2010 sees the Bavarian village of Oberammergau take centre stage with its production of its famous Passion Play.
The event dates back to 1634 when the villagers first performed a Play in the cemetery alongside the local church as a thanksgiving for sparing their community from plague deaths. The village planned to perform their play every ten years, but the 1674 event was delayed until 1680 and ever since the it has usually been performed in the 'zero year', with certain enforced exceptions such as 1940 and the delay of the 1920 event until 1922.
There have additional 'years' too. A special performance was given in 1815 as thanksgiving that followed the fall of Napoleon and in 1871 there was another thanksgiving performance for peace at the conclusion of the Franco-German War. Other exceptions have also been made in centenary years, such as 1934; a year that marked the last performance until after World War II.
Admission fees to the Play were first made in 1790 and package arrangements have been a feature since the 1870 event.For 1880 a new theatre was built and the following event in 1890 had the benefit of much easier rail access.
British tour operators have been organising packages since at least 1880. In 1900 George Lunn first took passengers to the event, backed by a series of small ads on the front page of the Times. The cost of tour combining the Play and the Paris Exhibition was 14 Guineas (£14.70p). By 1930 over 5,000 visitors travelled on packages organised by the Lunn organisation (brochure cover depicted left), as capacity was increased thanks to a further new enlarged auditorium, a far cry from the original 17th century performances in the local cemetery.
The Great Eastern Railway also recognised the potential of Oberammergau and ran small adverts in The Times for the1900, 1910 and 1922 events extolling the virtues of its links via Harwich and Hook of Holland to corridor trains to Munich. However, by 1922, competition was hotting up.Thomas Cook were appointed official ticket agents by the Oberammergau organisers and a number of other organisers appeared on the scene. Among them were Dean & Dawson (then owned by the Great Central Railway), the Church Travellers Club based in Chelsea, the British Touring Club and a Miss Bishop who offered four weeks in the Dolomites including a visit to Oberammergau for the substantial sum of 79 Guineas (£82.95p) and claimed to have been organising "private social tours" since 1900.
The Times of 12th May 1930 reported that four-fifths of the audience at the 11th May opening performance was either English or American, claiming "the ceaseless buzz of conversation in English made the mountain village resemble a popular seaside resort in July or August".
Lunn were again at the forefront in 1934 and their 1934 brochure boasts of expertise gained from organising visits to the 1900, 1910, 1922 and 1930 events and refers to the local representative, a Miss Barbara Walton, said to be resident in Oberammergau for seven years. The 1934 brochure must also be most unusual, if not unique, in having on page 3 an extract from a letter written to Miss Walton by His Grace the Archbishop of York, William Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury) following his visit to Oberammergau as a Lunn passenger in 1930.
The 1934 event also brought in new operators from the WTA (Workers Travel Association) based at Transport House with a network of agents in Co-operative Societies right across the UK whose brochure (depicted below) had colourful cover typical of the mid-1930s travel posters.
The 1934 tours also included options to travel by air to either Cologne or Basle with onward travel by rail. Other options in the WTA programme included a 'knapsack tour' with an emphasis on walking in the area and accommodation based in private houses or, whilst in Oberammergau, dormitories with mattresses! One of these knapsack tours was on offer at £15/10/- (£15.50p) for 15 days, a similar length tour from the Lunn Company cost £24/19/6d (£24.97p) - a huge outlay for the ordinary working man in 1934.
The popularity of the Oberammergau Play was not diminished by World War II. The first event in 1950. Frames main programme for that summer shows a lead-in price of £22/18/6d (£22.93) for a six day arrangement but refers its readers to a special Oberammergau brochure. By 1960 Blue Cars was offering a variety of tours combining the Play with stays in several Austrian resorts with prices typically about £35 for a 10 day tour using rail couchette travel via the Hook of Holland.
As the UK package holiday market enjoyed rapid expansion in the late 60s and 70s, the demand for both seats to the Play and local accommodation far outstripped supply and reservations were being solicited two years before the event as evidenced by the Cosmos Coach Tours brochure from 1978 (shown right). Cosmos was planning up to 13 tours and expecting to take 20,000 passengers to the 1980 event using coach, rail and air travel. No indication of cost was given but registrations were being taken backed by a £5 refundable registration fee.
For British visitors the 2010 event will take place against the backdrop of a much devalued Pound against the Euro. However, this has happened before the 1970 event took place not long after the Wilson devaluation of the late-1960s and the infamous 'V' Form foreign currency allowance. It appeared to have little effect on demand for Oberammergau's unique event.