Ober-Ammergau in 1900

THERE are many disappointments for those who make their first pilgrimage to Ober-Ammergau. One thinks of the village as a picturesque collection of wooden chalets hidden far away in the recesses of a glorified Borrowdale or Langdale valley, somewhere in the heart of the Bavarian Alps. One finds, as a matter of fact, that it lies outside the gate of the mountains, between two low spurs of hills that die away into the great northern plain.

As you enter Ober-Ammergau from north or south, you are astonished at the sight of what appears to be a modern village of comparatively uninteresting detached houses, red-tiled or iron-roofed, whitewashed and freshly painted, with an ugly erection at its northwest end of yellow and brown painted wood and huge span of iron girders, that looks like a railway station. This is the new theatre that Carl Lautenslaeger, the well-known theatre engineer, has erected, with an eye more for the practical than the artistic, for the accommodation of the five thousand spectators who are expected to be present at the Passion Play.

There are only two other buildings which seem to dominate the village : one of these, the parish church, with blackslate roof and black-towered cupola, stands in strange contrast with the brand-new red roofs about it; the other building is the one which more than all the rest seems to destroy any hope of finding the poetry or picturesqueness of an old-time Bavarian village, — this is the new hotel, the Wittelsbacherhof, with its hall porter in blue cap and brass buttons, its busy restaurant under the veranda, and its crowd of waiters. Large notices of Cook’s agency and the agency of a German house for American tourist enterprise complete the disillusion ; and it is not until one has rubbed one’s eyes a good many times, and gone away into the quiet meadows by the banks of the Ammer stream and come back through the intricate byways toward the post office, that one realizes that, notwithstanding tourist agencies and brand-new hotel and red tiles and new paint, there is an old Ober-Ammergau still extant, which is worth careful inspection.

There are three main approaches to Ober-Ammergau ; the first and most obvious one is from Munich and the north. Those who approach the village from that side have compensations for the dullness of part of the journey, for the hills rise round the village as they near it, and the Oufacker, Lauberberg, Nothberg, locally called Der Noot, the Köfel, and Sonnenberg range make a fine semicircular background for the little village in the plain. But visitors would be well advised to choose either of the other two routes, — the one from the southeast and Partenkirchen, which gives a beautiful ascent through woods to Ettal, and so through the Ettal valley, with entrance by the mountain gateway of Köfel; or better still, from Reutte by the Plau See and the Ammerwald to Linderhof and the fair wide pastures of the Ammerthal to the same southern gate above spoken of. Coming by this route, one is greatly surprised by the sudden appearance of the great gray throne of rock which springs out of the Köfelberg woods and is marked by a cross at the summit. One drives forward by a road which will one day be overshadowed by sycamore and wild ash trees, — by the side of the Ammer stream as clear as crystal, — surmounts a small moraine, and finds one’s self at the entrance to the village. A straight road, bordered by clean but not specially picturesque houses, all of one model, half house and half barn, leads past the wood-carving school, to the church, and so to the heart of the village.

It is sound advice to ask tourists to come a day or two before the play, that they may see something of the village life and the surrounding scene. No one should go away without visiting the great Benedictine monastery, which rose at the wish of the king of Bavaria from the foundation stone laid by him in 1330, and which grew up at the foot of the Ettaler-mandl to be a temple of the Holy Grail, with an order of knightly monks and priests to guard the little sacred statue of the Madonna and Holy Child.

Black is the cupola of the church that Jacob Zeidller and Martin Knoller adorned with frescoes, and black is the roofing of the tower hard by, — a fit memory of the fire which reduced convent abbey and library and church to ashes in the year 1744.

Entering the gate of the great barnlike building in front of the church, one finds the builders hard at work, and realizes that St. Benedict’s order is not dead yet, and is to return to its own again, even at the risk of displacing a local brewery which has of late been brewing beer for other than monkish use there.

The second walk which all should take is one over the Ammer, across the fields by the votive grotto, through the woods, and up the steep zigzag ascent which leads at last to the top of the Köfel. From thence one gets a surprising view of the far-off plain and the near valleys, and one is able to realize what a long walk and chanting of litany there will be for the people of Unter Ammergau tomorrow — the day before the first performance of the Passion Play — who will attend early mass in the parish church.

It may seem fantastic, but one could not help observing how curiously like a cross in the green meadows the little village lay below us, and how like a silver chain, to link that cross to the great country beyond, the Ammer seemed to flow.

As for the cross on Köfel itself, insignificant as it appears from below, one could not but admire the labor of love which must have gone to the setting up of this vast tin-covered spar which gleams like gold in the sunlight.

There is another reason for going to Ober-Ammergau a few days before the play. One is able to see the actors going about their work, as if nothing were going to happen. Why should they be nervous or troubled ? They have been rehearsing every night since October. There is not a child that does not know the exact angle at which it will hold its hand or head in the tableaux-vivants, and how entirely the thought of the village is wrapped up in the Passion Play is shown by their speech. Christian names and surnames have dropped out of use; they talk of this man as Caiaphas, that as Pilate. “ This is the house of Christus.” “There lives the Angel of Paradise.” If you want a particular piece of pottery you must go to Herod for it, for a particular piece of carving you must go to St. John, and so on.

On the morning before the play, at six o’clock, I heard the chanting of a solemn litany, and went forth to find three groups — men, women, and children — passing with their banners and crosses to early mass. Weather-worn, wizened faces, very unlike the dwellers at Ober-Ammergau they seemed. They were the peasants of the other Ammergau in the plain. They trudged in to the service, and I saw them trudging back; there was a calm upon their faces it was a joy to see.

On the evening of the same day the fire brigade passed down the street in all the glory of belted axe and brazen helmet; at eight o’clock they came back through the village with the Passion Play band, —trumpets and drums in full blast. It was an old custom, and it did one’s heart good to see the little drummer lads in Tyrolese costume going before, and the trumpeters following after.

Next morning there was high mass in the church at six o’clock. Priests, gorgeously habited, at five altars seemed to be constantly repeating their solemn rites; clouds of incense, ringing of bells, mixed with the sound of organ and singers in the two-storied gallery at the west end. The only person that seemed unmoved was old St. Amandus, whose skeleton lay in jeweled robes, with his hand to his head as if in thought, above one of the altars on the south side of the church. I watched the crowd gather and disperse after that service. I do not think I have ever seen more devotion or earnestness in the faces of praying men and women than I then saw.

Men bespattered from head to foot with mud and mire — people who looked as if they had lain out in the open the night before — were among the motley crowd, which unsuspectingly faced the recording angel of an enterprising American who had come with intent to cinematograph the Passion Play, and who, I believe, met with obstinate refusal on the part of the authorities.

At 7.30 a gun was fired, and the audience began to assemble at the Passion Theatre. Punctually at eight another gun was heard, and the play began.

With splendid dignity the aged speaker of the Prologue, Josef Mayr, whose head winter-white and surmounted with a golden crown towered above all his followers, walked staff in hand, and led the chorus on to the stage from our left; at the same moment, issuing from the right wing, came the second half of the chorus, led by Jacob Rüty the blacksmith. They stood seventeen on each side of the Prologue, in a line slightly curved with the ends toward the audience. They were clad in gold-bordered white dresses, with colored cloaks also gold bordered and clasped across the breast. The colors of these cloaks, blue, crimson, brown, green, pink, purple, etc., were arranged in the same order on both sides the central figure, who was in white and gold. Here, as throughout the performance, one noticed what care had been given to the color arrangement. The figures on either side Josef Mayr were in bright scarlet, and so kept the eyes of the audience upon him ; as for their ears, his own dramatic power and elocution sustained attention from first to last, through recitations which must have occupied two hours. If Mayr was great as the Christus ten years ago, he was greater this year as speaker of the Prologue.

Not the least surprising part of the chorus was the use they made of their hands, and the lifting up of the mantles to give emphasis to the music. No doubt at times one felt the chorus thin, and wished the parts could have been less divided ; the sopranos on the left were so far from the altos one lost the blend which in the fine chorals is so much needed. At times one wished the music had in itself been stronger, notably in the Hallelujah Chorus at the end ; but, taking it all in all, one was astonished that a little village of fifteen hundred people could supply such music or such voices for the four hours’ task of chorus singing.

There, as we sat in the vast theatre, one felt with what exquisite effect the gray-blue hillside, white cloud, and sunny sky which seemed to hang like a curtain over the houses of Caiaphas and Pilate added a feeling of open air and reality to all the scenes enacted ; and yet one must confess to a wish that something could have been done to prevent the flood of light which interposed between the auditorium and the inner stage from throwing the latter into such dark shadow that the tableaux at times were almost invisible ; and one would strongly advise the people who ask for first places to take care to sit as near to the stage as possible in that block of seats, and take good opera-glasses.

Three things struck one as the performance went forward : first, that the tableaux-vivants were the most remarkable part of the spectacle. Imagine a tableau with as many as six hundred persons on the stage at once, two hundred of them children, in which movement is so absolutely invisible that you might believe the whole picture was modeled in wax. This was the case in the tableaux, The Giving of Manna in the Wilderness, The Return of the Spies from Canaan, The Serpent in the Wilderness, and Joseph in Egypt.

One noted that in most of the minor tableaux there had been considerable changes since 1890. The angels, though they were substantial, had lost their wings, and generally there had been a simplification, not without good results. A master hand at scenic effect had evidently been called in. One regretted, however, the introduction of a badly drawn Sphinx and Pyramid in the desert scene of The Serpent in the Wilderness ; the Sphinx was as untrue to reality there as was the action of shaking hands by way of Eastern salutation by the actors in some of the principal scenes. One could not help wishing that certain of the tableaux had been altogether omitted. The Departure of Tobias from his Home left one almost in doubt as to which of the figures represented Tobias. The lamenting Bride of the Canticle — though it gave a good opportunity for grouping a floral display — did not tell its story ; and the Affliction of Job, and Isaac going to be Sacrificed were ineffective; whilst the tableau of Joseph in Egypt, though it was certainly a fine piece of coloring, seemed to be inharmonious with that part of the Passion Play in which it occurred.

The second noticeable feature was the marvelous art of crowd-management and crowd-arrangement: the opening scene of Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and the scene where the four crowds meet on the day of the uproar in Jerusalem to declaim against the Christ and to demand his death before the Governor, were vivid and natural beyond words.

It is quite true there was an absence of that hum that one hears in an angry crowd which is always an undertone or accompaniment to its cries, but with that exception nothing could have been more dramatically real or indicative of more perfect care in its arrangement.

Here, again, the sense of color was evident. If never before in the annals of the Passion Play such gorgeous dresses had been worn by the actors, it is also true that never before had such wonderful color harmony been observed. I heard that though the dresses had been designed in Munich, all had been made in the village during the winter months. The little village can add dressmaking to the list of high arts it practices.

The third thing noticeable in the performance was the calm dignity and simplicity of all the players. There was no stage walk. When Judas came alone upon the scene, or when the “ beloved disciple ” walked down the street in search of Peter, they seemed perfectly unconscious that a vast crowd was gazing upon them. All was done with absolute naturalness and quiet. It seemed in truth as if all were possessed with one great idea which for the moment blotted out the world.

Of the scenes which were represented perhaps the most striking were the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, The Parting at Bethany, The Last Supper, The Agony in the Garden, The Despair of Judas, Jesus condemned to Death, The Way of the Cross, and The Crucifixion ; the least satisfactory were the scenes of the Resurrection and the Ascension. One wondered how it was that the scene of Christ appearing to Mary in the Garden, after his Resurrection, and his appearing to his disciples and Mary Magdalene were omitted. The power of the Resurrection, its reality and its joy, were not preached at the Passion Play of the Ammergau. One almost wished after seeing the rather tame ending of the play that the curtain had finally dropped after the Descent from the Cross.

But who that saw it could ever forget the pathos of the Parting at Bethany ? Rather unsatisfactory as the women’s voices and acting were throughout the play, here all that was womanly in Christ as well as in those loving sisters and all that was tender in the hearts of men came to the front. There was hardly a tearless face in that great audience. All wept with those who grieved at Bethany. Great as was the pathos of this scene, it was almost surpassed by that of the Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The way in which he slightly lingered as he washed the feet of Judas, with a lingering that pleaded against those feet so swift to shed his blood, must have struck every one.

Six actors stand out head and shoulders above the rest: Caiaphas the High Priest, taken by Sebastian Lang the verger. If I had been a Jew, I think I could not forgive him for having made his part in Christ’s death so hateful. Dathan, the young informer, in his yellow robe of spite and envy. Peter, taken by Thomas Rendl the wood carver, one of the oldest of the players, whose fine face reminded one strangely of Lord Leighton, the late president of our English Royal Academy, and who, clad in a blue robe with yellow peplon, was always a noticeable figure, — always to the front. John, who for the second time was admirably personated by Peter Rendl, the son of Thomas Rendl, and who was distinguished by a green robe and crimson mantle, and whose appearance as well as his tender acting must have impressed all; Judas, and the Christus.

Of these last two one must speak particularly. Judas was played for the second time by Johann Zwink. Except for some slight want of clearness in his enunciation, the acting of this man with the pouch in his girdle and his yellow and orange robe of jealousy and spite, his keen and restless eyes, his shaggy hair, his haggard face and snakelike movements, was dramatic and real to the last degree. Forcible from first to last, one must speak of him as the genius of the whole caste. Those who saw his representation of the character of the man who so bitterly betrayed and so bitterly repented went home with hearts that ached for Judas.

Of the Christus one must say, as one can say truthfully of the St. John, that nature had been very kind to him. The long, flowing locks, the delicate color, the fair eyes, the refined character of the face, all helped to make Anton Lang the potter look the part, and the personal character of the man, as I heard it described by villagers who knew him, made him feel it and act it with dignity and devotion. Those who had seen Mayr take the same part on any of the three former occasions might well have been pardoned if they had felt doubts as to the successful representation of Christ by any other villager of OberAmmergau. Truly there must be a Divinity which shapes the end of that village, that generation after generation there should be born into it men who can so look as well as so act the traditional parts of Christ and his beloved disciple !

In some minor matters it is certain that as the play goes on the Christus will be seen to more advantage. He is a young man, only twenty-five, and ten years of life’s experience will give him something of the force of Josef Mayr ; but as it is, throughout the whole play there was such quiet, such simplicity, and such tender earnestness as made one feel that the one man in the village today who could personate the Christ had been fitly chosen, and that the mantles of former Christs had fallen upon him.

I chanced to see Anton Lang at early mass on the morning of the performance. He seemed rapt in the service, and when he left the church he walked as in a dream ; others chatted, but he walked straight on without a word, and it seemed to me that men moved aside and left a way for him as if they felt that he were almost more than man, or at least as if on this day, at any rate, he was moving in another world, and they knew it and felt it.

People sometimes speak with bated breath of the probable effect upon the religious life, for both actor and spectator, of such a play as this at Ober-Ammergau. One saw enough of its effect upon apparently careless young tourists, who had come because their mothers wanted to see it, to make one realize that for the careless there is wholesome medicine at Ober-Ammergau, and the chronicles of the village life of the past generation, so far as one could learn them, made one come away feeling that as far as the actors are concerned nothing but good is the result. In spite of this, one shudders to think of the future : OberAmmergau with its old simplicity is OberAmmergau no more. Hotel proprietors, Munich merchants, tourist agencies and a railway, kodaks, and cinematograph machines are disturbing factors that have to be reckoned with.

The almost insolent familiarities that one saw taken by thoughtless foreigners with the village folk, the flatteries and adulations lavished upon the actors by excited and admiring crowds, are likely to destroy the self-respect and simplicity of the people, and to poison the atmosphere in which alone can grow the life and character which render the Passion Play possible.

H. D. Rawnsley.