Before we had even bought our Czech home, we attended a performance of the Passion Play at the small town of Horice Na Sumave. This year I was invited to see it again by a neighbour who is taking part in the chorus.
When we arrived at the open-air theatre on the outskirts of town an hour before curtain up (not that there was a curtain) there was already a lot of people sitting at tables drinking beer and tucking into chips and mayonnaise. As it was the first night, this was very much a performance by and for the locals. There was a group of Austrians. whose town also has a passion play and who were made very welcome.
The Passion Play is staged in a specially landscaped amphitheatre. The audience sits on the flat undercover, but the performers must risk the elements. The show starts at 8.30pm, so as the play proceeds towards the crucifixion the night takes over. Torches gutter and from the wooded hills come the calls of wild animals. It all makes for a very special experience and even though the play is in Czech I was very much engaged in the show.
Passion plays have been performed at Horice Na Sumave since 1816. The Horice Passion was so famous that in 1897 it was the subject of one of the earliest films, made by Klaw and Erlanger and distributed by Edison's Company. The Passion then went on for hours and was performed in a huge theatre complex on the site of the current theatre.
The original theatre complex
So what happened? Why isn't the Horice Passion as well known as Obergammergau? What happened was first the Second War and the displacement of the German population and therefore the play's performers from the area. The new Czech population tried to revive the plays and apparently the 1946 and 1947 performances (now in Czech) were a great success. But the arrival of the Communists in power ensured that this expression of communal religion was suppressed. The theatre was demolished and it seemed that the Horice Passion was silenced.
But the spirit of the Passion was and is strong. No sooner had Communism been overthrown, but the Passion play began to be revived. A society was set up and in 1993 the Passion was once more performed on the hillside above Horice Na Sumave. As I sat in the gloom last night, watching Christ on the cross being raising above the theatre, it did not matter that this was an amateur production, that the Pharisees appeared to be wearing lampshades or that the acting was sometimes a bit wooden. The passion behind the Passion won through and the commitment of those taking part gave the play an authenticity that a professional production would lack.