Monday, November 22, 2010

More reflections on Oberammergau

I'm waiting for a book on the Oberammergau Passion Play, written by a Jewish scholar who did an in-depth study about the cultural and historical factors surrounding the passion play in Oberammergau.  Reading reviews of the book I am struck again by how drama has the capacity to engender dialogue.  In the case of Oberammergau and the passion play, the dialogue focuses around the source material.  In the case of the book, the research is into the dialogue between the source material (the Biblical account of Jesus and his crucifixion/resurrection) and anti-Semitism, and the attitudes of the townspeople through history in this dialogue.  The interpretation of the story by the director and scriptwriter is influenced by culture and history.  The source material may remain the same, but how it is presented depends very much on the prevailing culture and ideologies.  Apparently the play has been used in past generations to further a very anti-Semitic view (such as praised by Hitler).  At the beginning, it was a show of religious faith as understood at the time - a vow of perpetual performance in exchange for release from the plague. The religious culture at the time operated in this way and the play was an accepted way of expressing their obligation to God.

In successive years, the script changed, depending on the culture of the day.  Humorous, crowd-pleasing portrayals probably reigned at one point.  In the 1800s, the parish priest rewrote the script to express a more solemn view of Scripture and tableaux were introduced between scenes to give teaching on doctrine (showing Old Testament typology - events in the New Testament that served as illustrations for the events and life of Jesus).  During the World War years, the play obviously contained much more overt semitic tones.  Toward the end of the century, culture and ideology had changed and the desire to return to the roots of who Jesus is predominated, as well as the desire to distance from the Germany and anti-Semitism of Hitler's time.  A cultural ideology is more inclusive now, shying away from demonizing one set of people or religion.

But where does the balance lie between historicity and ideology?  The passion play evokes much strong feeling because of its history, but also because of the source material.  It is history, not just a story, and I think that's why the debate rages.  Subsequent histories have layered themselves onto the interpretation of the message and life of Jesus, and the attempt is being made to get back to the original source.  However, it will still be influenced by the prevailing culture of the day in how it is presented (through wording, structure and character interpretation), because drama is a reflection of culture, no matter its source material.