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A hard-nosed Utopian

The Deutsches Theatre is rediscovering its late great director, Max Reinhardt. But he has never really been forgiven for doing things his way - and so successfully. By Esther Slevogt

Berlin is suddenly remembering Max Reinhardt again. Although there is scarcely a theatre in the city which is not connected in some way with Reinhardt, his name has long been out of circulation. At most a ghostly image remains of this great man of theatre, who was forced to flee Germany in 1933. He is generally remembered as the director of the Deutsches Theater, which he became in 1905 and which brought him world fame. A hundred years later he has been rediscovered as a seminal figure but a lot of learning needed to be done.

Max Reinhardt ca. 1905Max Reinhardt ca. 1905
Reinhardt was only really dug up again in the Deutsches Theater out of spite: in order to focus on the history of the building beyond its role as the national theatre of the GDR. And to work with an image of Reinhardt that catered to all the cliches which continue to cloud our image of him. The theatre luminary looks out from the theatre's season logo as a friendly-faced mascot. "Max 100" it says, addressing him chummily by his first name. In a chirpy little text called "How I imagine Max Reinhardt", the current theatre director Bernd Wilms describes his great predecessor - a man who transformed directing from an organisational theatrical principle to an art form, and who quickly became the head of a flourishing theatrical empire - as a head-in-the clouds, quirky man of no private means who always let others pay his bills; as a half-silk theatre Croesus of questionable artistic merit. Wilms concludes that Reinhardt has little relevance today. Only those who want to change the world leave traces. Brecht for example. Max Reinhardt by comparison only wanted to make an impression.

Lectures given by theatre academics invited by the Deutsches Theater for the Reinhardt commemorative year have by now managed to set the record somewhat straighter. Because, thank God, the theatre was prepared, retroactively at least, to learn a little about the person it was actually dealing with when it cautiously retrieved Max Reinhardt from the archives. Reinhardt was thirty-two when he took over the Deutsches Theater, which he led to world fame as a completely unsubsidised private theatre until the Nazis drove it to ruin with their predatory taxation laws, Aryanising through the back door.

So the one-time national theatre of the GDR first became state property in 1933. Which was why the Deutsches Theater was somewhat concerned when the question of ownership arose, shortly after the Wall came down and Reinhardt's heirs filed a second restitution claim. Until 1982, there had been a building on the corner of Schiffbauerdamm and Friedrichstraße that Max Reinhardt had commissioned Hans Poelzig to convert into the Großes Schauspielhaus. in 1918. This enormous expressionistic theatre building with its stalactites and revolutionary arena stage is included in every history of architecture. Reinhardt and his architect had created a new, democratic solution to space which did away with the central perspective of the classical picture-frame stage. After the Second World War the Poelzig building, in the form of the "Friedrichstadt Palast", offered the loveliest legs of socialist asylum, until the house became so dilapidated it was torn down.

Before taking over the Deutsches Theater, Reinhardt ran the "Neues Theater", now called the "Berliner Ensemble" on Schiffbauer Damm. It was here that, in 1903, one of Reinhardt's most famous productions was first staged, Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" with revolving stage woods. East German film and theatre director Leander Haußmann paid homage to Reinhardt by re-staging the play with the same revolving forest in 2002. In the Twenties, Reinhardt then built the two Boulevard Theaters on the Kurfürstendamm which are now hidden behind the facade of a shopping arcade, and which made the headlines recently when the Deutsche Bank real-estate fund which owns the building announced plans to turn convert them into part of the shopping complex.

"A Midsummer Night's dream", directed by Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, 1905. Photo: Sammlung Dr. Böhm

Reinhardt also ran the Volksbühne for three seasons during the First World War. The audience's rapturous reception of his production of Heinrich von Kleist's "Hermannsschlacht" in January 1918 left the famous critic Siegfried Jacobsohn to conclude resignedly: "The masses of workers succumb uninhibitedly to the suggestion of theatre." Fifteen years later, they would succumb more uninhibitedly still to the suggestion of politics, which Reinhardt's productions with their new direction of the masses had anticipated. He allowed the masses to become protagonists themselves.

This new approach first became famous in 1916 with Reinhardt's production of Georg Büchner's little-known play "Danton's Death" at the Deutsches Theater, which had only graced the stage twice before. Reinhardt turned the drama into a classic overnight. It was only with his stage design innovations that this revolutionary tragedy, which is pieced together from numerous short scenes, actually became playable. Reinhardt employed the people atmospherically, as an acoustic backdrop of voices and trampling feat, dynamically choreographed in changing cones of light. Every now and then individuals would rise out of the mass: Büchner's revolutionaries reduced to mediocrity.

Critics at the time objected to his lack of revolutionary energy. Old Europe was at the dawn of a new era; the old order was being overturned. It was felt that Reinhardt lacked the necessary avant-gardism. This is still the standard argument against him, that he is anti-modern.

Max Reinhardt's 1905 staging of Kleist's "Käthchen von Heilbronn" at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin

"I believe that humanity would be happier if individuals weren't so obsessed with trying to make it happy, at all costs – even at the cost of happiness itself," Reinhardt wrote shortly before his death in New York in 1943. During his lifetime he had seen the rise of a mass of world-improvers and zealous happy-makers, in the arts and politics alike. As we know, the consequences for the century were disastrous, more than anything else, and artists were frequently blind to this. They were insistent on changing the world even if meant stooping to baseness and embracing slaughter, as Brecht recommended to his comrades in his play "The Measures Taken".

One year before the October Revolution, Reinhardt's production of "Danton's Death" - a profoundly sad mystery play about the failure of all zealous revelry, world-improvement and even happiness itself - ran at the Deutsches Theater and became a symbol for everything that was to come. He reworked the material time and again in the years that followed. His parallel project was the "Midsummer Night's Dream" which he continued to revise until the end of his life – as a model for a world free of ideology.

Reinhardt's writings about theatre sometimes read as if they had been penned by a folksy Ernst Bloch. They are awash with the spirit of Utopia, and contain trains of thought that you might otherwise find in early Georg Lukacs or Walter Benjamin. They always return to the sicknesses of the times, to alienation, the loss of aura in art and the metaphysical consequences for humans of the demystification of the world. Theatre, he believed, was the "happiest haven for those who have secretly put their childhood in their pockets, so that they can continue to play to the end of their days". These, some of Reinhardt most quoted words, stem from a lecture he gave in 1928 at the New York University of Columbia and are a favourite among those who insist on misunderstanding Reinhardt as an apolitical wide-eyed Peter Pan.

When really, there is a lot more to Reinhardt: he offers theatre as a haven to the self-alienated modern human being. Not as an illusion machine or anaesthetic injection. And indeed, Reinhardt's desire to maintain audience awareness of the technical means at play was something that the dramatologist Erika Fischer-Lichte also brought up in her lecture to the Deutsches Theater, linking Reinhardt's ideas about theatre with Brechtian epic theatre. The Utopia which Reinhardt's theatre aimed for was centred around play and the creation of non-alienated space. It was perhaps not until Frank Castorf that theatre was so radical again: offering a haven for the transcendentally homeless of the age.

And the people took up Reinhardt's offer. They poured into his theatres and made him rich. Many of his contemporaries found this objectionable, and used it to cast doubt on his respectability. But Reinhardt lived in the same way he made theatre: always to the full, but always off his own back, as an autonomous subject, so to speak.

Max Reinhardt with Marlene Dietrich and Norma Shearer in 1934.

Yet his commercial success continues to be used as an argument against him, as if it were a crime to make money with theatre and capture the imagination of the masses. The pop industry, if nothing else, is proof that the avant-garde and the masses can be compatible phenomena.

The anti-Reinhardt sentiment reflected from the start the discreet and totalitarian charm of the German religion of art, but also the fact that German theatre tradition was a courtly one and theatre as an art form was never intended for the people. The civic role of the theatre had been impressed upon it by the cultured bourgeoisie, which above all demanded that theatre mediate values and educational content. Reinhardt pretty much did away with all that, democratising theatre as an art form. He created the idea of the director as self-determining force, as a craftsman of his own happiness so to speak, which the bourgeoisie had been dreaming of since the Enlightenment. Yet this was a happiness that never had any pretensions outside the theatre.

Reinhardt has never really been forgiven for pointing out that all democratic theatrical arts are dependent on the audience, in other words the market. The majority of German theatre makers continue to feel part of an elite with a diffuse task: that of enlightenment, or of truth itself. Max Reinhardt took another path and because of this he is still a provocation to subsidised culture.


The article orginally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on 28 December, 2005.

Esther Slevogt is a freelance theatre critic and documentary filmmaker. Her film "Auf jüdischem Parkett" about the Jewish Community Centre in Berlin is available online.

Translation: lp.

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