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Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Representations of the Oberammergau Passion Play: Heredity, Eugenic Theatre, and “Epic Selection”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2020

Leanne Groeneveld
Theatre Studies, Campion College, University of Regina, Regina, SK, Canada


The Oberammergau Passion Play became internationally famous in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1840s and 1850s and through the early twentieth century, English-speaking foreign tourists from Ireland and the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and even Australia published a surprising number and variety of accounts of travel to the village and attendance at the Passion Play. Professional and amateur historians described the production as an evolutionary throwback or curious hybrid of ancient Greek and medieval theatre, regarding it as an object and event of antiquarian interest. Foreign female travelers attended the play in impressive numbers, and their accounts provide insight into contemporary women's readings of theatre, travel, spirituality, gender inequality, gendered spaces, and cultural difference. Protestant writers reflected uneasily on the play's communication of spiritual truth by means of images. And all of these accounts, whether published in the popular periodical press or as monographs, in turn encouraged increasing numbers of travelers to make the same journey—represented sometimes as a religious and sometimes as an artistic pilgrimage—to the isolated Bavarian village.

Copyright © The authors, 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The American Society for Theatre Research, Inc.

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The author would like to thank the journal's anonymous readers, Dr. Marlis Schweitzer, and Michael Gnat for their extremely helpful questions, comments, and corrections.


1 The writers who make these claims are too numerous to list. See, for example, “The Passion Play: A Study and an Appreciation,” Church Quarterly Review [London] 51 (October 1900–January 1901): 179–207: “the play, in more than one aspect, takes us back to a still earlier epoch in the intellectual development of the world; it serves as a living comment on the ancient classical drama” (181). Many writers compared the Oberammergau chorus to the Greek chorus. See, for example, Farrar, F[rederic] W[illiam], The Passion Play at Oberammergau, 1890 (London: William Heinemann, 1890)Google Scholar: “Their function is exactly that of the old Greek chorus in the Athenian trilogies. They act the part of idealised spectators, to explain the force of the tableaux and to point [to] the moral and meaning of the entire Play” (66). William A. Snively suggested that the popularity of the Oberammergau Passion Play could be attributed to “the world's curiosity to witness a scene which belongs to other centuries, or to study an exceptional relic of Mediæval times in the clear, practical light of our own day.” See The Ober-Ammergau Passion Play of 1880 (New York: James Pott, 1881), 16–17.

2 I have published on these subjects elsewhere. See Groeneveld, Leanne, “‘He showed Himself in response to your longing’: Women Spectators at the Oberammergau Passion Play,” in Women Rewriting Boundaries: Victorian Women Travel Writers, ed. Stearns, Precious McKenzie (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2016), 133–66Google Scholar; and Groeneveld, “‘I felt as never before, under any sermon that I ever heard preached’: Word, Image, and the Oberammergau Passion Play, 1840–1900,” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 43.2 (2016): 131–59.

3 See Elisabethe H. C. Corathiel's history of the production: Oberammergau and Its Passion Play (London: Burns, Oates, & Washbourne, 1950), esp. 82–90Google Scholar. Many if not most accounts of the play informed readers of these facts of performance.

4 For example, The Church Advocate [Dublin] repeatedly condemned the play in these terms. On 1 June 1880, the periodical noted that the profits for 1880 “are expected to amount to about £11,000; which, allowing one-fourth for expenses, will leave a handsome dividend for these simple-minded Bavarian peasants.” The performance itself was “blasphemous,” a product of a “corrupt system” and ignorant actors. Only “minds utterly blank and dark . . . could even have dared to make them [the events of the Passion] the subjects of a stage play.” And only similarly ignorant spectators could “bear” to see the Passion “thus degraded to the level of a mere earthly tragedy” (42.513 [n.s. 3.54], 152). On 1 February 1882, the Irish Advocate reprinted an article from the 13 January Church Standard condemning the passion play genre, the Standard offering as evidence of the Oberammergau Passion Play's corruption the fact that its principal actors were seen imbibing in the village's “little beer-drinking inn,” Peter additionally smoking a pipe (Advocate, 43.533 [n.s. 4.74], 589). On 1 July 1889, the Advocate maintained its decadelong stance against the Passion Play. An editorial lamented that “such an exhibition should be undertaken as a matter of business by bankers or others, or as a speculation for making money”; it was “sadder still that there can be found people so silly or so superstitious, or both, to lend any countenance or support to such profane proceedings” (no. 621 [n.s. no. 162], 125).

5 For examples of these approaches to the play, see Corathiel; Heaton, Vernon, Oberammergau Passion Play, 2d ed. (London: R. Hale, 1979)Google Scholar; Shapiro, James, Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play (New York: Pantheon, 2000)Google Scholar; Mork, Gordon R., “Dramatizing the Passion: From Oberammergau to Gibson,” Shofar 23.3 (2005): 85–92Google Scholar; Priest, Robert D., “A Rabbi's Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play: Joseph Krauskopf, Antisemitism, and the Limits of the Transnational Jewish Sphere,” Jewish Social Studies 24.1 (2018): 100–26Google Scholar; and Waddy, Helena, Oberammergau in the Nazi Era: The Fate of a Catholic Village in Hitler's Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 See, for example, Musser, Charles, “Passions and the Passion Play: Theatre, Film, and Religion in America, 1880–1900,” Film History 5.4 (1993): 419–56Google Scholar; Sponsler, Claire, “America's Passion Plays,” in Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 123–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Spear, Sonja E., “Claiming the Passion: American Fantasies of the Oberammergau Passion Play, 1923–1947,” Church History 80.4 (2011): 832–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and The Oberammergau Passion Play: Essays on the 2010 Performance and the Centuries-Long Tradition, ed. Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017).

7 Bartleet and Shepherd-Barr themselves acted as guest editors of two special issues of the journal titled “New Directions in Theatre and Science.” The quotation in text is from their introduction to 38.4 (2013): 292–4, at 292; for their second special on this topic see 39.3 (2014).

8 Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten, Science on Stage from “Doctor Faustus” to “Copenhagen” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zehelein, Eva-Sabine, Science: Dramatic—Science Plays in America and Great Britain, 1990–2007 (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2009)Google Scholar.

9 Goodall, Jane R., Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order (London and New York: Routledge, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wolff, Tamsen, Mendel's Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early Twentieth-Century American Drama (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten, Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015)Google Scholar.

10 Wolff, 17.


12 Ibid., 16.


13 Philosophie Zoologique, 2 vols. (Paris: Germer Baillère, 1809), 1: 225; trans. Elliot, Hugh, Zoological Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1914), 109Google Scholar.

14 Gissis, Snait B., “Introduction: Lamarckian Problematics in Historical Perspective,” in Transformations of Lamarckism: From Subtle Fluids to Molecular Biology, ed. Gissis, Snait B. and Joblanka, Eva (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 21–32, at 24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Lamarck, Philosophie Zoologique, 1: 256–7; Zoological Philosophy, 122. For a discussion of Lamarck's theories and his historical context, see Richard W. Burkhardt Jr., “Lamarck, Cuvier, and Darwin on Animal Behavior and Acquired Characters,” in Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Joblanka, 33–44.

16 Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (London: John Murray, 1859), esp. xviGoogle Scholar, quote at 91. Even Darwin, however, allowed that organisms might to some small degree adapt to their environments through a process he termed “pangenesis.” See Charles Darwin, chap. 27, “Provisional Hypothesis of Pangenesis,” in The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1868), 2: 357–404. For a discussion of the development of this theory in its contemporary context, see Geison, Gerald L., “Darwin and Heredity: The Evolution of His Hypothesis of Pangenesis,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 24.4 (1969): 375–411Google ScholarPubMed, For an account of nineteenth-century readings of and responses to Darwin's theory, see Holterhoff, Kate, “The History and Reception of Charles Darwin's Hypothesis of Pangenesis,” Journal of the History of Biology 47.4 (2014): 661–95CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, For a discussion of the historical juxtaposition of Lamarckism and Darwinism, see Sander Gliboff, “The Golden Age of Lamarckism, 1866–1926,” in Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Joblanka, 45–55. Gliboff demonstrates that “since 1859, Lamarck has served alternately as a foil and an ally to Darwin. Darwin's supporters have tried in various ways either to appropriate Lamarck as a precursor and partner, or else to define Lamarckism narrowly and to dismiss it as naive and obsolete. Contrarily, Darwin's rivals have tried to redefine Lamarck as a figurehead for their own theories and approaches” (45–6). David L. Hull suggests that a greater divide existed between followers of the two men, the neo-Darwinians and neo-Lamarckians, who tended more to extremes. See Hull, “Lamarck among the Anglos,” in Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy, trans. Hugh Elliot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), xl–lxvi.

17 For a discussion of Lamarck's views on inherited instinct, see Burkhardt, 35.

18 Romanes, George J., “The Darwinian Theory of Instinct,” Nineteenth Century 16.91 (1884): 434–50, at 437Google Scholar.

19 Darwin, Origin of the Species, 212.

20 A Spectator [Arthur Penrhyn Stanley], “The Ammergau Mystery; or, Sacred Drama of 1860,” Macmillan's Magazine 2 (1860): 463–77, at 463.

21 Ibid., 463–4.


22 Jackson, John P., Album of the Passion-Play at Ober-Ammergau being Sixty Photographs of the Scenes and Tableaux of the Passion Play, taken by Command of His Majesty King Ludwig II, of Bavaria, by the Court-Photographer Albert, of Munich (Munich and London: Joseph Albert, 1873), 29Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., 39.


24 Ibid, 46.


25 Ibid., 47.


26 Hannah Bradbury Goodwin [Mrs. Goodwin-Talcott], The Fortunes of Miss Follen (New York: D. Appleton, 1876), 98.


28 Wilfrid Dallow, “Impressions of Ober-Ammergau, and its Passion Play in 1890,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 3d ser., 11.10 (October 1890): 899–911, at 901.

29 Ibid., 906.


30 Oxenham, Henry Nutcombe, Recollections of Ober-Ammergau in 1871 (London, Oxford, and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1871), 7Google Scholar.

31 Parks-Richards, Louise, Oberammergau: Its Passion Play and Players, a 20th Century Pilgrimage to a Modern Jerusalem and a New Gethsemane (Munich: Piloty & Loehle, 1910), 257Google Scholar.

32 J. P. Jackson, 39.


34 Ibid., 39–40.


35 Jordan, David Starr, “The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races through the Survival of the Unfit. Part I—In Peace,” Popular Science Monthly 59 (1901): 90100, at 98Google Scholar.

36 Conway, M. D., “A Passion-Play Pilgrimage,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine 43 (1871): 919–29, at 928Google Scholar.


38 H. H. [Helen Hunt Jackson], “The Village of Oberammergau,” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 25 (March 1883): 663–70, at 670. Reprinted in Helen Jackson, Glimpses of Three Coasts (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1887), 384–401, at 399–400.

39 C. K. S., A Cook's Tourist, “Ober-Ammergau Passion Play,” Penny Illustrated Paper, no. 1518 (5 July 1890): 13.

40 McKim, Randolf Harrison, “The Oberammergau Passion Play,” in Present-day Problems of Christian Thought (New York: Thomas Wittaker, 1900), 140–66, at 162–3Google Scholar.

41 Ibid., 162.


42 Ibid., 163.


44 Both women set out to complete the journey in less time than required by the character Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days—and succeeded in their attempts in January 1890.

45 Bisland, Elizabeth, “The Passion Play at Oberammergau,” Cosmopolitan 10.2 (1890): 131–41, at 134–5Google Scholar.

46 Johnston, John, To the Passion Play and Back (Boston: Tillotson & Son, 1900), 30Google Scholar.

47 Helen Graham, “Impressions of Ober-Ammergau in 1910,” National Review 56 (September 1910–February 1911): 805–17, at 810.

48 Ibid., 811.


50 Parks-Richards, 224.


52 Pearl, Sharrona, About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2Google Scholar. Darwin's Expression of the Emotions (London: John Murray, 1872), 366, is quoted in Pearl, 199.

53 Ibid., 10.


54 See Pearl: “The many valences of physiognomy allowed observations to describe a given trait in numerous ways, and features could often be read positively and negatively. Thin lips, for example, could be a sign of criminal cunning or sophisticated calculation skills. It all depended on who was looking, who was being looked at, when, and why” (6).

55 Ibid., 13.


56 Cecil, Algernon, “Ober-Ammergau—An Appreciation,” Blackwood's Magazine 188 (1910): 616–22, at 617–18Google Scholar.

57 According to a brief biography of Lewis published in The Vermonter, although he had toured and presented on other topics, “The lecture that has given the greatest fame is his story of the Passion Play at Oberammergau; he having delivered that one lecture 2,000 times.” The Editor [Charles Spooner Forbes], “A Distinguished Son of Vermont,” The Vermonter 4.1 (1898): 16.

58 John Jay Lewis, “The Passion Play of 1900,” Munsey's Magazine 22.2 (November 1899): 193–200, at 195–6.

59 Ibid., 196.


60 Ibid. Lewis's interest in this “purifying course” may have related to another of his areas of expertise and a subject of another of his toured stereopticon lectures: on old New England and its original settlers, a presentation “especially fitted for societies of the Sons and Daughters of New England, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames, and other patriotic [lineage] societies.” Forbes, 16.


61 Short, Josephine Helena, Oberammergau (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1910), 1718Google Scholar.

62 Mendel's work went largely unnoticed, however, until the beginning of the twentieth century.

63 Stanford, P. Kyle, Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 105–10, esp. 107CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 See Wolff, 57. For a concise description of Weismann's ideas as well as his response to Lamarckian challenges to germplasm theory, see Charlotte Weissman, “Germinal Selection: A Weismannian Solution to Lamarckian Problematics,” in Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Joblanka, 57–66.

65 In her introductory essay, Gissis suggests that until the 1930s, evolutionary biology contained “a spectrum of views at whose center would be found positions which exemplify—without a sharp demarcation and within one framework—an intertwining or at least a coexistence of some Lamarckian and Darwinian components; toward both poles would be found positions which in differing degrees deny such a possibility, and adopt a position of either exclusive self-defined Darwinism or exclusive self-defined Lamarckism” (25).

66 Bernard, L. L., Instinct: A Study in Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1924), 18Google Scholar.

67 Wolff, 58.

68 Galton, Francis, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (London: Macmillan, 1869), 336CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Subsequent citations of this work are given parenthetically in the text.

69 Galton, In Francis, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (London: Macmillan, 1883), 24–5 n. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 See Emel Aileen Gökyiḡit, “The Reception of Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius in the Victorian Periodical Press,” Journal of the History of Biology 27.2 (1994): 215–40, at 219,

71 Engs, Ruth Clifford, “Jordan, David Starr,” in The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 126–7Google Scholar; Engs, “Eugenics Registry,” in ibid., 59–60.

72 He would in 1896 become president of Leland Stanford Junior University, which became Stanford University during his tenure. See Engs, “Jordan, David Starr,” 127.

73 Jordan, David Starr, “The Story of the Passion,” in The Story of the Innumerable Company, and Other Sketches (San Francisco: Whitaker & Ray, 1896), 4385Google Scholar, at 44. Subsequent citations of this work are given parenthetically in the text.

74 David Starr Jordan, “The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races through the Survival of the Unfit. Part II—In War,” Popular Science Monthly 59 (June 1901): 129–40, at 133. This article was a conclusion to “Part I—In Peace,” cited above in note 35.

75 Sherwood, Mary E., Here & There & Everywhere: Reminiscences by M. E. W. Sherwood (Chicago and New York: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1898), 104Google Scholar.

76 Sloane, William M., “The Passion Play,” Outlook 96.18 (31 December 1910): 1012–17, at 1013Google Scholar.

77 Ibid., 1012.


80 Francis Galton, “Hereditary Improvement,” Fraser's Magazine, n.s. 7 (January 1873): 116–30, at 130.

81 James Walsh, “The Passion Play,” Catholic World 72.428 (1900): 241–53, at 253.


84 First published in German as Oberammergau und seine Passionsspiele, the text was immediately translated and published in English, then reissued in 1910 and 1922, years in which the Passion Play was produced.

85 Diemer, Hermine, Oberammergau and Its Passion Play, trans. Manning, Walter S. (Munich and Oberammergau: Carl Aug. Seyfried, 1900), 47Google Scholar.

86 L[isbeth] G[ooch] Seguin, The Country of the Passion-Play: The Highlands and Highlanders of Bavaria (London: Strahan, [1880]), 2–4. Seguin later republished this text as Walks in Bavaria: An Autumn in the Country of the Passion-play (London: Strahan, 1884).

87 Ibid., 59.


88 Short, 5.

89 Wolff, 60.

90 Stead, William T., The Story That Transformed the World; or, The Passion Play at Ober Ammergau in 1890 (London and New York: “Review of Reviews,” 1890), 22Google Scholar.

91 Stead, William T., If Christ Came to Chicago! A Plea for the Union of All Who Love in the Service of All Who Suffer (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1894), 434 nGoogle Scholar.

92 Sherwood, 108.


95 Porter, Theodore, Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004), 121Google Scholar.

96 Quoted in Porter, 120.

97 Pearson, Karl, “The German Passion-Play: A Study in the Evolution of Western Christianity,” in The Chances of Death, and Other Studies in Evolution, 2 vols. (London: Edward Arnold, 1897), 2: 246–406, at 403, 404Google Scholar.

98 Ibid., 2: 406.


99 Although a sociologist only part-time, Branford was, according to John Scott and Christopher T. Husbands, “central to the building of the key institutions that sustained sociology in Britain for the first thirty years of the twentieth century.” See Scott and Husbands, “Victor Branford and the Building of British Sociology,” Sociological Review 55.3 (2007): 460–84, at 460,

100 Victor Branford, “The Eugenic Theatre,” The Forum 51 (February 1914): 217–31.

101 Helen Meller, Patrick Geddes: Social Evolutionist and City Planner (1990; London: Routledge, 2005), 106.

102 Ibid.


103 Ibid.


104 Branford, 217. Subsequent citations of this work are given parenthetically in the text.

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