Oberammergau's Passion Play comes but once a decade

The village of Oberammergau, West Germany, is sprucing up for the 1980 presentation of its world-famous Passion Play. Long hair and beards are growing -- no wigs there. Actors are rehearsing. Householders are shining up the guest rooms. Shopkeepers are preparing for a boom in business. Even animals are being selected for their Bible roles.

Visitors from all over the world are expected to view this traditional play, which began in 1634. The play will open on May 25 and continue until Sept. 28. Four shows a week are scheduled, and reservations for them should be made well in advance.

The noted play has a history. In 1633 in plague swept over Europe, striking down 1 in 3 persons. There was danger of the whole Oberammergau population being wiped out. So the city fathers made a vow. If God would stay the plague, they said, they would, out of gratitude, present the Passion of Christ Jesus in drama form every 10 years for the duration of their existence.

According to the account, there were no further deaths. The people of Oberramergau have kept their vow. They have missed only a couple of times, during war years.

Originally it was a small performance, played on a meadow by villagers and local peasants. Throughout the years Oberammergau has produced several gifted poets who have set the play to verse, as well as lengthening it. To qualify as actors, performers must be native Oberammergauers, amateurs, and persons of high morals.

It is an honor to be chosen for the part of a saint, and, of course, the highest honor is to be selected for the part of Jesus. The beautiful costumes are made by villagers, and actors begin a year ahead of time to grow their long hair.

The play is a labor of love by the local folks. The hundreds of actors receive no pay for their time and effort. The productions can be exhausting, as each one lasts almost seven hours and runs four days a week for five months.

Spectators sit in a roofed theater to view the play, but the actors are not so fortunate. The stage is right out in the open air, and if there is rain or snow, they get wet and cold. The show always goes on, however.

The dialogue of the play is in German, but English-speaking viewers may purchase a book giving the complete English text, line by line. It sounds complicated, but it's easy to follow. I wasn't once bored during the seven hours.

If you happen to be in Europe in 1980 and haven't made reservations, don't despair. Maybe you will be as fortunate as we were. In 1960 my husband and I traveled for four months in Europe in our VW. It was the year of the play, but we had no tickets. Folks we met said, "Forget about it. Tickets have been sold out for two years." Of course, my husband paid no attention. One May afternoon he drove up to the Passion Play office. "I'd like two tickets for the play," he said.

"You're in luck," the man answered. "An English couple canceled just two minutes ago."

The play was scheduled for the following morning. Tickets included two nights' lodging, five meals, and admission to the play. We arrived at the guesthouse just in time for our first meal -- veal cutlets, cauliflower, and apple strudel. What timing!

The large house had been engaged by an English tour group. We were the only Americans. The house was four stories high and looked like a picture out of the Hansel and Gretel tale. We were assigned the last room, a tiny one in the attic. When I looked out of the window in the peaked roof, I felt like a cuckoo in a clock. The bath was down the hall; there were no rugs on the floor. Furniture was a brilliant blue, hand-painted with alpine flowers.

Our theater seats were in the center section -- not bad for an unexpected arrival. We learned a lesson from this experience. Since then we try for cancellations, no matter how hopeless the situation looks.

Oberammergau is a delightful place to visit, even when there's no play going on. It's a picturesque village nestled in the Alps about 70 miles southwest of Munich. And it's only a short distance from Innsbruck and Salzburg, Austria.

The village has everything to offer in the way of Old World beauty: painted fairy-tale houses, outdoor cafes, alpine scenery. There are lovely paths for strolling, an alpine swimming pool, anc calbe cars to take you high into the mountains.

Admission tickets can be obtained only in connection with an arrangement for accommodations. This plan has proved to be satisfactory in the past years of the play. It relieves visitors of the difficulties in booking accommodations and guarantees an undisturbed attendance at the Passion Play, which begins at 8: 30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. There's two-hour break for lunch.

There are one-day arrangements for visitors arriving on Saturday and wishing to view the play on Sunday. Rates include one night's lodging, three meals, and ticket to the play. Prices range from $75 to $130 per person, depending upon the type of accomodations.

There are also two-day arrangements. This plan starts with dinner on the evening before the play and ends with breakfast the day after the performance. It includes two overnights, five meals, sevice charge, and booking fee. Prices range roughly from $100 to $200 per person depending on type of lodging.

For further information contact the German National Tourist Office, 700 South Flower Street, Suite 1714, Los Angeles, CA 90017, phone (213) 688-7332, or Wilcox World Tours, 214 Northwest Bank Building, Asheville, NC 28801.

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