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The Play that Carries a Plague

by Tom F. Driver

Tom F. Driver was the Christian Century’s drama critic and a Union Theological Seminary faculty member. This article was published in the Christian Century, September 7, 1960. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Oberammergau, July 27, 1960

P. T. Barnum, who reputedly said that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool some of the people some of the time, would have admired Oberammergau. The gullibility of the general public is always great, but when the credulity of the religious is added it becomes immense. The Passion Play at Oberammergau is surely one of the biggest pieces of folderol ever palmed off on the innocent masses.

Masses they are. A million requests for seats were received; half had to be refused. Whether the masses are innocent is, of course, not a matter that can be documented, but I have observed in conversation with many spectators tenacious conviction that the Passion Play is (a) a great work of religious art or (b) the work of sincere peasant folk bent only on fulfilling an ancient vow. To the spectator who comes with eyes accustomed to the ways of the world, it is neither. If some hold that the play is not for such eyes but for the eyes of faith, I reply that in matters of religious art, as in other matters, we have the injunction to be harmless as doves but wise as serpents. The village of Oberammergau itself is not lacking in the wisdom of the world.

The first criteria to be applied to the play are those of theatrical art. These criteria cannot be excluded by the argument that the play is a piece of folk craft for which the criteria of formal art are irrelevant. After all, the play is advertised throughout the world and thousands of people pay enormous sums of money to come and see it. It is a profit-making venture not only for the village but for the several travel agencies that hold a monopoly on the tickets and for countless other agencies which profit from it indirectly. These tangible benefits and the organized publicity that produces them cannot be reconciled with claims put forward in behalf of folk art.

Moreover, the form of presentation of the play has changed many times since the vow to perform it every ten years was taken in the seventeenth century. The present text dates only from 1860. The costumes and scenery have been altered frequently, as has the theater itself, which now accommodates some 6,000 spectators. Many elements from the professional theater have entered. The actors are indeed amateurs, but the officials are anything but simple peasant folk; they go about their work with great self-consciousness. There is therefore no question but that the play must be judged according to the same standards as any other work offered to the general public in a commercial theater.

The criteria applied to any work of theater art are these: Does it have vitality? Is it faithful to some respectable idea of reality? Are the artisans in control of their medium? Does it exhibit good taste? On any or all of these counts the Passion Play at Oberammergau falls down miserably. Its lugubrious, plodding manner kills all vitality, except perhaps for a few moments in some of the Judas scenes. Imagine a play lasting over seven hours with no humor and no irony, and you have a notion of how much vitality this work possesses. As for reality, I think it safe to say there is hardly a moment of truth in it. I do not refer at this point to theological truth, but to the ways by which art represents the truth of life.

What can it mean, after all, to see Jesus and the disciples wearing pastel gowns and gloomy looks, climbing over cardboard rocks beside painted two-dimensional trees in front of a blue canvas sky that trembles in the wind? How can it move us to be told that Jesus gave his body as a feast "truly from heaven come down," and then to be treated to a tableau vivant showing the children of Israel in the desert, in the style, colors and postures of bad Sunday school illustrations, with manna falling from the sky in the form of bits of fluttering paper? The twenty tableaux vivants are atrocious beyond my power to describe; they are all scenes from the Old Testament and Apocrypha, linked by dubious typology to incidents in the Passion of Christ. For instance, when the chorus tells us that Judaism has been rejected by God in favor of the Christian community, we are shown a mournful picture of "Vashti rejected and Esther chosen Queen."

The chorus, on stage a great deal of the time, is unbelievably stilted. Its forty-eight singers plus a leader called the "Prologue" plod in single file from the two sides of the stage like so many resigned workhorses. Never once in seven-and-a-half hours did any one of the forty-nine smile; they obviously enjoyed it as little as did I. The crowd scenes are from the worst Hollywood tradition -- the participants not untrained, but trained in a manner that suggests the lavishness of the production more than the reality of the historical moment. The individual performances I saw were not too bad for amateurs, especially that by the Judas; but the Christ was wooden when not irate. The crucifixion scene was real at two points: where the cross was raised and Jesus groaned from the pain of his own sagging weight, and when his side was pierced and blood flowed from the wound. But two or three credible moments cannot redeem a performance that lasts all day. The music, which might be described as inferior Mozart, was not bad, though it had nothing whatever in common with the script and the staging. Let’s face it: the Oberammergau play is Kitsch.

My bristling thoughts about the lack of quality and integrity in the Oberammergau Passion Play were softened somewhat by words I found in the official guide to the play which indicate that the village itself is not devoid of agitation for reform. In an article entitled "Some Notes on the Question of a New Version of the Text," Dr. Alois Fink expresses the argument clearly and with pertinent attention to the central point:

The greatness and inviolability of a subject have never yet exempted those who endeavor to find expression for it from the effort of giving their very best from the artistic point of view; and to fail to fulfill this demand when a religious subject of such a sublime nature as the story of Our Lord is involved, is not merely an aesthetic sin. There is every danger of a piously suppressed smile at artistic faults in the performance of the text engendering doubts of the true religious feeling and faith of the actors, danger also of misinterpretation of the . . . motives of the community in performing the Play.

It must be said to the people of Oberammergau that this danger has become a reality, and that the play as it is now performed is not merely worthless but positively harmful to the curious and the faithful who journey to see it.

As for the motives of the actors and the community, it is admittedly dangerous to speculate. But there are many disturbing signs over and above the falsity and ineptness of the play itself. The commercialization of the village has often been remarked upon. It is perhaps as natural as it is disturbing. It would not be disturbing, of course, if there were not so many protestations about the religious intentions of the villagers. Even more serious, however, is the question of the sale of tickets and accommodations. These are made available by the Oberammergau authorities only to certain travel agencies. I have first-hand knowledge that at least one agency with which Oberammergau co-operates has been misrepresenting to its customers the so-called "hotel" space it has for sale, and has been engaged in other unethical practices. There has been a notorious black market in Oberammergau tickets.

The authorities in the village are naturally quite eager to dissociate themselves from all such practices, but if they are to be successful in doing so they will have to adopt firmer policies. Since they have absolute control over the supply of tickets and since they deal only with their own selected list of agencies, it would seem to be within their power to correct the abuses now prevalent. If they do not do so, the character of the enterprise will be blackened by the cloud of suspicion now gathering.

This year the Oberammergau Passion Play has been the object of much controversy arising from allegations that it is anti-Semitic. The discussion was triggered by an article by Robert Gorham Davis in the March 1960 issue of Commentary. In Germany the discussion was intensified by the fact that the opening of the play coincided with a meeting of the Society for Christian-Jewish Co-operation, which issued statements criticizing the play and suggested that a committee consisting of a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew be formed to advise on revisions of the text.

I inquired in the village for someone who could tell me about the official reaction to this controversy and was referred to Karl Bauer, director of the Office of Arrangements. I obtained an interview with Herr Bauer. He informed me that Professor Davis’ article had been read in the village, but that there had been no particular reaction to it other than regret at its publication, since its charges of anti-Semitism were patently false. He said that since the play was written by monks in a seventeenth-century monastery, it was inconceivable that the authors could have harbored anti-Semitic feelings, and he pointed out that the text has not been revised since 1860. As for the suggestion by the Society for Christian-Jewish Co-operation that an interfaith committee advise on revisions, he referred me to a statement by the burgomaster of Oberammergau dated May 13, 1960, which asserted that all matters pertaining to the play are entirely the business of the community of Oberammergau, that the Society for Christian-Jewish Co-operation had overstepped its bounds, and that if revisions became necessary Oberammergau would consult only the church, the poets and the experts in theater practice. The burgomaster pointed out that the play is performed under the protection of the church and the laws of the land.

There is no need for me to restate the points made by Professor Davis; his article may be consulted by anyone interested in the subject. His conclusions are based on examination of the Daisenberger text of 1860, the one now being performed.

After seeing the play and perusing the text, I can only conclude that Professor Davis is right. The play is decidedly anti-Semitic, and its interpretation of the crucifixion and the events leading to it is harmful not only to Christian-Jewish relations but to proper understanding of the Christian gospel.

Two major points are to be made in support of my conclusion. The most important has to do with the structure of the play, which turns the story of the Passion into a melodramatic clash between on the one hand the good Christ and his followers (including by implication the entire Christian Church), and on the other the evil Sanhedrin and its followers. The first action shown is the expulsion of the money-changers from the temple, an act which stirs up the merchants against Christ. They in turn agitate the Sanhedrin to action, and the play proceeds as an unequal struggle between the good guys and the bad guys. Judas’ role is central, and the motivation for his treachery is entirely that of monetary greed.

I see it now, there is nothing in prospect but to live in continual poverty and misery.... I have always been prudent and careful, and, now and then, have laid aside a little for myself out of the general purse, in case of need -- I can use that now until I find other means. I must provide myself for a long time.

Self-preservation, monetary gain and preservation of the status quo -- these are the motivations the play gives for the crucifixion. And they are portrayed as the traits of a particular race; the many ugly scenes in the Sanhedrin make this clear.

The second point has to do with the play’s statements, most of them spoken or sung by the Prologue and chorus, which portray the Jews as a people rejected by God in favor of the Christian community. I cite one passage from among many that might be adduced:

But blind and deaf remains poor Jerusalem,
Thrusting away the hand lovingly held out to her.
Therefore the Highest from her His face hath turned.
So He leaveth her to sink down to destruction.

Queen Vashti once disdaining to attend the royal feast
Enraged thereby the king, who swore to banish her
From his presence and to choose
A gentler soul for his consort.

Thus too will the synagogue be thrust away,
From her will the kingdom of God be taken and entrusted
To another people who shall bring forth
The fruits of righteousness.

One has only to compare these lines with the statements of St. Paul regarding the destiny of the Jews to see that the biblical thought has been drastically reduced in a way that is decidedly prejudicial. The Christian spectators of the play are flattered as members of a "gentler" people, while the Jews are left "to destruction."

It would be a mistake to suppose that the anti-Semitic elements of the Oberammergau Passion Play are the result of nazism. Though the village was the site of an elite Nazi Kaserne and though many of the villagers were members of the party, there seems to be no evidence that Nazi sentiments led to any changes in the text. What is present is something older and deeper than nazism -- a Bavarian if not a German racial consciousness supported by a conservative religious culture. The pity is that the Bavarian seems hardly able to distinguish between his religious feelings, his anti-Jewish prejudices, and his racial and cultural pride. This is why he is but little affected by charges that he is anti-Semitic.

As a matter of fact, the ability to recognize anti-Semitism as such is chiefly a modern capacity fostered by democratic ideals and sharpened by the reaction of civilized consciences to the racial atrocities of nazism. For this reason we probably ought to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish thought -- the former being that modern phenomenon all democratic persons are eager to combat; the latter the expressions of hostility or dislike found in earlier periods as a result of the specific religious and historical role the Jews and their antagonists have played. Thus Egypt and Assyria in Old Testament times were anti-Jewish or anti-Hebrew, though it would be foolish to call them anti-Semitic. The Arabs today are not anti-Semitic, since they are Semites themselves. What nazism did was to turn the anti-Jewish feelings of the German people into anti-Semitism. The same phenomenon occurs in other Christian countries on a less systematically organized basis. What Oberammergau should realize, but probably will not, is that its anti-Jewish play today serves to propagate anti-Semitism, a modern disease as loathsome as the seventeenth-century plague which struck such fear into the hearts of the Oberammergau forefathers. Delivered from one plague, they have, unwittingly or not, become the carriers of another.

I have said that the play leads to misinterpretation of the Christian gospel. It is sometimes argued that the play is no more anti-Jewish than the New Testament itself. It might be fairly held that the play is no more anti-Jewish than certain passages of the New Testament, but the point is that the play distorts the New Testament story of the Passion primarily by selection and emphasis. I have already referred to the way in which Paul’s discussion of the destiny of the Jews is reduced and thus misrepresented. There are numerous anti-Jewish references in the Gospel of John, but that is the only one of the four Gospels that has them. Moreover, none of the four Gospels tells the story of the Passion in such a way as to make it a simple tale of injustice done by the bad Sanhedrin to the good Christians.

The intent of the Gospels is to show that Christ was crucified by mankind, as he is crucified daily by our sins. When the story is made to flatter the Christian Church at the expense of the Jews (or when, as in the play, Pilate, a non-Jew, is made to appear noble in contrast to the scheming Sanhedrin) the true import of the Christian gospel is corrupted. That the Roman Catholic Church blesses such a representation and that Protestants, beguiled by romantic publicity, countenance it is evidence of a shocking weakness in religious and moral sensitivity.

My travels this summer have taken me now to three large festival plays in which the crucifixion of Christ is portrayed: the York Mystery Plays in England, the Passion Play at Tegelen in Holland and the Oberammergau Play in Germany. The plays at York and Tegelen are not subject to the anti-Semitic charges one must level at Oberammergau. Nevertheless, these plays have convinced me that when the crucifixion story is played out by amateurs for mass audiences distortions of one kind or another are inevitable. The playing of the Passion as a spectacle for vast audiences is in itself an offense, since it leads to detachment. The plays tend to become big shows more or less in the manner of De Mille. Even a sensitive director like David Giles at York is impelled in that direction by the nature of his play and the size of his audience.

If religious drama is to be judged by this sort of activity, it has patently already failed. We must move away from the big spectacle or pageant easily understood. We must move toward the subtleties of thought and nuances of feeling that belong to authentic art and which alone are capable of expressing the inner qualities of religious faith.


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