Reinhardt, Max (1873–1943)

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REINHARDT, MAX (1873–1943)


Austro-German theater director.

Max Reinhardt is remembered in America chiefly for spectacular stage productions that included Karl Vollmoeller's The Miracle, Franz Werfel and Kurt Weill's The Eternal Road, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (in both stage and film versions). Reinhardt's illustrious career assumes special significance because it coincides with a major shift in the evolution of modern Western theater: the rise of the director as the key figure in theatrical production. Reinhardt's reputation in theater studies is assured by the decisive role he played in this transformation as well as by his charismatic artistry, innovative appropriation of new theater technology, and fruitful experimentation with theater spaces and locales.

Born Maximilian Goldmann into an impoverished lower-middle-class merchant family in Baden, near Vienna, Reinhardt (initially a stage name) started his career as a struggling actor in Vienna and Salzburg. In 1894 he was discovered by Otto Brahm, the director of Berlin's renowned Deutsches Theater, where the young actor soon gained critical acclaim for his persuasive portrayals of older characters. Eager to transcend the gloom- and-doom moralism of the prevailing naturalist style, Reinhardt in 1901 cofounded an avant-garde literary cabaret called Noise and Smoke (Schall und Rauch), which perceptively satirized current trends and theatrical practice and came to function as an experimental laboratory for the fledgling director. Renamed the Kleines (thereafter Neues) Theater, this house championed important new dramatic works, among them Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, Oscar Wilde's Salomé, Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Elektra, and Frank Wedekind's Erdgeist. Reinhardt's reputation as a director was solidly established by 1905 with his stylish trendsetting production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play that remained a personal favorite.

That same year Reinhardt was chosen to succeed Brahm as head of the Deutsches Theater, which Reinhardt soon bought and transformed into Germany's most renowned stage. He also opened an adjacent chamber theater (Kammerspiele) for more intimate domestic dramas. Exploiting the highly developed talents of his theater ensemble, he started an acting academy that for decades schooled many of what were to become Germany's leading actors and actresses in the refinements of modern stagecraft. In addition to his resident theaters, which were all privately financed, self-supporting ventures, Reinhardt also maintained a touring company that spread his fame and influence far beyond Germany's borders. In little more than a decade, this Viennese Jewish immigrant actor came to occupy a preeminent place in Wilhelmine Berlin's cultural ascendancy. As the Viennese writer Hermann Bahr once noted, the dynamism and daring of the young German capital presented an ideal complement to Reinhardt's own relentless impatience to create. During World War I the Reinhardt stages maintained a feverish theatrical pace, including ambitious Shakespeare and German play cycles as well as guest tours in neutral countries. The completion of the architect Hans Poelzig's modernist Grosses Schauspielhaus in 1919 allowed unrestrained expression to Reinhardt's instinct for mass theater and the monumental, particularly in classical Greek and Shakespearean productions.

Reinhardt's ongoing dramatic experiments, large and small, progressively dissolved existing static stage limitations and substituted a dynamic three-dimensional realism that conflated word, image, scenery, stage, actor, and audience into a new theater of shared participation. This consummate theater magician both psychologized external reality (the text) and externalized the psychic stream of consciousness underlying the text through seamless scene changes, novel lighting devices, sound effects and musical underpinning of the action, and much more. Reinhardt's ability to kaleidoscopically generate ever new, previously unimagined images betrays an aesthetic affinity with cinema, especially silent cinema, which is steeped in pantomime, dance, and gesture rather than words. In an underlying aesthetic sense, Reinhardt's verbal reductionism and image-enhanced "total" theater may well have influenced the directorial styles of F. W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch, both former Reinhardt actors, and perhaps even Fritz Lang, a longtime devotee. Reinhardt's exploitation of new potentialities for staging and scene design—organic crowd movements, chiaroscuro lighting techniques, the stage conceived as a poetic multimedia space—prefigured later cinematic developments. Many Reinhardt actors, moreover, made a successful transition to film work. Several personal cinematic attempts and many unrealized film plans notwithstanding, Reinhardt at bottom had an aversion to this canned medium with its assembly-line production techniques. His relation to expressionism is also ambiguous, since Reinhardt supported a "Young Germany" subscription series of expressionist productions early on, even before the end of the war, but refused to direct any of these himself and eventually came to eschew expressionism's subjective stylized vision as inherently untheatrical. Reinhardt could more accurately be called a Viennese impressionist, an older term once ascribed to fin-de-siècle Viennese society and culture, referring to an ability to organize fleeting aspects of reality into an architectonic whole, to combine analytic detail and synthetic fusion into one (or more) compelling vision(s).

The social upheaval that accompanied Germany's defeat in 1918 deprived Reinhardt of much of his prewar prestige, funding, and upper-middle-class audience. After unsuccessfully trying to promote mass theater from a bourgeois (rather than a proletarian) perspective, which aroused critical hostility, Reinhardt abandoned cosmopolitan Berlin for provincial Salzburg. Jointly with the composer Richard Strauss and the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Reinhardt instituted the Salzburg Festival in 1920, which reestablished ties with an earlier Austrian baroque folk theater tradition. The morality play Everyman (in Hofmannsthal's adaptation) performed on the steps of Salzburg Cathedral became a signature event of the festival. Also regularly performed were Calderon-Hofmannsthal's The Salzburg Great Theater of the World inside the splendid baroque Kollegienkirche and Goethe's Faust in the old summer riding academy transformed into a medieval village by the architect Clemens Holzmeister. From his château Leopoldskron, on whose period restoration he lavished great personal resources, Reinhardt reigned as international cultural ambassador throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Reinhardt's U.S. debut, financed by the legendary Otto Kahn, came in 1924—war in 1914 had precluded an earlier scheduled appearance—with Vollmoeller's Miracle pantomime, whose great success (299 New York performances and a five-year tour) led to a triumphant return engagement in 1927 that proffered German and European theater classics. Reinhardt also reestablished his reputation at home with noteworthy new productions of Carlo Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters in the splendidly restored Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna and the newly constructed art deco Komödie playhouse in Berlin.

Forced by the Nazi takeover to relinquish his German theaters in early 1933, Reinhardt became increasingly peripatetic, traveling initially to England, then to America the following year to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Hollywood Bowl and a subsequent film adaptation with an unrestricted budget for Warner Bros. Studios. He also mounted several lavish outdoor Shakespeare productions in Florence and Venice. Intermittently he returned to Salzburg to entertain the international set and maintain the festival as a beacon to Austrian independence. With Anschluss in 1938, Reinhardt's Austrian properties were confiscated, although he was permitted to retain some personal effects. He and second wife, the actress Helene Thimig, immigrated to the United States, where they divided their energies between East and West Coasts. Reinhardt became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1940. Theatrical activities in America included a Hollywood workshop for stage and screen students, an unsuccessful California Festival on the Salzburg model, several film projects that never materialized, and the beginnings of an auspicious repertory theater in New York that promoted collaboration with young actors and new playwrights such as Thornton Wilder (The Merchant of Yonkers) and Irwin Shaw (Sons and Soldiers). Shortly after his seventieth birthday—he was engaged at the time in a production of the musical Helen Goes to Troy, based on the Melhac-Halévy-Offenbach operetta La Belle Hèléne—Reinhardt died of a stroke at his residence in New York's Gladstone Hotel. A memorial concert at Carnegie Hall was conducted by Bruno Walter.

In the early twenty-first century Reinhardt's prestige rests largely on his transformation of the modern theater director's role from that of general manager to artistic coordinator of the entire production. His importance is further substantiated by the synergy he engendered among many of the leading actors, playwrights, designers, and musicians of his time. A self-made man with only minimal formal education, Reinhardt schooled himself in the theater arts and attracted talented artists, technicians, and literary advisors to help him execute his novel conceptions with style and intelligence. His memorable productions encompassed almost every style in dramatic literature, and at one time nothing and no one seems to have escaped his spell. Through lifelong artistic and technological experimentation, Reinhardt once again marshaled all arts in service to the theater, thereby reconfiguring traditional adversarial relationships between actors and audience toward a more "modern" theater of mutual association.

See alsoLang, Fritz; Murnau, Friedrich Wilhelm; Theater.


Fetting, Hugo, ed. Max Reinhardt Schriften: Briefe, Reden, Aufsätze, Interviews, Gespräche, Auszüge aus Regiebüchern. Berlin, 1974. Extensive primary sources as well as secondary material about Reinhardt.

Fuhrich-Leisler, Edda, and Gisela Prossnitz, eds. Max Reinhardt: "Ein Theater, das den Menschen wieder Freude gibt …" Eine Dokumentation. Munich, 1987. Text and photo documentation of Reinhardt's major productions and professional career.

Fuhrich, Edda, and Gisela Prossnitz, eds. Max Reinhardt: The Magician's Dreams. Translated by Sophie Kidd and Peter Waugh. Salzburg, Austria, 1993. Important primary source materials, including letters and interviews, intermixed with reflections by others.

Huesmann, Heinrich. Welttheater Reinhardt: Bauten, Spielstätten, Inszenierungen. Mit einem Beitrag 'Max Reinhardts amerikanische Spielplaene' von Leonhard M. Fiedler. Munich, 1983. Exhaustive reference guide to Reinhardt's complete theater productions.

Reinhardt, Gottfried. The Genius: A Memoir of Max Reinhardt by His Son Gottfried Reinhardt. New York, 1979. Reinhardt's life and career from his younger son's perspective.

Sayler, Oliver M., ed. Max Reinhardt and His Theatre. Translated by Mariele S. Gudernatsch and others. New York, 1924. Early but still pertinent reflections by Reinhardt and colleagues on fundamental aspects of his work and their significance.

Tollini, Frederick. The Shakespeare Productions of Max Reinhardt. Lewiston, N.Y., 2005. Reinhardt's Shakespeare productions treated as seminal texts for comprehending his dramaturgical development.

Wellwart, George E., and Alfred G. Brooks, eds. Max Reinhardt, 1873–1973: A Centennial Festschrift of Memorial Essays and Interviews on the One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth. Binghamton, N.Y., 1973. Reflections by contemporaries.

Willett, John. The Theatre of the Weimar Republic. New York, 1988. Excellent discussion of twentieth-century German theater in historical perspective.

Herbert Poetzl

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Reinhardt, Max (1873–1943)

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