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Tradition as Trademark.

Tradition as Trademark.

Ort: München


Politics of the Oberammergau Passion Play

The self-conception of Oberammergau is to a great extent based on the passion play with its centuries-long tradition.  For some time now, it can be observed that the play, its public image, and the public face of the village is modified and significantly adapted to a pluralization of public responses to the Passion: Criticism by several Jewish organizations from the 1960ties on fueled a debate on latent and manifest anti-Semitisms of the traditional text and its theatrical presentation. An increasingly international audience calls for re-readings and re-stagings of the Christian narrative in a more open form. This specific constellation of tradition and innovation engages not only the play itself. Touristic guides, visitors’ and villagers’ descriptions and presentations in periodicals, illustrated books and YouTube clips, partially authorised by the municipality of Oberammergau also tend to negotiate it.

It is for some time now that attempts on Oberammergau in the humanities do no longer confine themselves to the Passion Play but also include environmental factors and take looks at the self-fashioning of the inhabitants and visitors, respectively. Still, general overviews (with broad knowledge: Shapiro 2000) outweigh analytical case studies (such as Jain 2006, Stevenson 2015).  Kevin J. Wetmore's recent volume (2017) not only proves how instructive a contextualization of the passion play and the pragmatic framing of the village can be. Moreover, it demonstrates the capability of a comparative approach to theatrical events with religious and cultic connotations. Though the book was inspired by the production of 2010 and mostly concentrates on it, it takes glances at the tradition of the play.
However, how and to what extent can the status of the passion play as a religious event be perpetuated in a society that conceives itself as modern, enlightened, secular or even post-secular? – The primary focus of the upcoming conference is on the changes in Oberammergau which are to be analysed concerning their historical functions. The entitling notion “Tradition as Trademark” highlights two possible starting assumptions. On the one hand, tradition may generate social capital. In this perspective, it is not just the point that its distinguishing feature lies in its (claimed) unique continuity. More precisely, one could assume that the very claim that conceptual modifications of the play lead back to the roots of a tradition perpetuate the tension between continuity and change. Thus, modification paradoxically serves to assure and stabilise continuity.

On the other hand, it is a public claim by the village that economic prosperity is but an appreciated side-effect of the play. From a distanced point of view, this claim seems to contribute to the branding of Oberammergau. The metaphor “Trade Mark” is associated with notions of recognition, reliability, but also associability and standards of quality. The fashioning of the play as an uneconomical affair in principle generates an economically productive and internationally successful brand.
These aspects also raise epistemological implications: We ask how semantics, pragmatics and practices of Oberammergau and its Passion Play can be described as “religious”. Besides, we aim at potential categories for historical descriptions and self-descriptions.  

Possible fields of investigation include, but are not limited to the following:

Updating and adjusting the text of the play
Besides the well-known more substantial evolutions of the text since 1662, from the texts by Rosner, Weis and Daisenberger up to current versions of the play, reflections on rewritings, recasts, and new accentuations allow for insights into historical functions of the play. One could for example focus on the current modifications of the text due to accusations of containing anti-Semitic statements or on the debate of the “Rosner-Probe” (1977). Justifications for textual reworking and the final versions of the text for each season, especially concerning the “original” play from 1634 are to be contextualised as well.

Community Building and its Media
By this, we do not only refer to the situation during the performance and visit of the passion village that causes an affective community. Even more interesting may be the emergence of an affect-based society in the village, the members of which are for the most part involved in the play. This context could be further analysed not only on the dispositive of the play itself, but also in its perpetuation by image, text, and film. It is also up to debate in how far concepts of religion and religiousness or somewhat communal togetherness can serve as coding of personal and institutional relationships. How does Oberammergau conceive and describe processes of communal affective bonding?

Institutions and Institutionalisation
Concepts of institutions and institutionalisation (Gehlen, Rehberg, and Legendre) mark another starting point. By institution, we do not address forms of fixed organisations. Instead, we aim at momenta in social orders in and by which their normative background comes into sight. In this more specific sense, the term can shed light on the relationship between authoritative backgrounds and individual practising. Which attitude did and do the inhabitants of Oberammergau perform towards the play, how do they conceptualise the decennial season, what are the status of the village and its play in the foreign visitors’ eyes?

The conference is to take place in Munich, Sept. 12–14, 2018.


(Anmeldung möglich bis 11.9.2019, 23:00 Uhr)

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