Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play

Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play

by James Shapiro

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The Bavarian village of Oberammergau has staged the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ nearly every decade since 1634. Each production of the Passion Play attracts hundreds of thousands, many drawn by the spiritual benefits it promises. Yet Hitler called it a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry, and in 1970 a group of international luminaries

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The Bavarian village of Oberammergau has staged the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ nearly every decade since 1634. Each production of the Passion Play attracts hundreds of thousands, many drawn by the spiritual benefits it promises. Yet Hitler called it a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry, and in 1970 a group of international luminaries boycotted the play for its anti-Semitism. As the production for the year 2000 drew near, James Shapiro was there to document the newest wave of obstacles that faced the determined Bavarian villagers. Erudite and judicious, Oberammergau is a fascinating and important look at the unpredictable and sometimes tragic relationship between art and society, belief and tolerance, religion and politics.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Compelling.... Even-handed.... Shapiro exposes the basic human desire to rewrite the past.”–San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

“Deftly melds the ancient disciplines of theater and theology with contemporary ethnic politics.”–Newsday

Library Journal
The Oberammergau Passion Play is the longest running play ever; performances have been staged in this small Bavarian town approximately every ten years since 1634. The play is art, history, religion, and cultural mirror all at once. And although the world has rather passed it by, the play still generates controversy, especially as the community tries to adapt it to better reflect contemporary mores. This highly readable study begins with the efforts to produce a new, historically accurate, yet tolerant script for the 2000 series. Shapiro describes the origins and development of the tradition as well as the myths around it, including the village's piety, the vow that supposedly started the play's long run, and the local citizens' simplicity. In the central chapter, he focuses on the play's relationship to Nazi Germany: Hitler praised it as anti-Semitic. Shapiro, a historian of theater and comparative literature at Columbia University, is well qualified to study the phenomenon as a mirror of the bumpy road toward Christian and Jewish reconciliation since Vatican II. Recommended for academic and public theater collections.--Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Paul Berman
Shapiro's contribution seems to me especially valuable. . . . He is able to bring into his discussion a solid familiarity with the folklore of the medieval and postmedieval age . . .
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A worthy successor to Shapiro's stunning 1996 volume Shakespeare and the Jews. Here, Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.) turns his attention to the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau, famous throughout the world for the passion play it has put on once a decade since 1634. Because the play portrayed Christ's Jewish adversaries as bloodthirsty deicides (not surprisingly, Hitler was a big fan), it has long aroused the ire of the international Jewish community and embroiled the village in unsought controversy. After long debate, it was decided to revise the text, ridding the script of anti-Semitic elements in time for the 2000 performance. But Shapiro is not interested only in the most recent incarnation of the play—he walks readers through the history of theater in western Europe, introduces the untutored to the Passion narratives of the Gospels, and discusses the evolution of passion plays (the oldest of which are in Latin and date to the 12th century). And he investigates the 350-year history of the Oberammergau play, recounting the Church's attempt to suppress it in the 1770s as part of a larger effort to quash religious drama. In the 20th century, individual Jews as well as Jewish organizations protested the play (in 1931, for example, Philip Bernstein published an essay in Harper's declaring that the Oberammergau play, which he had seen the summer before, fed Christian hatred of the Jew). Jewish criticisms of the play gained official currency after the 1965 Vatican declaration Nostra Aetate, in which the Church held that the crucifixion could be blamed on neither all the Jews living in the first century nor on Jews who were born after the death of Christ.Shapirolays out the complicated story of the Oberammergau Passion play in spare prose, offering readers not just a fascinating microcosm of Christian Europe, but a lens onto larger questions about art and censorship. But beware: the book may leave you longing to see the play for yourself—and the 2000 production has been sold out for months.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.17(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.55(d)

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Oberammergau is justly celebrated as one of the few places in the world where theater still matters. Communal and personal identity have become inextricably bound to the Passion play that has been staged in this village, generation after generation, since 1634, and probably longer. Over the past four centuries, millions of visitors have traveled to Oberammergau to see these villagers reenact the suffering, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, and most have left profoundly moved by the experience.

Oberammergau is also notorious for staging a play — praised by Hitler himself and sharply attacked by Jewish organizations — that has long portrayed Jews as bloodthirsty and treacherous villains who conspire to kill Jesus. That it is performed in the country responsible for the Holocaust has only intensified this criticism.

As a theater historian I found myself fascinated by the ways in which the tradition of Passion playing in Oberammergau was rooted in the world of medieval and Renaissance drama. But as someone who also writes and teaches about the interplay of art and anti-Semitism, I was disheartened by the ways in which this unbroken tradition had helped sustain the troubling legacy of medieval anti-Judaism. Like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Richard Wagner's music, and Ezra Pound's Cantos, the Oberammergau play appeared to be one of those works of art whose virtues were deeply compromised.

In 1998 I learned that the villagers had voted to let reformers — rather than traditionalists — direct their Passion play in the year 2000. I had also heard that these reformers were interested in ridding the play of its anti-Jewish elements. The questions swirling around the Oberammergau Passion play were ones that I had long been wrestling with: Should offensive art be censored or boycotted? Why did the reconciliation of Jews and Catholics set in motion by Vatican II seem to have ground to a halt? How was one to deal with mutual accusations of collective guilt: that the Jews (as the Passion play had long maintained) were responsible for the death of Jesus, and that the German people were collectively responsible for the Holocaust?

The making of the millennial production of Oberammergau's Passion play offered a rare opportunity to confront these issues directly.

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What People are saying about this

Stephen J. Dubner
An utterly fascinating account of a phenomenon that is at once ephemeral and eternal--a once-a-decade drama saddled with centuries of passion. With scholarly ingenuity and journalistic wits, Shapiro dissects an event that has, as he himself writes, 'profound implications for interfaith relations in a post-Holocaust world.' This book will go down as a model of cultural commentary--and a treasure.(Stephen J. Dubner, author of Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family)
Mary Gordon
An obsessively readable treatment of this vexed subject. The drama serves as such a perfect metaphor for the anguished and complex problem of Christian anti-Semitism. Shapiro speaks with a scholar's authority, but with none of the obfuscation that such scholarship often entails. He shed a most welcome light on this dark and murky terrain.(Mary Gordon, author of Final Payments)

Meet the Author

James Shapiro is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. The author of Shakespeare and the Jews, he lives in New York City and Thetford, Vermont.

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