After 350 years, Oberammergau drama still stirs passions.
Oberammergau, West Germany — Outside the Hotel Wittelsbach here, a stocky hotel worker in lederhosen and Alpine hat whistles in tune with yodeling music from a nearby loudspeaker. Again this year, it's part of the upbeat sounds of preparation for the world-famous Passion Play, performed each decade in this quaint Bavarian town of woodcarvers and amateur actors.
And again this year, as in 1980 and before, neighboring communities are holding their ears.
''Pure hype,'' says a visitor at a table of townspeople from nearby Garmisch. The others agree: They feel ignored and trampled by the hordes of bus, train, plane, and car tours that are tied solely to Oberammergau hotels, pensions, and restaurants.
''Die Passion zahlt's'' (''The Passion will pay for it'') is the phrase bandied about by detractors. In recent years, they have watched the town build its indoor-outdoor Schwimbad sports complex and its AmmergauerHaus recreation lodge with play receipts. This summer, they will watch 500,000 visitors pass through the glistening Ammer River Valley between May and September - producing profits of close to $3 million for the town of 5,000 people.
It's not just that the town makes money, it seems, but rather the way it does it.
''What is toughest to take is that there are no tickets sold just to the play itself,'' says a tourism official from nearby Augsburg. ''You have to stay two or three days and eat five meals. Those of us in the area can't even see the play - and they rake in all the accommodations as well. It's the biggest hype in European travel today.''
Absolutely not so, the Oberammergauers say. They claim the tour operators and vacation wholesalers from Europe and the United States are to blame. ''The demand is coming from out there,'' says the play's director-producer, Hans Maier , in his breakfast nook off Herkulan Schwaigerstrasse. ''The tour operators wanted the play performed every year,'' he explains. ''We said no. They wanted a million-and-a-half tickets. We're giving them 500,000. We never sought the business. We just want to perform our play.''
Most Europeans know the unique story behind the play, which began with a vow taken by the city fathers 350 years ago this spring. That year, the bubonic plague that was sweeping Europe claimed 84 Oberammergauers in the course of three months. Threatened with extinction, the story goes, the town entreated God to stay the plague. In return, the town would, out of gratitude, present the Passion of Christ Jesus in drama form every 10 years for the duration of its existence. According to the account, there were no further deaths. Since then, the people of Oberammergau have kept their vow - with a couple of temporary lapses during war years.
Usually played in years ending in zero, the play is being performed again this year as the 350th anniversary of the vow - prompting detractors to say the town looks for any excuse to open theater doors and town coffers.
Such criticism is nothing new to the Oberammergauers. Again this year, under pressure, they have removed from the drama references considered anti-Semitic by Jews and liberal Christians alike - in addition to lines similarly removed from the 1980 version after boycotts threatened to close the play that year.
What remains, however, is an undeniably florid script that embroiders heavily upon biblical accounts and has not been updated since 1860. The script, together with sometimes overwrought portrayals by an all-amateur cast, have earned such labels as ''tawdry'' and ''kitsch.'' But the old-fashioned flavor continues to appeal to the audience, the average age of whose members is known to approach 60 .
At the eye of the storm are the townspeople, a third of whom take part in the play. Tourists or no tourists, bad play or good, they see themselves as remaining true to their ancient pledge.
''This is not merely a quaint tradition, hyped for all it's worth by greedy town officials anxious to bring worldly wealth to village inhabitants,'' says this year's Pontius Pilate, Georg Glas. ''We have made a promise and intend to keep it. Period.''
With his wife and daughter, he sits in the lobby of the hotel Turm Wirt, which he owns and runs. ''If the people who are coming long distances to see a daylong drama want to stay the day before and after, it should be no skin off anyone's neck. If they didn't use our hotels, they'd use someone else's,'' he says.
Mr. Glas was in the play in 1950, 1960, 1970, and 1980. He says the schedule of nine-hour days is grueling. Giving up a month for rehearsals in the summer before the play, he must also be on call for rehearsals the next year from January through May. ''I have to hire someone to run my hotel for the duration of the play,'' he says. Not far away, next to the 5,000-seat Passionsspielehaus itself, lives Melchior Breitsamter, the senior member of the cast. ''A true Oberammergauer lives and dies for the Passion Play,'' he says from taut, quivering lips. He has played in every Passion Play since 1910, including one of the longest-running stints as Pontius Pilate (1930-60). With a beard as white as the snow melting off his Bavarian chateau, he decries the pernicious invention that brought the crowds and controversy - the locomotive. Until it brought spectators in 1910, he says, the play was a simple matter. But a few foreigners saw the play and passed the word - and crowds grow every decade.
Only those born in Oberammergau may take part in the play - and none may be professional actors. So every shop, it seems, has a member of the cast. One young clerk in a radio store, who will spend May through September portraying various members of the Jerusalem crowds for no money, says, ''It is an honor to give up my work to be in the play. It is expected but everyone does it and enjoys it.''
Director-producer Maier, one of the most respected woodcarvers in the town, says he stopped fulfilling orders 18 months before the play. During that time, he says, he has given virtually all his time to rehearsals and production. In return, he will get about 32,000 deutsche marks - about $10,000. Much of the extra money made by townspeople-turned-actors goes to outside workers hired to replace owners and regular workers in the play.
Mr. Maier adds that the state government subsidizes theater and opera in every town in Germany but the funds were refused by Oberammergau - because, he says, the play and theater are not a means of entertainment. Back in the 1930s, the town also refused millions from Cecil B. de Mille.
''We are blamed for using Passion Play money to build a swimming pool and recreation hall,'' says Maier. ''But had the townspeople not spent so much time, energy, and funds on the play, we would've built those years ago - like every other town already has.''
Rudi Zwink, a slight and bearded dental student, who played Jesus in 1980 and was elected to it again this year, appeared in the 1960 version as a bundled baby. Reviews of his 1980 performance called him one of the best leads ever. He had to give up a semester's study for rehearsals last summer, and will give up another semester for the performances beginning this May.
''The people who think the Oberammergau play is a moneymaker for Oberammergau just don't understand the nature of the people here,'' he says. ''For us it is the keeping of a sacred pledge.'' Practical information
One-fifth of the 500,000 Passion Play tickets - those sold to the play alone - went on sale Sept. 15, 1983, and were sold out by Oct. 1. The rest are available only through tour operators and are tied to package deals.
The German Tourist Board says that Passion Play tickets tied to one- and two-day packages to Oberammergau in May are filled. Reservations for packages from June through September may be made through them at 212 308 3100 or 3106. Tickets with 7- and 14-day rail and bus packages are available through them as well.
At least 30 private tour operators include train, plane, car, and motor-coach package deals to the play as part of larger European tours. The latest spot-check of some of the largest and smallest operators - Maupintours in Lawrence, Kan.; Percival Tours Inc. in Los Angeles; Osborne Tours in Atlanta; Trafalgar Tours and the Cortell Group, both in New York - shows there are openings for all plans from 10- to 29-day European tours.