist and schoolmaster. Previous to the performance of 1850 the text was again revised by another Parish priest, Anton Alois Daisenberger. Neither the text nor the music has ever been published [as of 1872], and they are known only to those engaged in the performance.
As the first representation took place in the year 1634, it will naturally be asked how the decennial repetition has happened to fall on the year 1871. The answer to this question is easily given, and is not without interest. About the year 1680 it was deemed expedient that each recurring representation should correspond with the beginning of each successive decade of the century. To attain this end the time for the next performance was anticipated by four years; and the year 1680 was made, as it were, a new starting point, from which the successive periods, of ten years each, were thenceforth to be reckoned. The Play was, therefore, really due in 1870; and, in point of fact, it had been carefully prepared for that year, and five representations were given. But suddenly the war broke out: the call to arms rung through the peaceful village; and the players had to leave the stage for the battle-field.
Some of the principal performers were, by royal authority, exempted from active service, and reserved for garrison duty. Joseph Mair, who represented Christ, had an interview with the king, and obtained special leave to retain his long hair, that he might be ready to resume his part when the war should be over. The post assigned to him was in one of the military depots at Munich. But the bulk of the able-bodied villagers had to face the horrors of actual war. Seventy went out to fight; and of these, eight have not returned. Two are sleeping in the deep trenches of the blood-stained fields of Sedan; five died in the hospitals of France; and one has not been heard of, but his fate is scarcely doubtful.
As soon as the war was over the first thought at Ober-Ammergau was to continue the series of representations which had been so rudely interrupted. In each decennial celebration the practice is to give a performance once a week, for about three months of the summer: and if, on any occasion, the crowd should be so great that all cannot find a place in the theatre, an extra performance is given on the following day. This year , accordingly, the Play was acted for the first time, on June the twenty-fourth; and it was repeated once or twice each week until the close of September.
Those who witnessed it early in the season came away greatly impressed with the religious spirit and artistic skill that marked the performance. The news spread abroad that a Highland village in Bavaria was giving to the world such a living picture of the great drama of Redemption as had never before been seen. The name of Ober-Ammergau became famous in the fashionable assemblies of great capitals; and, soon, crowds of eager tourists and pious pilgrims were hurrying over the highways of Europe to see the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau.