Shakespeare in Hollywood - Notes on Max Reinhardt by Walter Bilderback
Most of this is taken from J. L. Styan’s book Max Reinhardt (Cambridge University Press “Directors in Perspective” series), with some additions from The Genius: a Memoir of Max Reinhardt, by his son Gottfried. – Walter
“Max Reinhardt arrived on the scene at the moment when the modern theatre was exploding with ideas and anxious to try new forms and styles of performance of every kind. …following Wagner, Reinhardt saw that the theatre could be the common ground for all the arts.” (Styan)
Reinhardt was tremendously prolific: in his first dozen years as a director, he averaged 20 productions a year; in 1916-17, he peaked at 48: “each play,” Styan writes, “personally chosen, directed and supervised in minute detail. Nothing passed him by, from the design of the scenery to the planning of the printed programme.” Over the course of his career, he ran more than 30 theaters and companies. Reinhardt’s innovations include the revolving stage (and with it architectural/sculptural scenery in place of backdrops), the Regiebuch (director’s book) as a master promptbook (although Stanislavski’s preparations for Chekhov seem very similar), the repertory theater system, the notion of a “chamber theater” (Kammerspiele), and was perhaps the most important person in establishing the 20th century notion of the director as a theater artist in his/her own right. He established Berlin as an international theater center. German regisseur to take a curtain call. Alongside Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he created the Salzburg Festival as a response to the bloodshed of World War I. He was the first He was heavily influenced by Appia and Craig, and perhaps had more practical influence on the theater, both in Europe and America, than either of them because of the volume of his work on the stage, while each of them were primarily theorists.
Reinhardt was either acclaimed or criticized for the absence of a “style” because the types of plays he chose to direct, and the ways in which he directed them, were so varied. Although he became known outside of the German-speaking world for his spectacles, such as The Miracle or Everyman (and his productions of Midsummer in Oxford, Berkeley and the Hollywood Bowl), in Germany and Austria he also directed a great deal of intimate and experimental work: he was one of the first to argue that the size and shape of a theater dictated the appropriate performing style. “Reinhardt left no style because he believed it his task to explore each and every style.” He was “perhaps the most versatile director the theatre has seen.” Reinhardt himself said “there is no one form of theater which is the only true artistic form.”
Reinhardt was nicknamed “The Great Magician” for his stagecraft, but he was equally impressive as an impresario: over the course of his career, he headed more than 30 theaters or companies, and owned most of the theaters.
Reinhardt was an early champion of both Symbolism and Expressionism (he’s considered a major influence on German film of the 20s, which was in turn a source for both film noir and comics such as Batman). In comparison to Brecht and Piscator, both of whom worked as dramaturgs for him early in their careers, he generally avoided political plays after 1922, but his commitment to Expressionism still led to the Nazis confiscating his Berlin theaters immediately upon taking power. He returned to Austria, his birthplace, for about a year before leaving to direct the American productions of Midsummer.
“Reinhardt’s legacy was to promote the ancient purposes of the drama – its shared expansion of feeling and understanding, its power to enlarge the imagination and intelligence, its gift of a special kind of delight to our lives.” Reinhardt said “Today and for all time, the human must stand at the center of the whole art of the theater, human as actor.” For Reinhardt, Styan writes, “the theater was at its best when director, writer, designer and composer had all imaginatively assumed the actor’s part.”
Throughout his career, Shakespeare was a primary testing ground for Reinhardt’s evolving ideas about theater. His Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1905 was the production that made him a star, and it remained his favorite play: according to Styan, he directed 29 productions of it previous to the film, and then directed another stage version in Hollywood in 1939. The 1905 Midsummer had a very complicated set of three-dimensional trees. In his subsequent productions he gradually stripped away the realistic scenery. Styan says “in his constant experimentation at the Deutsches Theater, he established what many thought to be the characteristic style of Shakespearean performance for the twentieth century – free-flowing, highly rhythmic, leaning towards a symbolist use of color and design, seeking the right visual images for each play’s mood and atmosphere, and catching the most telling emphasis in action and characterization.” By 1925, “the stage was virtually bare, a playing-space in front of green curtains which merely suggested the wood.” The fairy world took the foreground in Reinhardt’s productions, and by 1925 their representation was beginning to resemble greatly what we see in the film, including Oberon’s train. In 1932, outdoors in Salzburg, he used Isadora Duncan’s dancers as fairies; in Oxford in 1933, also outdoors, he already had something much like the fight of the black and white fairies from the film, down to the white fairy’s undulating hands disappearing into the night: the difference was that it seems to have been Puck who carried her off in Oxford. At some point in Europe, the dancer featured in the film, Nini Theilade, began performing the role of the fairy. His productions in the 30s were extremely popular, but also attacked by many critics, as was his film for Warner Brothers. At the center of many of the attacks were elements that anticipated later productions in the 20th century; in particular, the darkness of his portrayal of Oberon (one critic likened him to Hamlet) and his treatment of the Hermia/Lysander/ Helena/Demetrius quartet more as subjects for fun than as the romantic epitomes they had become in the 19th century. In 1935, the same year as the film, Reinhardt contributed a Foreword to an American edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he wrote: “In Shakespeare’s lovely fantasy, I have always seen, above all, a charming, hopeful reminder that since Life itself is a dream, we can escape it through our dreams within a dream. When stark reality weighs too heavily upon us, an all-wise Providence provides deliverance. Everyone has a secret corner into which he can retire and find refuge in Fancy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an invitation to escape reality, a plea for the glorious release to be found in sheer fantasy.”
When he arrived in the U.S., Reinhardt telegrammed his son Gottfried urging “me to secure Charlie Chaplin (Bottom), Greta Garbo (Titania), Clark Gable (Demetrius), Gary Cooper (Lysander), John Barrymore (Oberon), W.C. Fields (Thisbe), Wallace Beery (Lion), Walter Huston (Theseus), Joan Crawford (Hermia), Myrna Loy (Helena), Fred Astaire (Puck), and so on,” for the stage productions in San Francisco, Berkeley and the Hollywood Bowl. Contrary to Shakespeare in Hollywood, Warner Brothers actually approached Reinhardt to make the film, then brought in William Dieterle (whose first contract as an actor in Germany had come from Reinhardt) to assist him when they realized how little Reinhardt understood about the film medium in general and the studio system (especially Warner Brothers’) in specific.