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Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play
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.
About every 10 years since 1634, the residents of Oberammergau, nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, stage their version of the Passion play, attracting large international audiences. In 2000, the six-hour production will be performed five times a week, from May to November, earning $30 million in ticket sales. During off years, tourists come to Oberammergau to see the theater, buy woodcarvings, meet the actors and enjoy the scenic beauty. Yet controversy has consistently dogged the Passion play: its version of the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has entailed blaming the Jews and aroused anti-Semitic fervor. Hitler praised the play for its Jew-hating message, and many Oberammergau villagers became members of the Nazi party. In recent years, as Catholic-Jewish relations have improved (marked by an encyclical absolving the Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus), the play has become an anachronism. Jewish organizations have successfully pressed for changes, and the 2000 version will be largely cleansed of its undesirable features. Moreover, Jesus will be referred to as "Rabbi" and will utter a Hebrew prayer. The fascinating story of Oberammergau, and the myths and the people surrounding it, are told in abundant detail by Shapiro, a professor of English whose interest in art and anti-Semitism led to an earlier book, Shakespeare and the Jews (1995). His two books contribute enormously to our understanding of the power of theater to transcend entertainment and engender alarming beliefs. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved