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The Kreuzesschule by J. W. F.

OBER-AMMERGAU, Bavaria, Oct. 4, 1875.

The town lies at the end of a lovely green valley. Behind it are fir-clad mountains with rocky peaks: on one side a great square rocky peak, which towers above all and is surmounted by a cross. On each side of the valley sloping hills, fir-clad to the top. A rapid, clear stream runs by on the edge of the village. Green pastures dotted with haymakers, a few scattered trees and a distant town fill the charming valley. Virginia creepers hang on the walls, and gay flowers fill pretty balconies and peep through sunny little casements. All is simple and neat, and the bright fresco pictures on the fronts of many houses lighten it all.

On a high hill overlooking the town they are placing a colossal crucifixion group, presented by King Ludwig II. in Erinnerung an die Passionsspiele—in memory of the Passion play—Christ on the cross, with the Virgin and St. John, one on each side. The two latter were ready to be hoisted on to the pedestal: the former is partly up the hill. All are surrounded by heavy planking, so that it is impossible to judge of the artistic merit, but the great group cannot fail to have a fine effect when viewed from a distance.

Yesterday (October 3d) was the eventful day. Our tickets had been ordered by telegraph, and we had "the best seats." The performance was to begin at nine o'clock, and at a quarter before nine we were in our places.

The building in which the play is given is of plain rough wood without paint ("or polish"); in the interior a gallery and two side-galleries, below them a parterre, and on each side of it a standing-place, all of plain, unpainted boards. The orchestra was sunk below the level of the stage, the proscenium painted to represent columns and entablature. The curtain represented, or seemed intended to represent, Jerusalem. The whole place could not probably contain over six hundred people, and was about half full. There were very few foreigners.

The play to be represented was not the "Passion play," which is given every ten years, but the Kreuzesschule, which is played once in fifty years—last in 1825. In it the play is taken from the Old Testament, and the tableaux from the New Testament—the reverse of the Passion play.

The orchestra began punctually at nine o'clock. There were about twenty performers, and they played with skill and taste. The selection of music was admirable. They commenced with a sort of prelude, slow and declamatory. Perfect silence reigned, and the deep interest of the spectators was, from the first and throughout, shown in their expressive faces. Men and women at times shed tears, and made not the slightest effort to hide their emotion. The black head-*kerchiefs of many of the women spectators, tight to the skull with ends hanging down behind, seemed in harmony with the scene.

The prelude ended, the Chorus entered with slow and dignified pace—seven men and women from one side, six from the other, all in a kind of Oriental costume, picturesque and handsome. The tallest came first, and so on in gradation, so that when ranged in front of the curtain they formed a kind of pyramid. The central figure then began the prologue, an explanation. Then the basso commenced singing an air, during which the Chorus divided, falling back to the sides and kneeling, while the curtain rose, displaying the first tableau. This lasted nearly three minutes, during which time the figures were really perfectly motionless. The basso finished his air and the tenor sang another while the curtain was up. This tableau represented the cross supported by an angel, while grouped around were men, women and children looking up at it in adoration. This was the "Kreuzesschule"—the school of the Cross—the prologue to the piece. The picture had the simplicity of the best school: no affected attitudes—all plain, earnest and beautiful. When the curtain fell the Chorus again took their places in front of it, a duet was sung, then a chorus, and then they countermarched and retired in quiet dignity.

Then came the first part. A prelude by the orchestra, and the curtain rises on Abel, dressed in sheep skin, by his altar, from which smoke ascends, he returning thanks. Enter Cain in leopard skin, much disturbed and angry. They discourse, Abel all sweetness, Cain bitter and cross. An angel in blue mantle, like one of Raphael's in the "Loggia," appears at the side and comforts Abel. Then Eve in white dress—evidently it had been a puzzle to dress her—and buskins, who says sweet words to Cain. Then Adam in sheep skin, very sad at all this difficulty. Eve sweetly strives to reconcile Cain to his brother, and appeals to him with much feeling. He discourses at length, then appears to relent and embraces Abel, but is evidently playing the hypocrite, and as the curtain falls you see that hate is in his heart.

The curtain down, the orchestra plays a prelude, the Chorus enters as before, and the leader speculates on Cain's behavior. "Is he honest?"—"Ah no, his heart is full of hate: he meditates evil." The Chorus divides as before, falls back and the curtain rises. This tableau represents the hate and rage of the people and Pharisees toward Christ, who drives the traders out of the Temple. In grouping, costume, color, tone, action and completeness it was truly a marvelous picture. The stage was crowded with figures: Christ in the centre, behind—a row of columns on each side—a scourge in his left hand, his right upheld in admirable action; in the background a group in wild confusion; on the right, richly dressed priests and Pharisees, indignant and fierce; in front, sellers of sheep and doves, money-changers and traders of various kinds. All the elements of a great picture were here shown in the highest degree, and no words of praise could be too strong to express the idea of its merits and its charm. This tableau lasted nearly two minutes, with the most complete steadiness, the basso singing an aria. The curtain then fell, and the Chorus, taking its place, sang and retired as before. This ended the first part, Cain's hate prefiguring the hatred toward Christ.

Then came Part Second. The curtain rose on Cain by the side of his ruined in a soliloquy. Enter Abel, gentle and mild. Eve comes in, and again tries to make peace, and Cain again plays the hypocrite and invites his brother into the wood on some pretext. They retire, leaving Eve disturbed by she knows not what. Adam enters, shares her fears and goes out to seek his sons. Thunder and lightning, admirably represented, and then enter Cain disheveled and disturbed. His mother knows not what has happened, but is agonized and calls for her Abel. An angel appears at the side and discloses all by asking Cain, "Where is thy brother?" and then announcing the fiat of the Most High to him. He rushes off as Adam enters bearing the body of Abel; and his mother, sitting down beside the dead body, makes a most touching picture of a Pietà. Adam with upstretched arms appeals to God, and the curtain falls. This was the "Blutschuld"—the crime of blood—and prefigured the betrayal of Christ by Judas for the thirty pieces of silver.

After a most beautiful prelude by the orchestra, the Chorus again enters; the leader expresses his horror at Cain's action and his pity for a fate thus given over to Satan; they again divide, and the curtain rises on the tableau of Judas receiving the money. At the end the high priest and other priests, in appropriate costume, stand on a platform beyond a railing. Judas in the centre, by a table, is taking the money from an attendant: all around are groups, admirably arranged, expressing, in face and attitude, wonder or pleasure or disgust. The same artistic ideas and beautiful arrangement and the same unaffected simplicity. This tableau lasted one minute and a half, while the tenor sang an aria, "Oh, better for him that he had never been born."

The third part was Das Opfermahl—the offering of bread and wine by Melchisedek to Abraham, prefiguring the Last Supper. Prelude by orchestra. The curtain rises, displaying Melchisedek before an altar, on which are bread and wine. Four attendants are near him. He, in a flowing white robe, discourses to them. The scene is simple and natural. Enter Abraham and attendants on one side and Lot and attendants on the other, all dressed in Roman mantles, buskins and helmets. The stage was filled and the grouping admirable. Abraham and Lot discourse, embrace and part, Lot and his followers retiring. Melchisedek comes forward and addresses Abraham, who replies at some length. Then Melchisedek prepares his bread and wine, takes some, then offers to Abraham, who eats and drinks. Meantime, a most charming chorus of Handel is sung behind the scenes, while Melchisedek and his attendants offer the bread and wine to all of Abraham's suite, who partake reverentially. Tableau and chorus, and the curtain descends. The ease and simple quiet action of all this scene were remarkable.

Enter Chorus as before: leader speaks. They divide and the curtain rises on the tableau of the Last Supper. I know not whether it was taken from any one picture—I think not—but it was simply and effectively grouped, and it recalled both Lionardo and Andrea del Sarto. This lasted two and a half minutes, during which time the contralto sang an air of Mozart's.

The fourth part—Die Ergebung (Resignation)—was represented in the play by Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command, prefiguring the agony of Christ in the Garden.

After a prelude by the orchestra the curtain rose and discovered Abraham and Isaac in loving discourse, with figures in the background, admirably costumed and grouped. An angel in white robe and blue mantle appears and delivers his heavenly message to the astounded Abraham. His agony was simply and feelingly depicted. He appears at last resigned, when Sarah, in red robe and Eastern headdress, enters to renew his grief. The beauty of this woman was of the highest order in feature and expression, and her dress was truly artistic. The scene between these two was most touchingly acted. Isaac reappears, thinking that he is simply going on a journey, and, scarcely comprehending his mother's great grief, presents his companion to her as a comfort and stay, thus prefiguring John and Mary at the cross. Abraham and Isaac depart, and the curtain falls.

Then another prelude by the orchestra, and the Chorus appears: the leader delivers the epilogue. They divide and kneel, and the curtain rises on the tableau of the scene in Gethsemane.

Christ, on an elevation, is kneeling: an angel stands in front of him. Below, the apostles are all asleep in groups. Behind, in the centre, Judas advances with the soldiers, who bear tall lanterns. It was like a picture of Carpaccio, and worthy of that great master. This tableau lasted two and a quarter minutes, during which time the tenor sang an aria.

The fifth part—Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled)—represents Abraham going out to sacrifice his son, prefiguring the Crucifixion. The curtain rises on Sarah, full of agony, which is most simply and powerfully depicted. Attendants enter, who tell a long story: then Abraham and Isaac appear, and there is a most striking scene—Sarah fainting, the friend sustaining her, the others grouped around in various picturesque attitudes. An angel appears, simple and practical, like those of the good old painters, and delivers the blessing. The curtain falls.

Again the orchestra in a superb prelude: then the Chorus appears, and, after the epilogue, divides and kneels as the curtain rises on a tableau which my imagination never could have pictured, for its wonderful completeness, its power, its feeling, its artistic beauty and its marvelous expression far exceeded any idea that I had of the power of men and women to represent such a picture—the Crucifixion.

The stage was crowded with figures, Christ in the centre, fully extended on the cross, with no signs whatever of support to disturb the illusion—the thieves on one side and the other, with arms over the cross, as frequently represented; the group at the foot of the cross so touchingly tender—the soldiers, the priests, the people—all grouped with such consummate skill, such harmony of colors, such appropriateness and vigor of expression, as have never, to my thinking, been excelled in the greatest pictures of the greatest masters. Here was most remarkably shown the wonderful artistic talent and feeling of these simple people. There was nothing repulsive in any way, scarcely painful, except tenderly so. You breathlessly gazed on this wondrous scene, and when, after three minutes, the curtain fell, you were speechless with admiration and emotion. A lovely air by the soprano accompanied this tableau, and after the curtain fell a grand chorus completed the fifth part.

The sixth part—Durch Dunkel zum Lichte (through Darkness to Light)—ended the programme. The play represented Joseph, with all his honors upon him, receiving his old father and his brothers—prefiguring the Ascension of Christ.

After the prelude by the orchestra the curtain rises and discovers old Jacob, surrounded by his sons in various groups. The scene and costumes were admirable and appropriate. In the midst of a discourse Joseph bursts in in fine attire, followed by a great train, among which are two darkies, taken bodily from Flemish pictures. After much embracing and blessing and forgiveness, the curtain falls as Jacob with outstretched arms thanks the Lord and prophesies all good things.

Then again the orchestra, and again our Chorus enters on the scene, and after the epilogue, "At last all woe is ended," they divide and kneel, as the curtain rises on the scene of the Ascension. This was most simply represented. Christ ascends from the tomb, standing on it, surrounded by angels, while figures appropriately grouped around make a picture which recalled Perugino. The basso sings an aria, and a grand chorus, "Alleluja!" ends this most remarkable performance.

There was no delay nor interruption throughout. Not the sound of a hammer nor the whisper of a prompter was ever heard. There was no applause whatever from the audience until the end, and then it seemed to come from the strangers. The three hours—for the end was precisely at twelve—seemed not more than one, so filled was the mind with the simple, grand beauty and the artistic completeness of the whole thing. No personality appears for an instant. There are no bills to tell the names of the actors, nor did any actor or actress at any time look toward the audience.

Never since early childhood have the Bible stories been brought back with such vividness, such tender and absorbing interest. Tradition, faith and earnestness have made this a people of artists. If one could believe, as all must wish, that love of money-making and speculation will not invade this simple village, to the demoralization of its people, the satisfaction would be most complete. Be that as it may, I shall always owe a debt of gratitude to Ober-Ammergau, and as long as memory lasts shall remember Die Kreuzesschule.