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Passion Play persists in modern times

Patricia Kelly

By Patricia Kelly
CNN Correspondent

December 24, 1999
Web posted at: 7:45 a.m. EST (1245 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

musings at the millennium

OBERAMMERGAU, Germany (CNN) -- The people who live in this Bavarian mountain village made a pact with God. That was 366 years ago, and it hasn't been broken to this day.

They were praying for deliverance from the plague and took this vow in return: to tell the story of Jesus. Ever since, every 10 years, the villagers have put on a play about his passion, death and resurrection.

The next Passion Play opens in May 2000, and all 500,000 tickets are sold out to the performances staged over four-and-one-half months, but it takes years to organize. Nearly all here -- some 5,000 inhabitants -- are connected in some way, whether by acting, making costumes and props, or being in the choir and orchestra.

Andrea Hecht is one of the actresses who will play Mary. She says she's honored by the role but knows it's impossible to fulfill everyone's expectations of what Mary should be like. Her husband is one of the carpenters and has been carving a giant biblical beast. Their children are in the crowd scenes, just as Andrea was when she was 9.

The play is based on the Bible story, but no single religious denomination controls the content. Over the years, the play has been rewritten to make it relevant to the audience of the day. For example, comments considered to be anti-Semitic were written out after World War II.

The town has tried to preserve the play's local character along with its own. To make it onstage, actors must have been born in the village or have lived there for 20 years. And it dropped the requirement that Mary be under 35 and unmarried after too many women delayed marriage and children to qualify for the role.

The village relies heavily on related tourism. There are Christmas shops open year-round. Most of the shops in town are packed with wood carvings of biblical figures. Many houses are painted with trompe l'oeil biblical scenes.

The only other local source of income is the nearby NATO school with courses on such topics as command warfare and military crisis management -- a surreal juxtaposition.

more musings

Anton Burkhart, one of the actors playing Jesus, admits the Passion Play has its commercial side, but he doesn't believe it would have lasted if it were performed just to attract tourists.

The play keeps the village going as a community, he says, and while the text will continue to be refined for the times, he's confident generations to come will still be performing it.



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