Monday, October 18, 2010

Scrapbook Cruising: The Oberammergau Passion Play

In an August 1, 1959, letter to my mother, mailed from the Muenchweiler Army Post in Germany, I wrote: "Did you ever hear of the Passion Play that is put on every ten years?  It is on next year and I plan to see it.  It is supposed to be the greatest play on earth.  It is about the latter years of Christ's life.  In history when the Black Plague was terrifying Europe, the people of this small town of Oberammergau in Bavaria promised God they would put on this play every ten years if they would be spared from the disease.  They were spared and have put on the play every ten years since 1634 [actually the play was not performed in 1770, when it was banned by Rome, nor in 1940 because of the war]!  The town is all Catholic and the rules are very strict as to who can play a part; they must be citizens of the town.*  Mr. Alden [my boss; I was a clerk in the Mess Hall of a hospital] saw it ten years ago and said it was the best thing he ever saw or ever hoped to see."

And so, the next summer, in Mr. Alden's gigantic 1956 Oldsmobile, I went  to Oberammergau with him, and his two young sons, 12 and 10, and my buddy, Bob Flanagan, who was from Jersey City.  It was a spectacle; the play lasted seven hours, with a couple hours break for lunch.  I still have the booklet produced for American soldiers:

We stayed in a gasthaus called Alpenblick.  It was astoundingly charming.  I wanted to just stay there for the rest of my life.

I bought a postcard of the character who played Jesus:

And I bought a postcard of the young woman who played Mary:

The play ended at about seven in the evening.  I then stopped in a shop to buy some film and there, working the cash register, was the mother of Jesus, just off the huge outdoor stage!  I asked her to autograph my postcard of her picture:

In another letter to my mother, this one dated May 15, 1960, I wrote: "I guess I never have told you about the Passion Play, but I hate to start it on paper now [I didn't have a lot of spare time; in addition to my Army job I also worked as a waiter in the small base club from five to midnight five nights a week].  One thing about the trip: we also visited the WWII Memorial Prison Camp at Dachau, Germany.  It was one of the camps where many Jews and Allied soldiers were tortured and killed.  Thousands, maybe even millions, were killed there.  It is kept just as it was during the war, except graves are marked with inscriptions such as TOMB OF THOUSANDS UNKNOWN DEAD.  The main way of killing was gas chambers and they are still the same.  The Germans are ashamed of this Memorial, especially the villagers of Dachau.  They wanted to destroy the place but the Catholic priest of the village said, 'No, let it always be a reminder of the horrors of war.'"  

Well, I wasn't much of a writer in those days, but my experiences were rich.  I saw, per my letter, what was "supposed to be the greatest play on earth."  Later, in Paris, I saw Josephine Baker perform at The Moulin Rouge, and "Madame Butterfly" at the sumptuous l'Opera; in Milano, at La Scala, I saw Tchaikovski's "The Queen of Spades"; in Venice I saw "La Boheme".  I saw the Good Pope John at close range at TheVatican.  For a rube from the cornfields of Indiana my eyes were opening.

To say nothing of smaller pleasures, such as back at the small club on the Muenchweiler Post they would often have touring British or German bands performing on a Saturday night (this was about the time The Beatles were performing in Hamburg!) so at a Christmas party one year I got to hear a female German vocalist singing "I'm dweaming of a vite Crease-moose" as well as "Wenus in Bluejeans."

*This from a website about the cast of The Passion Play:  'The entire cast consists of villagers who have lived in Oberammergau for at least 20 years. They must also be amateurs and people of high moral and ethical principles. Villagers also make the outstanding costumes. As no wigs are used, participants must grow their hair and beards for several months prior to the performances, beginning on Ash Wednesday 2009 according to the "Hair Decree."'

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