Christ in Oberammergau
THERE is a profound rationalism in man’s former acceptance of miracles. In 1634, when the plague held heyday in Bavaria, Oberammergau quarantined itself against the world, armed watchmen guarding road and path. On Christmas Eve a villager, who had been employed outside, eluded the sentries and crept back to his family, bringing the plague. The village was almost depopulated. Those who remained, prayed. They pledged themselves to Almighty Intercession to give a performance of the Passion Play every ten years, if the plague were checked. From that moment none died, and every ten years, with a few unavoidable omissions, Oberammergau kept its word.
My trip to Oberammergau for Christmas began, properly speaking, in the cavernous waiting-room at Hanau. I arrived there at half past nine at night; the Munich express did not come through until half past twelve. I wrote a letter, and listened to the wind twining about the net of sheds outside. After a time I stopped writing and talked to the waiter. He had come on duty at five o’clock that morning, and would go off duty at one. He was given to philosophy, and had developed the thesis that the strain of his position was due to the collective nervousness of travelers focusing itself upon him.
When the waiter went away the other traveler called to me over his newspaper, from the second plush settee along the wall: —
‘You travel cheaply here these days, eh?’
It was neither unceremonious nor abrupt, but the national greeting to foreigners, as casual as ‘Good-evening,’ as stereotyped as a doll’s squeak, and more wearisome. First used when the mark fell to four cents, it was substituted for comments on the weather when the Valuta crashed to three hundred marks for one dollar. After an eliminating bad guess that I was English seemed to inform him that I was American, he set himself to serious discussion.
‘France will never be satisfied until Germany is destroyed,’ he told me.
After the San Francisco earthquake, a New Yorker might conceivably have turned to a stranger in the subway and said, ‘Was n’t it awful?’ His loquacity would have been mysterious but not his meaning. National catastrophes, with a sentimental race like the German, become national obsessions. The new hate of all Germany for France was packed into those words. A polemic was sent at me between rustlings of newspapers, gulps of beer, and mouthfuls of sandwich. Presently I understood why I was journeying to the Bavarian Alps, and entrusting myself to an out-of-season train-service. Previously I had considered only that this summer, for the first time in twelve years, the famous Passion Play was to be given, and I was curious about the preparations. Now I wanted to speak with one man in Europe who would be free of hate, unconcerned with the Valuta, and given to no sarcasm over the Conference in Washington: Anton Lang, the potter Christus of the Passion Play. I would spend Christmas with Christ in Oberammergau.
The appropriateness of the season pleased every literary instinct in me. Yet there was, too, — born out of my weariness with the disastrous political fumblings, the inchoate political talk, and the moral as well as mental stupidity of Europe advancing its ostensible programme of reconstruction in front of augmented batteries of hate and increasingly reckless antagonisms, — a wistful desire to come again in contact with the Christian legend. The qualities of it had escaped me through fourteen years of assiduous Sunday-School attendance, only to reveal themselves, I remember, during the most materialistic period of college, through the authority of the art of the New Testament.
The incline to the Alps begins shortly after leaving Munich. The cool winter lights on the lakes that began to appear on both sides were a relief after the grayness of Berlin. Our traveling companions were a young man affable with industrial statistics; a Japanese student from the Inns o’ Court for Partenkirche, without a word of German, to see the winter sports; two ladies from Hamburg, also holidaying in the Tyrol; and a Bavarian in black-andwhite breeches. His expansive local pride in the cheapness of the cost of living in Bavaria compared to northern Germany was ironic, his system of the quickest way of dealing with political dissenters sardonic, and his opinion of the Ebert Ministry a tribute to the toughness of Teutonic imperialism. He was bitterly occupied with what the outer world must socially think of a nation which made a fat harnessmaker its president.
The little electric train which swingingly climbs the steep stretch from Murnau to Oberammergau brought us in after dark. Me climbed off, and went through the station gates.
It is not always easy to determine whether one’s impressions are determined by what one wishes to see or the converse.
The first thing to attract one’s gaze, even before one catchcs a glimpse of the village, attracting the eyes upward, is a thing of mighty symbolical import. One of the peaks, detached as it were, and isolated from the rest, rises up, narrowing at the summit to receive, as its crown, a lofty simple cross.
Unfortunately the great gilded cross of the Kofel was not visible in the dark; and the first thing that attracted my gaze was a smallish dog, harnessed to a much larger cart which was being filled with suitcases and packages.
It was the first time I had seen a dog harnessed to a cart since I had been in Holland or Havre, and it affected me with the discomfort of inappropriateness. I am not here concerned with any moral or humanitarian attitude; merely the artistic. On the way to the hotel, I tried to recall from either of the Testaments a word on the treatment of animals.
In the Gasthof Alte Post we saw the first important actor of the Passion Play, Peter, seated at the earthly bar of the hotel quaffing Munich beer.
Next door to the Alte Post, but set somewhat back, is Hafnertoni, the house of Anton Lang. Like almost every dwelling in Oberammergau, it is a boarding-house. Shortly after eight o’clock we knocked at the door. The family had just finished the evening meal. I had a glimpse of two sturdy children, and a youth with arrestingly tender features and beautiful long hair. The pleasant Bavarian greeting of God, ‘Grüss Gott!’ passed, and we were left alone with the Christ of the Passion Play.
The peculiar state of anticipation in which I had come to Oberammergau after more than a year of Europe, all that I had heard of the Passion Play and of him, gave me a moment in which I was conscious only of what an excellent working copy he was of Da Vinci’s Christ of The Last Supper. Pictorially he satisfied my expectations. I saw him rather as a composite of my own emotional projections than as himself. Gradually he emerged into personal distinctness.
A loose-jointed man, with an appearance of frailty, which is, however, a sort of sensitive flexibility. He might, indeed, be strong. Quick, knuckly hands — the soiled hands of a potter, with the potter’s necessarily cunning fingers. He wore a blue jumper, flappy trousers. His natural long hair and beard were untinged with gray, despite his forty-six years and the exigencies of probably the most strenuous rôle in drama. Wrinkles creased his rounded, tight forehead. His nose was wonderfully finely shaped.
We began speaking of the things about which my friend, the correspondent of the world’s greatest newspaper, had come to ask Christus.
‘Our frame of mind toward the Passion Play this year is very different from what it once was’ he said. ‘The sufferings of the war and its results have brought in a new seriousness. There is none of the old joy in making ready. The joy has gone out of the play. The war has made the players spiritual.’
He paused here, and I had my first twinge of disappointment. It was too glib. War in itself is generally idealism gone wrong; and psychologically its back fire is materialism. And there was something not right in the implied necessity of conflict between joy and spirituality.
‘From the new seriousness and sorrow of the war, however, the art of the Passion Play will gain.’
He rose with a swift, stooping grace, and from an orderly writing table brought us a prospectus of the Passion Play performances.
‘The Passion Play is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but Christian, and this year it has a special mission. It will act as a means of bringing the world together again and bringing back the lost brotherhood of man. We want more foreigners to come than ever before, and we shall be able to take care of them despite — ’
At this moment Frau Lang reëntered the room.
A rotund, compact, rosy woman with the gift of imparting the impression of being good at figures. Without shock, yet instantly, the conversation became mundane. As he finished explaining the plan of the Government to establish food depots, from which supplies for the expected quarter of a million visitors to the Passion Play can be drawn without draining the immediate district, Frau Lang said: —
‘We ourselves really do not know how to make ends meet. We live from hand to mouth. There is really no more middle class; we all belong to the poor. Oberammergau itself is already one and a half million marks in debt.’
She laid her hands, with the sewing between them, on the table, and eagerly continued. I waited for the fatal, ’You travel cheaply here now, nicht ? ’
She spared us. Prettily appreciative of the help sent the village by German Americans and the Quakers, she swung the conversation over to the Valuta, however. I know that the economic state of Germany is ominous; that there is doleful cause for the Valuta being the supreme mania of Germany. But the high Biblical place given to charity may be due to its facile tendency to exhaustion. A foreigner’s sympathies for German wretchedness are apt to be congealed into indifference by months of comparatively polite attention to everyone’s ideas on the rate of exchange as the source of all ills, internal and external. One experiences something like a goose-flesh creeping of one’s sensibilities when the word is mentioned. Europe, despite its traditions of culture, has not learned that there is a vulgarity of poverty as well as a vulgarity of riches.
One meets here, daily, gentlemen and gentlewomen who have alternately frozen and baked in financial infernos; and one of the most dejecting experiences human sympathy can subject itself to is to note the little engraved scratchings on the steely polish of character after a bout with the furies of insolvency, or inadequacy to meet the demands of their positions, which must be held to because what these people still have they have from these positions. This is the problem of the fixed-salary intellectuals of Germany.
Suddenly like a clap of cannon fire I heard the potter say: ‘France will not be satisfied until she has crushed us altogether.’
I turned and almost involuntarily asked him: ‘ Do you expect any French to come to Oberammergau this summer?’
‘Well—,’he smiled deploringly — ‘we hope not. If they come, we must take care of them; but we hope no French will come. There is too much hate against France. The stories our people have told us of prison camps and other things make me hope no French will come to Oberammergau.’
My purpose in being there seemed to break in the middle with a clean ring.
‘The Passion Play of Oberammergau has a special mission this year ... to bring the world together. . . . But we hope no French will come to Oberammergau — ’
The moilings and coilings of men’s mentalities find in Europe to-day neither obstacle nor humor in paradox. A chilly cynicism came over me — almost derisiveness. I could properly honor his manliness of outspoken hate, infinitely preferring it to cant; but how well had he learned his rële, after all?
My eyes abruptly clear, I looked at him carefully, listening rather to the intonation of his voice for nuances of sincerity and insincerity, and the accents, rather than the matter, of wisdom. His voice was modulated with something that seemed to me now a combination of religious habit and professional training; it was sonorously pitched, and his German, in a district where speech is a coarse dialect, correct. His loose-jointedness, his silky hirsuteness, his voice, all tended to reproduce that endearing gentleness which still somehow shines through nineteen hundred years of adamantine bigotry, theological prowling, and institutional stalking of doctrines, recrucifixions innumerable and gargoylian Gothic dogma.
But his apparent humility and forbearance stopped short of itself, somehow. Perhaps at his eyes. There was something in his cool blue and entirely un-Jewish and mystical blue eyes that was distinctly un-Christlike. They were not calculating eyes. It was, perhaps, that that amazing intelligence of Christ which, granted the premises claimed, makes His career undebatably logical to its end, was missing. It might be that the hardness of his cool Northern gaze was due to a youthfully imitated mysticism, hardened into a mysticism, still foreign to him, become habitual. As near as he was to Da Vinci’s Christ in the flesh, I suspected him of a temperament compounded of the spiritual and outward obeisances he must make to this sort of mysticism; an astute worldly perspective, which he unconsciously inhibited; and sizable histrionic vanity. He was, first and foremost, the thrice-elected Christus of the most famous Passion Play in the world an honor no one not of Oberammergau itself can appraise fully, — and as such, assured of immortality in the general records of art and the very particular chronicles of his village; secondly, a Bavarian and monarchist; thirdly, a German and reluctant Republican.
For Frau Lang made a point of elucidating the gossip about the recent election of the principal character of the play.
‘ They say that Herr Lang had only a majority of one, but that is not true.’
He shifted in his chair.
’The important thing,’he said, ‘is, not by how many votes one is elected, but that one is elected.'
I believe that his majority was two votes in the last contest between youth and age for the highest honors Oberammergau can give. Against the disadvantage of his forty-six years was the advantage of the publicity which his fame and influence would give the Passion Play in America, which in these times would be a deciding factor in his election, aside from his experience and previous success with the rôle.
Two comments upon the political situation revealed him the Bavarian and royalist first, and German last.
‘The revolution was worse than the war.’
‘Germany must hold together. Bavaria is too small and exposed to be a separate nation. Prussia is the sour apple that must be bitten into.’
The French aim of Bavarian separation stumbled on a religious block perhaps as much as on any other. Bavaria, officially and socially Roman Catholic, and pre-Reformation Catholic, would hardly go with France, officially atheistic. He smiled his smile of strangely mingled gentleness and shrewdness when he spoke of the Washington Conference and disarmament.
‘We have read so much in the papers,’he protested with charming wariness, ‘that we believe sparingly.'
He had arrived at that common distrust of the newspapers of the opposition, which prepares so thoroughly for credence in those of one’s own views. The cool, radical, objective sagacity of the Christ of the twelfth chapter of Matthew was again lacking. I could feel the strain of ennui settling on him. He has been much interviewed in his life. But he rose with naïve new interest, to bring us a letter from America inviting him there to play Christus at any salary he would name; and told us the story of the American motionpicture producer, who recently arrived in Oberammergau with a check-book potent enough to obliterate the German indemnity, but not to buy the film rights of the Passion Play. Frau Lang described it as ‘a real temptation at this time’; and, as we discovered next day, the whole village was inordinately proud to have had the strength to request Satan to get behind it.
She related other stories of professional offers, and her husband’s refusal to look upon the cities of the world. But the point missed in the American motion-picture producer’s rebuff is precisely his lack of cash. That Oberammergau regarded the proposal as a transaction involving thirty pieces of silver is plausible enough. The fact remains, however, that, the rights not being the property of any particular generation, after a minimum calculation of the generations which are still to build their lives and fame about the play, — still to receive their meagre three or four hundred dollars for each of the leading rôles, involving, as they may, years of preparation, months of rehearsal, and the renunciation of yet other temptations, — it is impossible to estimate the adequate compensation for depriving them of their monopoly. Brought up in a constantly revitalized tradition, which has given them a unique property and honor in the world, and a regularly accruing revenue to their village, they know the cash value of immortality, and it would require a village of Judases to sign a contract of sale.
The last thing of which we spoke, after he had patiently consented to being photographed the next day, was the company of Freiburg Players, who give performances of a Passion Play and advertise themselves as Oberammergauers. As I went back to the hotel, I was able to consider a new paradox of the forgiving spirit, which assumes a mission to reintroduce peace and fraternity in a world without Frenchmen, but insists upon curtailing the propaganda for good-will among men to a severely accurate observance of its own trade-name.
As I lay in bed upstairs in the Gasthof Alte Post, next door to the house of Christus, I went over my hour with him, and three sentences always came back with new force: —
‘The revolution was worse than the war.'
‘All the world, only not France.'
‘The war has made our actors more spiritual.'
The atmosphere of the village is theatrical. In the thin winter sunshine, with its elaborately frescoed houses, its surrounding snow-capped hills, the minaret steeple of its church, and its glittering Cross of the Kofel, from which a visible beam streamed toward the opposite peak, as if a celestial limelight were thrown on it from behind, Oberammergau was like a perfectly struck mise-en-scène. The long-haired Pre-Raphaelite boys and youths gave the impression of growing up to be Christ, rather than like him. They were nearly all comely. Through some freak of ethnological derivation, these people are said to have a Celtic origin; but they give an impression of un-Celtic commercial acumen. They have had a thorough training in trade, inheriting a tradition of barter older than Christendom; for their village was a station on the Roman road from Verona to Augsburg, and their ancestors flourished when the great caravan route from Central Germany across the Alps to Italy went by their doors.
Again I was struck with the diversity of impressions the same objects can create in a variety of witnesses. There is an alarming consensus of opinion, however, that Oberammergauers are ‘simple mountaineers,’sociologically idyllic peasants, with ‘three acres and a cow.'
Immediately one is transplanted to another world, a simpler, saner, freer, more natural and wholesome outlook, where the lies of a false civilization do not exist, where the beauties of nature are not sneered at, and the ugly strenuousness of modern life forced in upon one as a virtue.
For myself, I discovered the shopkeepers to possess a remarkably practical knowledge of the Valuta and foreign accents; and the bookseller, confronted with the fact that a book he had sold us for eighty marks as a rarity could be plentifully had round the corner for fifty marks, evolved a political theory of salesmanship which would have done credit to a Berlin merchant.
But, chary as one may be of the literal value of even unanimous reports of human perfection, Oberammergau presents at least the possibility of life lived with maximum wiseness, happiness, and intensity. Remember that this is a highly sophisticated, touristhaunted community, with an innate wariness in business, craftmanship, religion, and art. Its inhabitants have the spacious duality of both passive and active participation in the pageantry of things. It is an amazing arrangement, whereby a potter can hold the centre of a stage illuminated by every newspaper and journal in the Occident, and Peter divide his talents between the bars of heaven and the Alte Post, and play skat until the cock crows thrice.
Bear in mind, too, which is the great tribute one must pay Oberammergau, that they take their religion humanely, not vindictively nor frivolously; that they are genially reverent, and have the pleasant heritage of that mountaineer peasant humor which keeps sacrilege more surely at arm’s length than the sour aspect of any savage bigotry has ever yet managed to do. It is a community where a man may be humble, and yet have news of the day; where the respect of one’s fellows is immortality; where immortality should come to every family, for no other reason than that it is born there, and its ancestral right to fame is assured by every law of chance and offspring as certainly as its ancestral rights include free pasturage on the Alps for its cattle.
In the house of Georg Lang, sculptor and stage manager of the Passion Play, the famous Christmas Group of Oberammergau was on exhibition. It is a bewitching example of wood-carving and miniature costuming, representing, by scores of figures and Düreresque properties, the Annunciation and entire prelude to the Passion. It was cut by Oberammergau craftsmen a hundred years ago; but it has the forthright effectiveness of fourteenth-century wood-carving. It was an eloquent witness of this community’s coöperation in the production of art.
The stage manager, Lang, was a big, raw-boned man, with close-cropped skull, high cheek-bones, and magnificent huge hands, the fingers spatulate and bulky-knuckled. Unobtrusively he imparted the impression of an intelligence and earnestness beyond those of anyone else we met here. The man was completely an artist. He alone had a constructive and mobile attitude toward the Passion Play itself. He was sensitive to the streams of artistic tendencies, and the lure of the primitive, which is one of the main currents of modern art, evinced itself in his intention to bring the play nearer to its former simplicity of speech, its brighter warmth of naïve yet more significant costuming, and its broader adoration. One had the feeling that he looked at the Christmas Group, beside which we were standing, when he was alone, or sought out authentic art elsewhere, and learned from it. That he was far beyond his village contemporaries, because he was really so much closer to their best traditions. I first felt concretely through him the vitality of Oberammergau tradition.
Balzac, whose scientific, political, philosophical, and religious generalities can usually be only graciously regarded as fantastic, said wisely, however : —
’I do not share the belief in indefinite progress for society as a whole; I believe in man’s improvement in himself.’
This is Christianity down to its least common multiple; and because art is interested primarily not in communities, but in individuals, I suddenly felt that this Passion Play, with its community concentration upon the greatest protagonist in western history, and particularly upon the acting of His part, must have broken away from the severe restrictions of community proprietorship, and be an artistic thing after all, not a revival of mere religious pageantry.
There is just as much mankind in some communities as in others, and perhaps more. The Passion Play is not acted by untrained, self-conscious citizens. They prepare for their rôles in pieces sacred and profane, with a diligence beyond the belief of even our own amateur theatrical societies; in secret declamations, at which the rocks in remote glens hereabouts must often have groaned; in secret pantomimic rehearsals of gestures; in daily mental performances; in technical scrutiny of the best actors in the large cities. There are families here with traditions of the stage which the last of the Booths might envy.
There is no art without passion, and man must know passion, suffer under it, or attain it imaginatively, to put it into art. There must be passion to spare in Oberammergau—a quiet, deep undercurrent of it running through the entire life of any likely candidate for a principal rôle. Not only passion, but tragedy, culminates in each decade’s election. It is decorously held in hand by the respect for tradition and by the continental reverence for elders assembled in committee. Each election is not only a clash between youth and age: the years between signify that a favored candidate for the rôle of Christus, who has approached the age of thirty, missing election, misses every chance to play the part; for at the next voting, he is opposed not only by his own former defeat, but, in his turn, by youth. I had an inkling of the devastating disappointment of such defeat when I met the wood-carver, Aloysius Lang, the understudy to Anton Lang and his most formidable rival. He is twenty-six, athletic, and almost the handsomest man I have ever seen.
He will play the rôle of Nicodemus, and, barring accident, never that of Christus.
Behind the performance of the Passion Play there is all-pervading preparatory passion to spare. Men and women have gone insane over their rôles; only ‘unblemished women’ being permitted to act, girls have deferred their marriage for years, on the hint that they might be chosen for one of the Marys; and at least one Judas sought to hang himself.
Long after I had left Oberammergau, and left the still delicious city of Munich; left Frankfurt, and arrived in a little Hessian village whose perfectly preserved towers, moat, battlements, resident castle, and red sandstone gates date from the Crusades, I was still wondering. I can never get over an astonishment at the silliness of human hatred for anything but its own stupidity. If hatred were not so dangerous, we could laugh it away. But it is the chronic insanity of the world, and one may come to believe that even the perfect hatred of the Psalmist was ill considered.
It is only that impossibility for the average person to maintain a great hate or a great love — the essential lukewarmness of humanity — which keeps back ruin. It is not our high feelings and spasmodic nobilities which save us, but the absence of them. While Europe still rings, not so truculently in this quarter as once, with noncommittal grandiloquence, humanity goes more or less about its business of inelastic egotism. The thing which truly effects, which continues to goad, is the personal thing, despite the daily nationalistic diatribes of the incendiary press.
What did I want of the Christus of the Passion Play?
I recall nothing that could have confirmed me in a philosophy of cynicism more than his statement that, while he hoped the Passion Play would be the instrument for promoting fraternity to the world, he hoped that no Frenchman would come to Oberammergau. France to-day is mad; but this is madder. Reaction, though trending backward, somehow does not lead any of us, not even impersonators of the central symbol of Christianity, to Christ, or even to a Roman Emperor, who said, ‘It is thy duty to leave another man’s wrongful act there where it is.’
The man who must drag a hollow cross, weighing nevertheless much over one hundred pounds, for twenty minutes, about the stage in Oberammergau, through next May and June and July and August and September, will always remain in my mind as the symbol of the hopeless, the unending and passionate blindness of mankind.
What did I want of him, after all? I do not know, exactly. I knew he was only a man of a certain religious sect, who looked like Da Vinci’s Christ in what photographs I had seen of the Passion Play. I knew, also, that he would not have been chosen for the part originally, and certainly not twice subsequently, if his acting had not been equal to the exacting traditions of the Passion Play.
Consequently, I understood perfectly well that neither his ethic nor political philosophy, except in so far as a genially observant community might regulate the public side of his private life and convictions accordingly, would affect his performance. And in that dark forest which is the heart of man there might well be things which, making him less the better man, might make him the better artist. Those of us who are preordained spectators learn that the value of the spectacle is precisely in proportion to the fund of passion the actors can draw upon to endow their parts with humanity. He disappointed me for humanity, but he heartened me for art. Were he a wiser man, I might never go to see the Passion Play.
Yet I knew that he was a father of sons. I presume that I expected Anton Lang to say something like this: —
‘ I have sons, and I am teaching them to permit themselves to be crucified before they will permit themselves to take up arms against other men.’
The trouble with me was, I discovered as I was leaving Oberammergau, that I had come to the wrong place in search of the wrong thing. I had come to an artistic and shopkeeping community in search of an ethic philosopher, or an apostle — in search of Christ Himself, indeed. And I did not find Him.
Common humanity has a gift of sometimes pointing the irony of high expectations. I returned from Oberammergau, where the tradition of the Man Who preached forgiveness has been kept vividly alive for three hundred years, and over a supper-table I heard a fat little German veteran of four years’ service, Vimy Ridge, and the Somme say: —
‘Sure, I ’d eat with a Frenchman at my table in my own house, if he was a decent chap. I’m for a decent Frenchman over a scurvy German every time! ’
Over the dry potatoes and tough sausage of that lower middle-class Hessian meal, I might have missed the significance of that, if I had not gone to Oberammergau. The spirit of the Emperor of the Chinese proverb, if not his sacred person, may, after all, sometimes be found in a common tea-house.