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Easter play started in response to plague canceled because of COVID-19

The passion play in Oberammergau was first performed in 1634, and after that people stopped dying from the plague.
Thu Mar 26, 2020 - 3:11 pm EST
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OBERAMMERGAU, Germany, March 26, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The famous play depicting the passion of the Christ in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau, which was first performed in 1634 in response to the plague, has been canceled because of the coronavirus epidemic.

The passion play in Oberammergau is a performance that takes roughly five hours, involving more that 2,000 participants to present the story of Jesus Christ’s passion and death, starting with his entrance into Jerusalem.

“Almost half of Oberammergau’s population will devotedly act out the story of the man whose tidings for more than 2000 years have brought hope and power of life to an incredible number of people,” the official website stated.

Last week, however, it was announced that this year’s passion play would be moved to 2022.

“For the municipality of Oberammergau and the directing team of the Passion Play around Christian Stückl, the health of the population also comes first,” the statement pointed out. “The Corona pandemic has made it impossible to complete this year’s Play without endangering the participants and guests.”

The organizers of the passion play were not sure about what restrictions for public gatherings and large events to expect for the remainder of 2020. Thus, “a postponement of only a few months seemed unacceptable to everyone involved.”

At this point, the premiere for the passion play, which in normal times is performed every 10 years, is scheduled for May 21, 2022. This year, the organizers were expecting a total of 450,000 guests to more than 100 performances.

Like today, a very contagious disease had spread rapidly in the 17th century, when the people of Oberammergau first pledged to perform a passion play. At the time, it was the plague.

Father Joseph Alois Daisenberger, the parish priest of Oberammergau for many years in the 19th century, summarized the beginnings of the play.

“The first decades of the 17th century went by in peaceful calm for the people of Oberammergau,” he wrote. “But then followed the Thirty Years’ War with all its hardships from 1618 until 1648, which under the name of the Swedes’ War lives on the memory of the people.”

“As early as 1631, infectious diseases spread in Swabia as well as in Bavaria. This village was spared by dutiful vigilance until the church festival in 1632, when a man named Kaspar Schisler brought the plague into the village,” the priest continued.

Faced with a horrifying disease, the leaders of the community came together and pledged to act out the passion of Christ once per decade. “From this day forward, not a single person perished, even though a great number of them still showed signs of the plague.”

Passion plays had already been quite popular in the area when the play of Oberammergau was first performed in 1634. Only in 1680 did the organizers switch to the decadic years.

In 1770, a performance was canceled for the first time. Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria, prohibited the play, arguing that “the theater stage is no place for the greatest secret of our holy religion.”

The performance in 1810 was not allowed to take place due to the secularization which had taken place in Napoleonic Europe, prohibiting religious customs and devotions.

In 1920, following World War I, which ended in 1918, there was no performance. “Many musicians and actors had participated in the war and were severely injured or killed in action.”

The Second World War led to the cancellation of the 1940 passion play in Oberammergau. Adolf Hitler had been to Oberammergau for a special performance celebrating the 300th anniversary in 1934.

The last passion play to take place was in 2010. “This year, after great resistance within the village, the show is extended into the evening,” the website recalled. Historically, it took place during daylight hours.


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