Reinhardt Becomes Director of the Deutsches Theater Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By taking over Berlin’s major theater from Adolph L’Arronge, the young director Max Reinhardt was poised to become Germany’s foremost theater artist and entrepreneur.

Summary of Event

The Deutsches Theater was long the most prestigious commercial theater in Berlin. Owned by impresario Adolph L’Arronge, it had from 1894 on, under the direction of Otto Brahm, become Germany’s aesthetically and socially most progressive theatrical venue, championing the work of Henrik Ibsen and naturalist playwrights such as Gerhart Hauptmann. In 1904, L’Arronge refused to extend Brahm’s contract, as L’Arronge believed that naturalism was giving way to a new, lusher Impressionist style associated closely with the then thirty-one-year-old director Max Reinhardt. Deutsches Theater Theater;Germany [kw]Reinhardt Becomes Director of the Deutsches Theater (Nov. 24, 1905) [kw]Deutsches Theater, Reinhardt Becomes Director of the (Nov. 24, 1905) [kw]Theater, Reinhardt Becomes Director of the Deutsches (Nov. 24, 1905) Deutsches Theater Theater;Germany [g]Germany;Nov. 24, 1905: Reinhardt Becomes Director of the Deutsches Theater[01410] [c]Theater;Nov. 24, 1905: Reinhardt Becomes Director of the Deutsches Theater[01410] Reinhardt, Max L’Arronge, Adolph Brahm, Otto

Reinhardt had studied acting in his native Vienna before he joined Brahm’s theater in 1894. There he became steeped in Brahm’s ensemble style and gained an understanding of the literary qualities of the drama. He found Brahm’s vision too confining, however, and in 1901 Reinhardt first branched out with a satirical cabaret named Schall und Rauch (sound and smoke), which in 1902 mutated into the Kleines Theater. In 1903, he found backers to buy the Neues Theater, where he began a string of successful productions as a director with Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande (pb. 1892; Pelléas and Mélisande, 1894).

In 1905, L’Arronge, out of commercial as much as artistic considerations, offered Reinhardt the direction of the Deutsches Theater with a long-term lease. When it became clear to L’Arronge that Reinhardt planned major renovations to update the aging theater (which was constructed in 1883) and to incorporate state-of-the-art scene technology such as a revolving stage and a cyclorama, the producer agreed to sell the property to Reinhardt. L’Arronge’s condition was that Reinhardt give up his two other venues, so as to prevent the accumulation of a theater monopoly. In fact, the acquisition of the Deutsches Theater was the first step for Reinhardt in the creation of a commercial theater empire that dominated Berlin until 1932.

Max Reinhardt.

(Library of Congress)

Although Reinhardt signed the purchase contracts on November 24, 1905, his first production at his new theater premiered on October 19 of that year. The inaugural production, a play by the Romantic dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, was not well received. Reinhardt’s first great commercial success at the Deutsches Theater came later that year with a production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597) that enjoyed more than two hundred performances. Although he had been a director for only four years, by the time he took over the Deutsches Theater Reinhardt was hailed as the next great German visionary of the theater. His reputation was such that audiences flocked to his productions (the auditorium had been duly enlarged as well), and he could afford to stage only five new plays during his first season. His overwhelming success as an artist was complemented by his acute business sense and by his good fortune in having a younger brother, Edmund, to take care of the day-to-day running of his affairs.

The remodeling of the Deutsches Theater, with the addition of a revolving stage more than fifty feet across and a sophisticated lighting system, bore witness to Reinhardt’s innovative aesthetic concepts, in particular his insistence on plasticity instead of scene painting. Reinhardt’s idea at the time was to use the revolving stage both as an efficient means of changing scenery and as a dramaturgical tool. His aversion to painted scenery had been kindled by his exposure to the new theorists of scene design; in particular, he was influenced by the writings of Adolphe Appia and the bold scenic experiments of Edward Gordon Craig and Georg Fuchs.

Earlier in 1905, still at his Neues Theater, Reinhardt had directed a celebrated production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596) set entirely on a revolving stage. (The play became a signature piece for Reinhardt; he directed it twelve times on the stage and finally on film for Warner Bros. in 1935.) This production, which played more than three hundred times and was revived in 1913, featured a fully articulated forest set that virtually defined the early, neo-Romantic Reinhardt style: lavishly poetic and illusionistic, with a kind of magical playfulness that fused realistic and symbolistic elements.

In early October, 1905, Reinhardt opened an acting school that was physically and administratively connected to the Deutsches Theater. Himself an actor, Reinhardt always emphasized the centrality of the actor to his theater (“It is to the actor and to no one else that the theater belongs”) and was acknowledged as a great teacher. At the Deutsches Theater, he succeeded in assembling Germany’s best performers, including Max Pallenberg and Albert Bassermann, and in training a new generation that dominated the German stage for years: Tilla Durieux, Gertrud Eysoldt, Friedrich Kayssler, Alexander Moissi, Paul Wegener, and many others studied with him. It became an honor to be known as a “Reinhardt actor.”

In spite of the alterations, the Deutsches Theater was a conventional proscenium-stage theater that seated an audience of approximately one thousand. Although it remained the center of his growing empire (which some referred to as the “Reinhardt Machine” because of its technical sophistication and sheer size), Reinhardt was soon unhappy with its limitations. In 1906, he opened an adjacent three-hundred-seat chamber theater, the Kammerspiele, a concept that proved trendsetting in Europe (inspiring, for example, the creation of August Strindberg’s Intimate Theater in Stockholm). In 1919, Reinhardt finally realized his dream of building a “theater of five thousand” with his gigantic Grosses Schauspielhaus.

After fifteen years at the helm, in 1920 Reinhardt turned over the direction of his Berlin theaters to his longtime dramaturge Felix Hollaender so that he could concentrate on his activities in Salzburg, Austria. Even though he regained control of the theaters nine years later (only to surrender them again to the Nazis in 1933), the formative Reinhardt era in Berlin had come to a close.


Reinhardt’s acquisition of the Deutsches Theater laid the foundation for his considerable influence on the modern theater. Reinhardt demonstrated that even during extremely difficult economic times, challenging literary theater could exist and thrive within a commercial framework. Reinhardt took pride in never having accepted subsidies, and even throughout wartime and periods of inflation, he never compromised his artistic standards.

Reinhardt’s literary taste was eclectic, and he brought to the stage of the Deutsches Theater plays of every era and every nation, creating a veritable world theater. From the first, he provided an outlet for young and at times risqué work such as Frank Wedekind’s tragicomedies of sex and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (pb. 1893), and he developed an audience for Maeterlinck and Strindberg in Germany. His work with the neo-Romantic Austrian dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal constituted perhaps his most symbiotic and enduring collaboration.

He attended equally to the classical repertoire and to the writers of the avant-garde. In the 1913-1914 season, he directed a highly acclaimed cycle of ten Shakespearean plays (the cycle idea has since been imitated many times, including in the 1980’s by Joseph Papp in New York and Ariane Mnouchkine in France). No achievement at the Deutsches Theater was more influential, however, than Reinhardt’s productions of a number of new expressionist plays under the heading “Das junge Deutschland” (young Germany) from 1917 to 1920. These plays, many mixing angry and feverish condemnations of war with ecstatic cries for human brotherhood, gave rise to a new, stark visual style to which Reinhardt’s scenographer Ernst Stern and his actors proved more than equal. The Deutsches Theater was instrumental in the breakthrough of expressionism as a theatrical form. In addition, according to film historian Lotte Eisner (The Haunted Screen, 1952), the German silent films of the 1920’s, from Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to Metropolis (1927), would have been unthinkable without these Reinhardt productions.

Although Reinhardt largely followed his own instincts in matters of programming, his theaters employed an army of dramaturges (literary managers), the most important of whom were Felix Hollaender Hollaender, Felix and Arthur Kahane Kahane, Arthur at the Deutsches Theater. That the institution of the dramaturge has become virtually standard in the European theater today is a consequence of Reinhardt’s respect for the literary text. Ironically, some of Reinhardt’s most severe later critics and directorial opponents, such as Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, briefly worked as dramaturges for him in the 1920’s.

In his restless search for new venues, Reinhardt might justifiably be called a pioneer of environmental theater. In effect, he attempted to find a suitable spatial arrangement for each play he directed. Because the Deutsches Theater was conventionally configured, he staged intimate and poetic plays in the Kammerspiele, where every small gesture or whisper was perceptible. Productions calling for grand tableaux, great pathos, and surging masses, such as Greek tragedies and historical spectacles, occupied the Grosses Schauspielhaus.

Reinhardt also transcended the theater space altogether, first by letting his actors spill into the auditorium in a 1911 production of Oedipus Rex, then by transposing his plays into congenial settings. For example, he turned London’s Olympia exhibition hall into a giant Gothic cathedral for a 1911 presentation of the pantomime The Miracle by Karl Vollmoeller, staged Hofmannsthal’s Everyman adaptation in front of the Salzburg cathedral in 1920, had Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (pb. 1808) take place on a life-sized city set (the “Fauststadt”) built into an open-air riding arena in 1933, and realized Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice on a Venetian square in 1934. Although such experiments were then not widely imitated, this amplification of theatrical possibilities set precedents that found their fulfillment especially in the avant-garde theater movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Undoubtedly, Reinhardt’s greatest influence was on the idea of directing in the twentieth century. He is perceived by many as the avatar of the age of the director. Directors;theater Together with the Russian Konstantin Stanislavsky—whose disposition was quite different—Reinhardt set the guidelines for the profession. Although he was not the first director of international stature, Reinhardt became a truly European director (his productions, particularly the famed Miracle, traveled abroad frequently). He finally even exerted considerable influence on the theater scene in the United States, both before and after his emigration to that nation in 1938. Among the theater artists directly inspired by Reinhardt were Harley Granville-Barker in England and Robert Edmond Jones and Lee Simonson in the United States. It is noteworthy that prior to Reinhardt’s time, the name of a play’s director was rarely even mentioned in theater reviews.

The complete professionalization of the directorial office is largely Reinhardt’s achievement. His career marks the transition from the nineteenth century stage manager, who was concerned with little more than the technical problems of the production, to the modern-day regisseur, who exercises total artistic control. In that sense, a direct line can be construed between Reinhardt and more recent directors such as Peter Brook, Peter Stein, and Peter Sellars. Reinhardt’s productions were meticulously prepared and planned out. Before rehearsals began on a play, Reinhardt created a prompt book in which he set down every music and light cue, indicated every tone of voice and gesture for speeches, and sketched ground plans marking entrances and exits. He often worked over a prompt book several times. Some of these books are still in existence today, and each represents an inventory of Reinhardt’s ideas about the play as well as a kind of “score” of atmospheric, psychological, and technical details for its staging.

Few directors have modeled themselves explicitly on Reinhardt, who proclaimed no methodology of his own. His strength and authority as a director seemed to flow from his personality, not from theories. In rehearsal, the shy Reinhardt was often silent, but actors attested to his catalytic ability to summon from them depths of feeling of which they were themselves unaware. What emerges from Reinhardt’s scattered writings is a high regard for the theater as a place of almost religious importance in which humans are given the necessary freedom to play.

During his years at the Deutsches Theater, Reinhardt was not without his critics. The sumptuousness and unashamed theatricality of his often baroque spectacles and his distaste for politics did not sit well with those who saw the theater as a medium for ideological agitation and activism. Bertolt Brecht’s famous condemnation of the “culinary” bourgeois theater and his development of an alternative, “epic” form were clearly provoked by his exposure to Reinhardt fare. Yet even Reinhardt’s critics maintained a core of respect for the man who was dubbed “the great magician” of the theater. Deutsches Theater Theater;Germany

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braun, Edward. “Max Reinhardt in Germany and Austria.” In The Director and the Stage: From Naturalism to Grotowski. 1982. Reprint. London: Methuen, 2003. Braun gives Reinhardt shorter shrift than he deserves in this chapter, but taken in the context of the whole book, the essay manages to position Reinhardt within the history of the profession. Recommended strictly as introductory reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garten, Hugh F. Modern German Drama. London: Methuen, 1959. Discusses Reinhardt’s work in the context of German neo-Romanticism. Gives information about the playwrights with whom Reinhardt worked.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reinhardt, Gottfried. The Genius: A Memoir of Max Reinhardt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Rather chatty but very readable narrative of Reinhardt’s life by his son Gottfried, himself a theater and film director. Gives personal insight into Reinhardt’s later career and life (Gottfried was not born until 1913), simultaneously humanizing the director and contributing to his myth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sayler, Oliver M., ed. Max Reinhardt and His Theater. New York: Brentano’s, 1924. Although dated by virtue of having been published almost twenty years before Reinhardt’s death, this book compiles translations of important early essays and materials on Reinhardt, mostly written by collaborators of the director and sympathetic critics. Coinciding with Reinhardt’s sensational 1924 American tour of the pantomime The Miracle, the book was later (1926) put out in an edition that included the entire prompt book and color plates of scene and costume designs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Styan, J. L. Max Reinhardt. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. The first book-length study of Reinhardt in English. Provides a well-researched and useful overview of Reinhardt’s many theatrical activities but is too brief to do Reinhardt’s work full justice. The structure is thematic rather than chronological and touches on the major productions. Well illustrated. Includes a complete list of Reinhardt productions.

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