In this storybook village 55 miles south of Munich on the Austrian border, the play inspired by a miracle is about to unfold. It is the miracle that stems from a vow made nearly 350 years ago when the Black Plague threatened to wipe out Oberammergau.
Across Europe the dread disease had claimed untold thousands of lives. In Oberammergau residents ringed their villages with fires, sealing off the tiny hamlet. Outsiders were forbidden to enter. And anyone who left couldn't return.
But a homesick villager, Kaspar Schissler, evaded the guards, carrying back with him the plague. In less than a month the disease took 84 lives. Terror gripped Oberammergau. In desperation, the village fathers made a solemn vow: If Oberammergau were spared, they would enact a play each 10 years thereafter based on the life and suffering of Christ.
From that day forth the deaths ceased. Thus, the miracle and the inspiration for Oberammergau's famed play. With rare exceptions, it has been repeated each decade since the early 1600s.
It opens this year on May 25 and will continue almost daily into September. With a cast of 1,600 -- each player is an amateur -- it will represent the single largest assemblage of actors and actresses on earth. In the most crowded scene, 800 players will be on stage simultaneously.
Already the Passion Play is nearly 90 percent sold out. (Some European tour packages that include admission to the play and accommodations are still available. See your travel agent.) Casting began months ago. Major roles were heatedly sought after, particularly those of Christ and the Virgin Mary. For the first time in the play's history, two persons were selected for each lead.
Playing Christ will be 43-year-old coppersmith Gregor Breitsamter. His understudy is a 20-year-old dental student and part-time mail carrier, Rudi Swing. (For Breitsamter's father, Melchoir, it will be his ninth Passion Play since his debut as a 6-year-old.)
Irmi Dengg, 41, who operates a sourvenir shop in her spare time, will share the role of Mary with Martha Wiedemann, a 19-year-old seamstress. To qualify for a part in the Passion Play, one must be either a native of the little woodcarvers' village or a resident for 20 years or more.
(Also for the first time, the narrator -- this year, Oberammergau Mayor Ernest Zwink -- will welcome Jews in the audience with the words: "Greetings also to you brothers and sisters of the people from whom the Savior came. We here in no way wish to look for guilt in others . . . ."
(Thus, with this welcome, and a number of other changes agreed to by the villagers, visitors will see a much different version from the play that was once prised by Adolf Hitler for its anti-Semitic content. The changes, some made at the villagers' suggestions, resulted from a mission undertaken by Catholic theologians on behalf of B'nai Brith's Anti-Defamation League. Their arguments were based on the fact that certain passages did not conform to Roman Catholic policy.)
Performances will begin at 8:30 a.m. and conclude at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, with a three-hour midday intermission.
Nearly every family in Oberammergau will be represented in the 1980 production. All males are growing beards and long hair. Everyone but Pontius Pilate, who traditionally appears on stage cleanshaven. So what gives with the local barber? Well, sir, he's considering closing up shop till next September in favor of pedding souvenirs.
Getting a ticket to the Passion Play at this late date would be considered Berammergau's second miracle. Something like coming up with a box seat for a Broadway hit (tour operators contracted to buy blocks of tickets as early as a year and a half in advance). And even with a ticket, there's a hitch: Visitors must spend two nights in Oberammergau. It's a method of guaranateeing more than one full house in this colorful alpine hamlet.
And there's something else: After two nights one must pack and trot on. Besides making way for new audiences, it guarantees souvenir shopkeepers a steady flow of clientele. It seems fitting that the town that once sealed itself off from the outside world now welcomes it with open cash registers.
And they do have souvenir shops. Yes, the good people of Oberammergau have gotten a mite mercenary. Still, who's to blame them? The opportunity to fill their coffers rolls around only once every 10 years, and with half a million visitors, this means a ton of money.
To their credit, the village fathers plow profits from the play back into Oberammergau. In 1950 the village school was modernized. In 1970 they built a new swimming pool -- complete with artifical waves. And then the curtain rings down on the 1980 production, the locals intend to get busy building a congress hall.
After that if Hilton and Sheraton should show up with a convention of Shringers, it would be difficult to tell Oberammergau from St. Moritz. Still, it is unlikely that this will occur. For one thing, Oberammergau enforces a strict building code. Tear down a structure and up must come another resembling it. Even repairs to existing buildings fall under the scrutiny of the town council.
The play itself takes place in a relatively new covered auditorium with an open-air stage, which is keen for the audience. Still, players have been known to take an occasional soaking. But rain or shine, in the tradition of the theater, the show goes on.
Even with the commercialism, Oberammergau remains steeped in Old World charm, couched in a high Alpine valley and surrounded by magnificent peaks. Hand-painted frecoes adorn its buildings and villagers stroll the streets in Old World fashion.
It's nearly impossible to escape talk of the Passion Play, even during an off-season. A couple of Oberammergau's hotels are operated by men who once played the role of Christ. And there's the director of the village Wood Carver's School, Hans Schwaighofer, who twice appeared by Judas.
Besides the Passion Play, Oberammergau is renowned in Bavaria for its Wood Carver's School. Students from dozens of nations are coached in this Old World Art. And for those too poor to participate, tools are provided by the state.
Because of its wide fame as a woodcarvers' village, Oberammergau draws vast crowds even during those years when the Passion Play isn't in preoduction. Up to 50 buses a day disgorge tourists bent on buying up souvenirs that range from religious figures to cuckoo clocks.
While Oberammergau is couched in religion, its vices are visible. Its three bars can legally remain open till 2 a.m., but freguently don't close till 4 or later. In Oberammergau you are forbidden to stand while drinking. You must sit at a table. That's the law.
So everyone (well, nearly everyone) who visits Oberammergau minds his manners. Just as the locals do. As a result, the six-man police force has the softest touch in Bavaria. Occasionally someone will write a traffic ticket. And now and then a petty theft occurs. Otherwise, being a cop in Oberammergau is a breeze, even during the hetic days of the Passion Play.
During years when the Passion Play is performed, hotels and inns fill up in neighboring villages as well as Oberammergau, getting the spillover. Visitors frequently are shunted off to Germany's largest winter ski resort, Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Struck against a backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, the twin villages appear like Old World Christmas scenes, their gingerbread houses and ancient inns etched with frescoes and murals and pouring over with warmth and hospitality.
In Partenkirchen the Posthotel (not to be confused with another in Garmisch) is a dream. Board and room are offered for about $36 a night. And if there's a romantic in the crowd, he can take his date to the door in a horse carriage.
And there's the train ride up the famous Zugspitz where one may check into the rustic Schneefernhaus at the 8,745-foot level. Not only is it romantic, it's a steal. At $42 a night for transportation, dinner, bed and breakfast, it's hard to beat in Germany. The Schneefernhaus occupies a lonely and lovely site overlooking a snowbowl with surrounding Alpine peaks.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen's peaks are laced with 40 lifts and cable cars. Skiers ride to the heights of the Zugspitz, the Alpspitze, the Waxensteine, the Kramer and the Wank.
Hikers arrive in spring, making their way to Alpine meadows. Between June and September guides lead groups into the upper regions, pinning them with bronze, silver and gold medals upon reaching their goals.
For centuries the villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen operated independently and with rivalry. And so a boy from Garmisch was forbidden to court a girl from Partenkirchen and vice versa. The old life continued even after the first train and the first tourist arrived in 1889.
It wasn't until the Winter Olympics of 1936 that the twin villages were wed as one. Still it wasn't enough to untangle old traditions. After more than three decades Garmisch-Partenkirchen still has two mayors, two fire departments, two choirs, two brass bands, two ski clubs and two post offices.
So if you haven't gotten your mail lately, try the village next door. Just walk over and ask their postmaster. And if yhou can't get any action, complain to the mayor. Both of them.