Some centuries ago, within the sphere of Christendom, the modern drama was anticipated by numerous symbolical representations of religious subjects. These were at different times called "Miracle," "Mystery," and "Passion" plays. In a remote Bavarian valley the last of all these mediaeval dramas still exists. It has, for special reasons, long outlived its kindred, and now upon a solitary altar burns this sacred fire, still kept alive by the breath of simple piety.
In 1880 I saw this play for the first time. I went to it, expecting very little. I left it in astonishment and admiration. In 1890 I beheld it again, and all my first impressions were confirmed. The world is wide, but it contains no sight like that of Ober-Ammergau.* The best proof of this is the fact that, although now no novelty, during the summer months of the decennial periods when the play is given, this great religious drama is witnessed every Sunday and almost every Monday, by a multitude of visitors approximating, in all, a quarter of a million people, who from all corners of the earth make their way, often at serious personal inconvenience, up the steep mountains of Tyrol, merely to see this wonderful performance.
*Ober-Ammergau, as its name indicates, is the upper of two villages situated in the gau, or district adjacent to the river Ammer.
Head Of Christ.(Hoffmann)
In any other place the Passion Play would be offensive. Like a wild mountain flower, it would not bear transplanting to another soil. But in Ober-Ammergau, with an historical background as striking and unique as that of its encircling mountains, it seems appropriate and natural. As early as the thirteenth century some drama of the life of Christ was here performed, but it became an established institution of the place two hundred and fifty years ago. At that time a plague was raging in Bavaria. In Ober-Ammergau alone nearly one hundred people had perished. Accordingly, the terrified survivors made a vow, that if their town were spared all further ravages of the disease, they would thereafter, every ten years, portray in a dramatic form, for the instruction of mankind, the story of Christ's life and sufferings.
On The Way To Ober-Ammergau.
Apparently this vow was heard; for the plague at once abated, and, ever since, the villagers of Ober-Ammergau have felt it to be both a duty and a privilege to carry out the promise of their ancestors, bequeathing it from generation to generation as a sacred obligation.
In the year 1870, when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, the Passion Play was being performed, and forty of the Ober-Ammergau villagers were drafted for service in the Bavarian army. Among those who were thus called to take up arms was Joseph Maier, who was then portraying the character of Christ, as he subsequently did in 1880 and 1890. The performances of the Passion Play in that year were, therefore, rudely interrupted; but fortunately Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, was a great admirer and patron of this historic play. He therefore commanded that Maier, instead of serving in the field, should perform his duties as a soldier in the garrison at Munich. In 1871, however, the Play was resumed, and from that time on has been far more widely known throughout the Christian world.
It was late in the afternoon of the fourteenth of May, 1890, when, leaving the train which in three hours had conveyed us from Munich to Miirnau, we started on a six-mile drive to Ober-Ammergau, hidden away among the Tyrolese Alps.
We soon discovered that great improvements had been made within the last ten years. In place of the old carriage-road, which was positively dangerous at certain points, we saw that with sublime audacity a highway had been cut for miles out of the very cliffs themselves, and wound in mighty coils about the mountain sides, above ravines a thousand feet in depth, protected along its course by iron railings sunk in the massive rocks. In fact, this new route rivals, alike in labor and in engineering skill, the best made roads of Switzerland. At every turn the scenery was enchanting. From valleys, beautifully fresh and green, rose sharp-pointed mountains, nine or ten thousand feet in height, their sides in many cases, and their summits always, silver-white with snow.