Impassioned Public: A Study of the Oberammergau
Passion Play

Key Terms: oberammergau passion play; community theatre; intergenerational theatre; intercultural theatre; decolonial theatre; antiracist theatre

Lead: Elliot Leffler

Collaborator: Will Ohm

About the Project

Once each decade, the townspeople of Oberammergau, Germany produce a passion play on a scale that dwarfs any other in the world.  This is a community project (as all performers must be citizens of the town, and as roughly half the town’s residents are involved in some way), but it also has a tremendous international following, as the 5,000 seat theatre is filled nightly for its five-month run.  Through the 1980s, the show’s anti-Semitic elements alarmed the North American Jewish organizations that kept tabs on it.  Like many passion plays have done since they became a widespread phenomenon in the Middle Ages, the Oberammergau Passion Play of the 1980s continued to portray Jews as a bloodthirsty, power-hungry mob hellbent on destroying Jesus.  However, since 1990, a new director has been working to reform the production, in an effort to unify the community behind a new and more inclusive understanding of this mythic narrative.  Thus, the 2022 production marks the his fourth attempt at working artistically to promote a more inclusive culture in Oberammergau, reforming town’s (and the world’s) understanding of Christianity’s central story.  

But whereas other scholars have been most interested in parsing what this play says about Jesus, how it portrays Jews, and how its content might differ from past iterations of the play, my own goal is to examine how the increasingly-diverse citizenry of Oberammergau engages with one another as they orient themselves around this narrative.  The project thus focuses not primarily on the semiotics of the play, but on the cultural project of making it collectively.  The study aims to clarify in what ways, and to what extent, the process of making theatre in communities knits together their disparate elements and allows for diverse voices to engage in constructive dialogue.  I am motivated by an interest in illuminating the ways that this Passion Play tradition – recently seen as appallingly anti-Semitic – has now enabled Oberammergau to emerge into the 21st century as a more inclusive, more progressive community than it was a few decades ago, and better equipped than many villages to engage in discourse across demographic differences.