Tiny German Town Has a Passion for 2000

Half-a-million visitors are due to see a play of Jesus' life, done since 1634.

The 5,300 inhabitants of this Bavarian village, nestled among snow-clad mountains south of Munich, decided long ago how they would mark the coming millennium.

Like their ancestors for more than 3-1/2 centuries, they will put on a play, held every decade, in which one-third of the villagers take part.

Mayor Clemens Fendt predicts that in 2000 the Oberammergau Passion Play, depicting the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, will attract half a million visitors - about a quarter of them from the United States and Canada.

Joe and Mary McBride from Salt Lake City are already strolling around for what Joe describes as "an early reconnoiter," ahead of a planned two-week visit in 2000. "My parents saw the 1980 Passion Play," Mary says. "They were profoundly moved. I can think of no better way for Christians to mark the millennium than to witness the next production."

Nearby, carpenters hammer inside the huge amphitheater, with seats for 4,800 people, where the play will be performed. At 148 feet across and 98 feet deep, the open-air stage is among the world's largest.

"The parish council has yet to decide who will play the main roles," Mayor Fendt says, noting that in the 1990 production he had the "very humble" part of a Roman centurion.

The Passion Play, now world famous, was first performed in 1634, a year after the "black plague" had taken the lives of 1 in 10 of Oberammergau's inhabitants. As thanksgiving for their deliverance, the survivors vowed to perform the play every 10 years thereafter. They have been true to their word, although on a very few occasions wars and other events have caused the year of the performance to be moved.

If you listen to organizer Harald Rettelbach make arrangements, the coming production sounds like an administrative nightmare. But he doesn't complain about selling tickets or finding accommodations and food for the hordes of visitors who will descend on Oberammergau between May and October in 2000.

On performance days, "There will be one ... a day, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m., with a three-hour break for lunch," he says. "We won't be able to accommodate many more than 500,000 over the six-month cycle. Already thousands of visitors have booked their hotels. There will be an overflow in a nearby village."

Extraordinary efforts are being made to ensure that all aspects of the 2000 production are what Germans call umwelt freundlich, environmentally sensitive. All tickets and handbills will be printed on recycled paper. Local laundries will have to adhere to strict standards on the use of soaps and detergents.

The parish council also is careful to avoid complaints about ageism and sexism. Until a few years ago, women found it much harder than men to obtain parts in the play. There was an age limit of 35, now abolished. Villagers no longer have to have been born in Oberammergau to qualify for a role, but must have lived here for at least 20 years.

Mayor Fendt says the role of Jesus is "obviously the most important," but "of course no one actively seeks it.

"When the person is chosen by the parish council, he will spend many months in preparation," adds the mayor. "He will receive money to cover what he would have earned in his daily job. That applies also to the other actors, who are all amateurs."

Such a mammoth undertaking must surely put a strain on this tiny community, but there are few signs of stress among the villagers as they move around the cobbled streets, where the outer walls of houses are decorated with frescoes of rural scenes. Some date back to the 18th century.

A woman in a shop near the mayor's office, selling wooden figurines by some of the village's six or seven finest carvers, an art handed down for generations, smiles as she says: "Certainly there will be lots of people, but we always have 10 years to prepare."

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