The talent and accomplishments of Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) contributed to the modern idea of the director as creative artist. He was an innovator and experimentor with both space and stage techniques and was one of the first directors to develop repertory companies.
Max Reinhardt was born Max Goldman in Baden, near Vienna, on September 9, 1873. His family moved to Vienna in 1877, and it was there he began acting under the name of Max Reinhardt in 1890. For the next ten years he played many roles, first in Vienna, then in Berlin under Otto Brahm at the Deutsches Theatre, and gradually established himself as a performer.
His first production as a director occurred in 1900 when he directed Ibsen's Love's Comedy. Shortly thereafter he opened his own cabaret in Berlin. He left Brahm and the Deutsches Theatre and became director of the Kleines Theatre and the Neues Theatre in 1903. During the next two years he would direct Midsummer Night's Dream, open an acting school, and purchase the Deutsches Theatre. These actions marked the beginning of a long career in which Reinhardt owned or managed many theaters, directed or produced over 500 plays in a variety of settings; toured Germany, Europe, and the United States; and established himself as a most versatile and innovative director.
As a director Reinhardt was always in search of the "right" theater for each play he worked on. He used small cabaret and chamber theaters for intimate productions and arena theaters for his more spectacular ones. In the smaller spaces he presented such works as Salome and The Lower Depths because of the strong actor-audience proximity. The Neues and the Deutsches theaters were larger and better suited for such works as The Merchant of Venice or King Lear. In his famous playhouse, Kammerspiel, he directed Ghosts, Man and Superman, and Lysistra. But in his arena theater the Circus Schumann, which was later to become the Grosses Schauspielhaus, Reinhardt tried to realize his dream of a "Theatre of Five Thousand." He hoped to have a playhouse on the scale of the Greek and Roman theaters, one in which spectacle and ritual reached a large number of spectators who would be part of the communal-like event. The Grosses Schauspielhaus, which he built in 1919, was a vast domed arena that seated 3,000 people and had a giant thrust stage and a large revolve. There were no curtains, and behind the stage there was a permanent cyclorama. Such spaces were ideal for his productions of classics such as Aeschylus' Oresteia.
Among his other experiments with space were his spectacles such as The Miracle, a play for which he converted the interior of the Olympia theater in New York into a gothic cathedral; his outdoor productions such as Faust, for which a Faust City was built and added to each year when the play was produced; and his famous presentation of Hofmannsthal's Everyman at the annual Salzburg festival. The play was staged in front of the cathedral and utilized buildings in the town as part of the production. Another spectacular work of Hofmannsthal's that Reinhardt directed at the festival was The Salzburg Great Theatre of the World. He also directed a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Oxford and used the natural outdoor setting to enhance the play.
Reinhardt was not only an innovator and experimentor with space, he was also an innovator and experimentor with stage techniques. An eclectic as a director, Reinhardt broke with those who favored realism and tried his hand at symbolic drama, impressionism, and naturalism. He also rejected the limitations of the proscenium stage. He favored more the freedom of the Elizabethan stage where actor and audience were in close contact with one another and where the stage could be used with great flexibility. He believed in the fluid use of set and symbolic use of lighting and was among the first to use the revolve for quick scene changes. He experimented repeatedly with the concept that a dramatic work was a total work of art, one that depended upon a mixing of the arts—of the visual, aural, scenic, and musical elements in drama.
Reinhardt also believed that the most important factor in the play was the actor. He was at the center of the art of the theater. Theater was at its best when the director, writer, designer, and composer had all imaginatively assumed the actor's part. While it is the case that Reinhardt held the actor in high regard and was one of the first directors to develop repertory companies, he was such a formidable force in the theater that he greatly enhanced the role of the director. His talent and accomplishments contributed to the modern idea of the director as a creative artist, a person capable of making aesthetic decisions. Reinhardt represented a controlling intelligence that guided the entire production in a vital and peculiarly identifiable manner.
In the early 1930s the Nazi regime forced Reinhardt to give up his theaters. In 1934 he signed a contract with Warner Brothers. He also directed A Midsummer Night's Dream in California and Chicago. Then in 1935 he made a film version of the play for Warner Brothers. He emigrated to the United States in 1937 and later opened the Max Reinhardt Actors Workshop for Stage, Screen, and Radio in Hollywood. He suffered a stroke in 1943 and died in New York City.
Further Reading on Max Reinhardt
A critical biography is J. L. Styan, Max Reinhardt (1982). Other useful works include Huntley Carter, The Theatre of Max Reinhardt (1969) and Oliver M. Sayler, Max Reinhardt and His Theatre (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Reinhardt, Gottfried, The genius: a memoir of Max Reinhardt, New York: Knopf: distributed by Random House, 1979.
Styan, J. L., Max Reinhardt, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.