Cover image for Oberammergau : the troubling story of the world's most famous passion play
Oberammergau : the troubling story of the world's most famous passion play
Shapiro, James, 1955-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
x, 238 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN3235 .S38 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A fascinating portrait of a German village and the millennial production of its controversial Passion play, which has been staged once in each decade since 1634. In the summer of 2000, a half-million spectators from around the world will once again descend upon the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau, which despite wars, military occupation, religious censorship, and threats of boycott, has continued to honor its ancestral vow to stage the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus once every ten years. In this wide-ranging cultural history, James Shapiro discusses the traditions and troubles of Oberammergau, from the legendary origins of its Passion play in the seventeenth century to the villagers' current--and ambivalent--efforts to rid their play of anti-Semitism, a charge that has stuck ever since Adolf Hitler praised its portrayal of "the whole muck and mire of Jewry." Shapiro illuminates the ways in which the Oberammergau Passion play has become a litmus test of tradition, interfaith dialogue, and the role of spectacle in reawakening belief. His book also reveals how Oberammergau has become a remarkable prism through which we can view divergent ways of thinking about culture, commerce, and religion.

Author Notes

James Shapiro was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 11, 1955. He earned a B.A. and Master's degrees at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. His work in teaching includes Dartmouth College, Goucher College, Colombia University, and Fulbright lecturer at Bar-llan University and Tel-Aviv University. He served as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe Theatre in London. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Huntington Library, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. He has written for numerous periodicals such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Book Review. His more recent books include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, for which he won the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2006 Theatre Book Prize. His book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, won the 2011 George Freedley Memorial Award. In 2016, his book entitled 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear won the James Tait Black Prizes for biography.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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

Library Journal Review

The Oberammergau Passion Play is the longest running play ever; performances have been staged in this small Bavarian town approximately every ten years since 1634. The play is art, history, religion, and cultural mirror all at once. And although the world has rather passed it by, the play still generates controversy, especially as the community tries to adapt it to better reflect contemporary mores. This highly readable study begins with the efforts to produce a new, historically accurate, yet tolerant script for the 2000 series. Shapiro describes the origins and development of the tradition as well as the myths around it, including the village's piety, the vow that supposedly started the play's long run, and the local citizens' simplicity. In the central chapter, he focuses on the play's relationship to Nazi Germany: Hitler praised it as anti-Semitic. Shapiro, a historian of theater and comparative literature at Columbia University, is well qualified to study the phenomenon as a mirror of the bumpy road toward Christian and Jewish reconciliation since Vatican II. Recommended for academic and public theater collections.--Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Since 1634, Oberammergau has maintained the tradition of producing, once every decade, a dramatic version of the Christian passion play. Shapiro's fascinating study looks at the origin and the historic evolution of this performance tradition. In Shakespeare and the Jews (CH, Apr'96), Shapiro examined how Renaissance drama formalized and thus promoted hatred against the Jews; here he provides a similar account, describing the influence of the passion play on the townsfolk who participate in mounting the play and on its ever-growing audience. The author gives particular attention to the interior and exterior pressures brought to bear on the text of the enacted drama. The early versions faithfully incorporated the Gospel stories, with their emphasis on the Jews' role in the Crucifixion. During the 20th century, Vatican II's removal of the stigma of deicide against the Jews and the post-Holocaust recognition of cultural and religious antisemitism introduced serious debate among the townsfolk, discussions that--along with strong representations from the Vatican and Jewish organizations--resulted in many significant alterations to the play. Writing in lucid, journalistic style, Shapiro offers a convincing example of how prejudice and ethnic hatred are transmitted over time through artistic representations. Valuable in collections supporting literature, cultural and ethnic history, performance, and religion. All levels. M. Butovsky; Concordia University



Preface Oberammergau is justly celebrated as one of the few places in the world where theater still matters. Communal and personal identity have become inextricably bound to the Passion play that has been staged in this village, generation after generation, since 1634, and probably longer. Over the past four centuries, millions of visitors have traveled to Oberammergau to see these villagers reenact the suffering, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, and most have left profoundly moved by the experience. Oberammergau is also notorious for staging a play -- praised by Hitler himself and sharply attacked by Jewish organizations -- that has long portrayed Jews as bloodthirsty and treacherous villains who conspire to kill Jesus. That it is performed in the country responsible for the Holocaust has only intensified this criticism. As a theater historian I found myself fascinated by the ways in which the tradition of Passion playing in Oberammergau was rooted in the world of medieval and Renaissance drama. But as someone who also writes and teaches about the interplay of art and anti-Semitism, I was disheartened by the ways in which this unbroken tradition had helped sustain the troubling legacy of medieval anti-Judaism. Like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Richard Wagner's music, and Ezra Pound's Cantos, the Oberammergau play appeared to be one of those works of art whose virtues were deeply compromised. In 1998 I learned that the villagers had voted to let reformers -- rather than traditionalists -- direct their Passion play in the year 2000. I had also heard that these reformers were interested in ridding the play of its anti-Jewish elements. The questions swirling around the Oberammergau Passion play were ones that I had long been wrestling with: Should offensive art be censored or boycotted? Why did the reconciliation of Jews and Catholics set in motion by Vatican II seem to have ground to a halt? How was one to deal with mutual accusations of collective guilt: that the Jews (as the Passion play had long maintained) were responsible for the death of Jesus, and that the German people were collectively responsible for the Holocaust? The making of the millennial production of Oberammergau's Passion play offered a rare opportunity to confront these issues directly. Excerpted from Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play by James Shapiro All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. IX
1 Next Year in Jerusalemp. 3
2 Staging the Passionp. 44
3 The Myths of Oberammergaup. 101
4 In Hitler's Shadowp. 137
5 Tradition and the Individual Talentp. 187
A Note on Sourcesp. 225
Acknowledgmentsp. 237