This article was found in the January 1950 edition of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church. It was written by one of the church deacons, Mr. C.W. Pepper who lived in Gidea Park.
The History of the Play
The History of Oberammergau is bound up with the Monastery of Ettal, situated some two mile from the village. An old legend tells that the Emperor Ludwig, who had been beset by many difficulties, undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. There he was visited by an aged monk who promised that if he would build a monastery at Ampfrang in Bavaria all would be well with him. As a token the monk handed the Emperor a statuette of the Madonna. Arriving in the wild mountainous district of Ampfrang, still bearing the precious statue, Ludwig found himself in the middle of a dense forest. His horse stumbled to its knees before a giant tree, and would go no further. This Ludwig interpreted as a sign and on that spot, now known as Ettal, he built his monastery. To obtain help in the building he granted privileges to the local peasants, and when in 1330 the building was completed he endowed it with gifts of large tracts of land. Thus the monks of Ettal became virtual rulers of the countryside, and Oberammergau, the nearest village, came under their special protection.
The main Roman road once passed over the hills some distance from Oberammergau, but improvements in the roads made by the monks caused the byway which passes through the village to become the more favoured route. The villagers organised Guilds of Guides to protect and assist the passage of caravans of rich merchandise which came from Venice on the way to Augsburg and the Free Towns of the north; and the importance of the village was further increased when the Duke of Bavaria conferred on them the sole right of haulage and hospitality over a large section of the road.
Oberammergau thus became different in character from other villages. During the long winter when traffic on the road ceased, they turned to the crafts taught by the monks of Ettal, and soon earned a reputation for wood-carving. Pedlars began to tramp through Europe carrying the crucifixes and other articles carved by the villagers, and thus laid the foundations of a thriving trade. Then, while enjoying a prosperity unknown by less fortunate villages, war put an end to traffic on the road.
The Thirty Years War was a time of confusion and misery for the ordinary folk who had little idea what it was about. The rival armies pillaged and burnt, and left death and destruction in their trail with equal impartiality; and this desolation was succeeded by a terrible plague which swept through the country taking heavy toll of those whom war had spared. For a time Oberammergau, in the purer air of the mountains, was immune. Then, as village after village was infected from fever-laden valleys, the community of Oberammergau isolated itself. Guards and watch fires were placed on all roads, and no one was allowed to pass.
During the festival of Kirchwieh, when family reunions were the custom, villagers prepared to celebrate as well as the conditions would permit. It so happened that Kasper Schisler, a native of Oberammergau working in the plague stricken village of Eschenlohe, felt the urge to see his wife and family again, and to exchange the gaiety of the coming festival for the village on which the heavy hand of death was laid. He crept up during the night, evaded the watch, and entered his home; the plague entered with him, and in a few hours he was dead. Thus the plague came to Oberammergau, and it raged for over a year. Then the Council of Six, the elders of the village, met and made a vow, as an act of petition and penance, to perform a play of the Passion of Christ every ten years until the end of time. The idea of a vow was no new thing; many towns and villages were doing the same thing, but the form it took in Oberammergau was in keeping with its traditions. There is little doubt that many morality plays had been performed from time to time under the direction of the monks of Ettal as a means of teaching religion to unlettered peasants. Immediately the vow was declared, hope revived, a new interest was aroused and from that time no further deaths occurred. The plague was stayed.
The first performance of the Passion Play was staged in the Church in 1634, and performances continued every ten years until 1674. Then by way of exception it was produced in 1680 and since then, often in the face of almost insuperable difficulties, the vow has been fulfilled with very few exceptions. In 1770 the Government of Bavaria prohibited the performance, and the ravages of the First World War caused the normal presentation in 1920 to be postponed until 1922. In 1934 an additional production was arranged to celebrate the tercentenary of the making of the vow, and preparations were in hand for the usual performance in 1940. Then rumours began to filter through that the Nazi Government had insisted on a radical alteration to the text to conform to their anti-Jewish doctrines. It appeared certain that the villagers would refuse to perform the Play except in its original form, but the outbreak of war decided the issue, and the production was cancelled.
In 1934 the Parish Priest wrote: "In the Passion Play year of 1934 the present generation pays its own joyful witness to the promise of its forefathers, and proclaims its steadfast intent and conscious responsibility in handing on that promise, inspired anew with all the sacrificial spirit of its first makers, to the generations of the future". To what extent the events of the past decade have affected the life of the community cannot yet be assessed, but I believe that Nazism, if ever it touched the lives of the simple folk of Oberammergau, has faded like an evil dream, and the visitor in 1950 will find the noble words of 1934 re-echoed.