Hořice na Šumave – the South Bohemian town with a far reaching tradition of passion plays

Passion plays in the village od Hořice na Šumavě

Passion plays, in which people dramatically re-enact the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ at Easter, have a rich tradition in the South Bohemian town of Hořice na Šumave. The settlement was once the site of some of the largest passion plays in Europe. With the tradition having been revived over the past three decades, the town is now set to host a Europe-wide festival for passion reenactors and is even applying for its plays to be listed by UNESCO.

A small town with a secret

Photo: Romana Kostohryzová,  Czech Radio

Lying on the foothills of the Bohemian Forrest, between the picturesque city of Český Krumlov and the Lipno reservoir, lies the small town of Hořice na Šumave. Its Gothic church, stone fountains and beautiful natural surroundings are likely to charm passersby, but those who take the time to get to know Hořice more closely will find that this municipality is far more special than its outward appearance suggests.

The town was once the site of one of the most important passion plays in Europe and, at its height, attracted tens of thousands of visitors from across the world. Ivo Janoušek, a native to the region who began to be interested in the local passion plays’ history while he was a student, explained to Czech Radio where the origins of this tradition began.

“According to the archives, the first year that the passion plays took place here was in 1816, but the real beginnings are more complicated to trace. The tradition could date as far back as the 13th century, when they may have been introduced by local Cistercian monks. We do have archival evidence for this happening in nearby villages, but not that they took place specifically in Hořice.

Photo: Zdeněk Zajíček,  Czech Radio

“Another theory dates the origins of the local passion plays to the 16th century and the Jesuit Order than was based in Český Krumlov. However, we also lack archival evidence to confirm this. So 1816 is the year when we know that a passion play first took place here.”

It was in that year that a local weaver named Paul Gröllhesl wrote a new passion play text with the help of the town priest. They then practiced this new play together with another 15 people.

According to Mr Janoušek, the early plays were performed in the local pub, which incidentally bore the rather unchristian name “Zum Teufel” (At the Devil’s). The actors would put planks atop beer barrels to create a podium. The plays would take place without the actors wearing costumes and would generally be performed once every five years.

Museum of Passion Plays in Hořice na Šumavě | Photo: Zdeněk Zajíček,  Czech Radio

At the time, Hořice was a market town situated along a locally important road. However, with the introduction of the railways, which began to be built across the Austrian Empire from around the mid-19th century, Hořice ran into difficulties. The nearest railway station was built a kilometer away from the town and trade naturally started moving away from the municipality and towards the station, according to Mr Janoušek.

“The settlement was no longer situated on the Bohemian Forrest transportation route. It was therefore necessary to start thinking about another way of attracting visitors to the town. The idea arose that Hořice could be the site for major passion plays and that this would bring tourists into the center of the municipality.”


Passion plays that brought to earliest filmmakers to Bohemia

The locals took up the idea and the annual tradition of major passion plays started to take root in the last decade of the 19th century. They were inspired by the great passion plays that took place in Oberammergau in nearby Bavaria.

Spielhaus in Hořice | Photo: Zdeněk Zajíček,  Czech Radio

In 1893, sufficient funds were raised to build a theatre in Hořice –  the Spielhaus. Built out of wood on a granite foundation, the theatre had a capacity of 2,000 people. It even had electricity as it was connected to a small nearby power station and around 300 actors wearing elaborate costumes could fit onto the 20x20 meter stage. The theatre’s construction was a major project and points to the importance that the Hořice passion play tradition held not just in the region, but in Europe in general.

Hořice quickly became a culture center. Local craftsmen and innkeepers made significant profits from the annual batch of visitors, who would use the railway to get in and out of the town and would pay not only for entertainment and lodging, but also for the many souvenirs associated with the passion plays that were made by the town’s artisans. Up to 30,000 people would visit Hořice every year during the late 19th century, among them members of the high aristocracy.

Photo: Společnost pro zachování Hořických pašijových her

According to Jan Palkovič, another local from the region who spoke to Czech Radio about the history of the town, visitors would come to see the event from all over the world.

Ivo Janoušek and Jan Palkovič  | Photo: Lubor Mrázek,  Czech Radio

“The visitors’ book, which can be found in the regional archive in Český Krumlov, shows that Hořice was visited not just by Europeans but also by people from Japan, Angola, Egypt and the United States.”

The Sudeten settlement became so famous in fact, that it became the site of the first ever film to be made on Czech territory. In 1896 an American representative of the famous French film-pioneer duo the Lumier brothers came to the town to watch the passion play and discuss the possibility of filming it with the locals.

A year later, a production team, headed by Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, came to shoot a 50-minute-long film which was directed by Walter Freeman. It was aired to US viewers in November of that year, first in Philadelphia and then in Boston and New York. The film has since been lost, but a few scenes were recently discovered in a Spanish archive.

Museum of Passion Plays in Hořice na Šumavě | Photo: Zdeněk Zajíček,  Czech Radio

Destruction and resurrection

The passion play tradition would survive the First World War and continue to take place until at least the late 1930s. However, the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland region halted the Christian reenactment festival in 1938, says Jan Palkovič.

Photo: Romana Kostohryzová,  Czech Radio

“During the Second World War, the passion plays were changed to fit the ruling Nazi ideology. Christian symbols were removed. A swastika was placed on the entrance to the theatre. The theatre was also renamed to the ‘House of Plays for the People’ and it was used for Nazi propaganda plays.”

Hořice itself experienced a major change in its population after the end of the war, as a consequence of the state sanctioned expulsion of the Sudeten Germans. The town, which used to be majority German, was now inhabited by Czechs who had made up only a small minority before then.

Despite this, the locals tried to keep the passion play tradition alive. A passion play performed in the Czech language took place in Hořice in 1947 and 1948. However, this brief restoration came to an end after the Communists Party took control of the state and banned the plays when the locals refused to follow its recommended script.

Museum of Passion Plays in Hořice na Šumavě | Photo: Zdeněk Zajíček,  Czech Radio

The subsequent 40 years of communist rule would also see much of the passion play infrastructure destroyed. The “Zum Teufel” inn, where these plays were originally practiced, was demolished and replaced by a panel building that still stands in its place today. The theatre was also destroyed during the 1970s. So totally in fact that not even the granite foundations survive.

Miroslav Kutlák | Photo:  Filip Černý,  Český rozhlas

Yet despite the decades long annihilation process conducted by the totalitarian regimes that ruled in Czechia for nearly half a century, the revival of the Hořice passion play tradition occurred remarkably quickly after the fall of communism. Miroslav Kutlák, the head of the Society for the preservation of the Hořice passion plays (Společnost pro zachování Hořických pašijových her), which is responsible for maintaining the tradition today, explains.

“They were restored after the Velvet Revolution, specifically in 1993. We have been keeping up that tradition every year, ever since, so we are celebrating the 30 year jubilee of its restoral this year.”

“We also have a new script for the passion play. It was written in 1992 using all four of the gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke and John].

Theatre in the village of Hořice na Šumavě | Photo: Ivan Studený,  Czech Radio

“The versions before and after the Second World War contained both passages from the New and Old Testaments. They were based on a book written by the popular German 17th century Capuchin theologian Martin of Cochem. This particular version would end with Christ’s crucifixion.

“In our version we have added the resurrection into the play. We think that this provides a little more hope for the performers and viewers of the passion play.”

The passion comes back to Hořice

The plays are acted out by both Christian and non-Christian performers. The current collective already performed the passion play once this year – last Sunday in the Český Krumlov Monastery.

Photo: Romana Kostohryzová,  Czech Radio

However, it is not during the Easter season that the Hořice group’s main performances are set to take place. Instead, the ensemble will be performing in their own town’s local amphitheatre on June 3 and 10. The latter performance is taking place on the occasion of the start of this year’s Europassion congress, a Europe-wide association of passion re-enactors whose origins stretch back to the 1980s. The Hořice passion play re-enactors were among of the first groups from the former eastern bloc to join, says Mr Kutlák.

“Our society joined the Europassion organization in 1996. We applied to host the Europassion congress at the Oberamergau meeting in Germany in 2010. They offered us 2023 and we have been preparing for it ever since.

“We take it as a great responsibility. We think of ourselves as the new generation of the Hořice passion plays and we feel it is our responsibility to live up to it and host a good event. The event will take place from the 8-11 of June this year and 38 different passion societies from 17 European countries are taking part.”

And so it is that on the 30th anniversary of its own passion play resurrection, Hořice will be hosting Europe’s largest passion play congress. But that is not where the story ends. The small South Bohemian town’s centuries-long tradition may also get a place on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list, Mr Kutlák says, adding that the Society for the preservation of the Hořice passion plays has already made its first steps towards achieving this goal.

“In order to be placed into UNESCO’s cultural heritage list you have to fulfill certain criteria. There are three levels in this regard, you could say. The first is that you have to be approved by the regional district office. We did that last year. Now we need to get listed into the national register. This is done in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture. Then, this ministry sends a request to UNESCO.”

It may still be too early celebrate, but the Hořice group can point to precedents in their hopes for being acknowledged by the United Nations. Several passion plays across Europe, for example in Slovenia or Italy, have already achieved UNESCO status. Hořice’s rich passion play history and the dedication of those who are now bearing the torch is likely to make officials willing to listen.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Ivan Studený
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