Max Reinhardt: the father of theatre direction

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Max Reinhardt was the man who transformed the role of theatre director into what it is today and in so doing changed theatre for both performers and audience. Without Max Reinhardt the theatre of today would be unrecognisable.

Max Reinhardt, Maximilian Goldmann to a Jewish family, was born in Baden bei Wien, Austria-Hungary on September 9, 1873. His first love was acting in 1890 he started his studies at the Sulkowsky Theater in Matzleinsdorf. He started acting in Vienna and later at the Stadtheater in Salzburg with duties as an assistant director where he quickly made a name for himself. In 1894, he was invited to join the Otto Brahm’s company at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Although initially pleased at the recognition of his talent that this offer implied, Max was surprised and disappointed at the tone of Brahm’s productions. The naturalism that Brahm adopted was de rigeur across the theatrical world. However, Max felt that this naturalism had become stale and predictable. He continued working for the next few years chafing under the constant repetitious format on the stage.

In 1901 he co-founded Schall und Rauch (Sound and Smoke) a cabaret for experimental theater, renamed the Kleines Theater (Small Theater) in 1902. This was followed up with the establishment of the Neues Theater, which ran from 1902 until 1905. These two projects allowed him to continue working through his evolving philosophy of integrating stage design, costumes, language, music, and choreography into a complete piece of artwork, Gesamtkunstwerk. At that time the role of a director in the theatre was largely administrative. The director was responsible for ensuring that the actors knew their lines and followed the stage directions of the play. There was little opportunity or any expectation for the director to show any artistic interpretation of the work being performed. Max would explode this role giving directors in particular and the theatre in general a completely new artistic philosophy.

In 1902 Max seized the opportunity to implement his new philosophical approach into mainstream theatre. Working at the Kleines Theater, he directed a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Before production began Max read several translations of the Sophocles’ play before choosing the version by Hugo von Hofmannsthal as his guide. Using the von Hofmannsthal translation alongside Wilde’s play Max transformed the rehearsal room into a hotbed of discussion. He worked intently on the script and stage directions with his actors, most notable Gertrud Eysoldt who played the lead role. Rehearsals became more than just reading lines as Max and Gertrud discussed the characters and motivations. The performance stunned audiences and critics alike.

Max followed this success in 1903 with another Sopochels play where he furthered developed his style. In Elektra Max again worked with Gertrud Eysoldt in the title role. Again he looked at several translation of the original play for inspiration further developing the techniques he had pioneered in Salomé. He started to integrate the different elements within theatrical production; stage design, lighting, music and choreography, costumes. These elements, which had previously been seen as merely incidental and secondary to the actors, became important elements within the production complementing the action upon the stage.

The 1902 production of Salomé had been seen by Richard Strauss who had been struck by the use of von Hofmannsthal translation. In fact he was so impressed that Strauss approached von Hofmannsthal with the idea of a collaborative venture. In 1910 Strauss and von Hofmannsthal came together to produce Der Rosenkavalier. Working at the Dresden Opera House Strauss and von Hofmannsthal had intended to use Max as their director. Unfortunately the management of the Opera House refused and demanded the use of their in-house director. The first dress rehearsal was a disaster; Der Rosenkavalier was wooden and stilted, the script was in place, the actors knew their lines but something was lacking. Eventually the management agreed with Strauss and von Hofmannsthal and Max took over as director. He immediately started working with the actors developing their characters and drawing deeper meanings from the script. Der Rosenkavalier premiered on January 26 1911 to critical acclaim.

In 1905 Max started the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst ‘Ernst Busch’ drama school in Berlin, teaching his new techniques to up and coming actors and directors. In 1919 he opened the Grosses Schauspielhaus, (Great Playhouse), known as the ‘Theatre of the Five Thousand’, which included a large revolving stage. And in the early 1920s he built the two Boulevard Theaters on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. These theatres allowed him to stage several productions with the total theatre experience without any interference from theatre owners.

In 1920, working with Strauss and von Hofmannsthal, Max established the Salzburg Festival directing an annual production of the morality play Everyman. The festival showcased Max’ new approach in theatrical production. In 1929 the opportunity arose to increase his teaching but in a more formal setting than his Hochschule für Schauspielkunst ‘Ernst Busch’. The university of music and Performing Arts in Vienna approached Max in 1929 to develop a drama course.

Such was Max’ influence in transforming theatre that he was sought after by many companies to work with them. Between 1905 and 1930 he worked as director at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and between 1924 and 1933 he was director of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna. At the Deutsches Theater Max brought another new innovative approach to the stage with the experiment in big theatre. The entire theatre space was utilised with scenes even invading the seating space of the audience. Actors and audience were integrated to create a total theatre experience.

When Hitler came to power in 1933 Max Reinhardt came under the spotlight of Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda ministry. He, therefore, took the opportunity when it arose in 1934 to visit Holywood. In 1938, he moved first to Britain and then permanently to the United States of America. His influence in European theatre was widespread and long lasting. He gave new impetus to actors and directors and challenged mainstream stage productions. He introduced new elements into theatre and performance and even today in the most unadventurous theatre productions the notion of motivation and character development are standard. He left a legacy that has enriched all within the theatrical world and entranced audiences to this day.

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