And as tradition, the handing down of legends from father to son, forms such a part of the mountaineer’s education, I was not surprised to hear a party of Tyrolese giggle at moments when the deeper meaning of the play was holding the rest of us in a spell so tense that it hurt.
I remember in Modjeska’s rendition of Frou-frou, when Frou-frou’s lover is breaking her heart, and the strain becomes almost unbearable, Modjeska’s nervous hands tear her valuable lace handkerchief into bits. It is a piece of inspired acting to make the discriminating weep, but my friend the audience always giggled irresistibly, as if the sound of rending lace, when a woman’s agony was the most intense, were a bit of exquisite comedy.
I am constrained to believe, however, that in almost entirely remodelling the Passion Play, the village priest, Daisenberger, was not moved by any consideration of what an ignorant audience might do, but rather by the noble, Oberammergau spirit of a life of devotion, dedicated to the rewriting, rehearsing, and directing of the performance.
The history of this man illustrates what I mean by the Oberammergau spirit. In 1830 he was a young peasant who saw the possibilities of the Passion Play. He went to the head of the Monastery at Ettal, and vowed to consecrate his whole life to this work, if they would make him a priest and permit him to become the spiritual director of the people of the village. But he was obliged to study seven years before they gave him the position. He was seventy years old when he died, having so nobly fulfilled his vow that he is called “The Shakespeare of the Passion Play.” For forty-five years he superintended every performance and every public rehearsal, and as these rehearsals take place in some form or other almost every night during the ten years which intervene between one performance and another, something of the depth of his devotion to his beloved task may be gathered.
Jimmie marvelled that he could leave his money and his valuables around, and his room door unlocked, until they told him that the street door was never locked either. At this information Jimmie grew suspicious, and locked his bedroom door, much to the affliction of the gentle family of Bertha Wolf, who plays Mary Magdalene. He explained to them that there were plenty of Italian, French, and English robbers, even if there were no Tyrolese. “And are there no American robbers?” they asked, simply, to which Jimmie replied with equal guilelessness that Americans in Europe had no time to rob other people, they were so busy in being robbed.
“People think we are so very rich, you see,” he explained, when they gazed at him uncomprehendingly. Then he gave the little brown-eyed boy who clings to his mother’s skirt in one of the tableaux five pfennigs to see him clap his hands twice and bob his yellow head, which is the way Tyrolese children express their thanks.