September 9 marks the birthday of Max Reinhardt, without question the major force in German-speaking theatre at the turn of the twentieth century. Reinhardt’s theatre, a singular and plural entity to be sure, was very much that of the magician, a constantly shifting approach to both new and established works in a range of venues and styles. Despite his many triumphs, setback and tragedy befell his later years, especially as an exile of the Third Reich. His creative spirit, however, persisted until the end. I am always struck by a passage in a particularly morose letter of fall 1942, when Reinhardt, once the toast of European theatre, languished as an exile in New York with vanishing prospects, on the edge of bankruptcy, writing to his wife Helene Thimig, who was herself toiling away in Hollywood: “The season is already starting. We do not have a play.” The pain is so simply expressed: we do not have a play. A seemingly insignificant observation for some, but a massive shock for an artist whose schedule at his zenith would crush any modern director. He once summed up his situation to Thimig with one word: Ausradiert—“erased.”
Much has been done to reverse this erasure in both North American and European scholarship, and a major goal of my trip to Germany for dissertation research is to further that endeavor. Yet fitting his reputation as a master of the ephemeral art of the theatre, Reinhardt resources still exhibit plenty of gaps despite the bounties currently available. This is partly a consequence of Reinhardt’s flight from Europe and the ravages of the Second World War, but the man himself was notoriously reticent in expressing himself directly about his art, at least in the sustained way his contemporary Stanislavski did. What writings survive are highly evocative but evasive, not unlike the many Symbolist works he would make famous on his stages. If, as Reinhardt once observed, “the path to oneself is terribly long,” the path to Reinhardt is terribly oblique.
During my recent trip to Salzburg, a city which always had great significance to him as the site of his first professional engagement in 1893, I visited three significant Reinhardt locations. My first visit was to the Domplatz, where the Salzburg Festival was born on 22 August 1920 with his production of Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann. The second was the Kollegienkirche, where Das Salzburger Große Welttheater had its premiere in 1922. The third was Schloss Leopoldskron, originally a palace built for Leopold von Firmian, Prince-Archibishop of Salzburg, which Reinhardt later bought as his own residence and occasioned used for immersive performances.
Confiscated by the Nazis and later returned to his heirs, Leopoldskron is now a private hotel and the site of the Salzburg Global Seminar. While not available for tours, the palace can be viewed from across the Leopoldskroner Weiher. Amid a light rain shower on Sunday afternoon, I sat down at a bench opposite the rear garden and spent a decent amount of time in thought about where this research adventure is going and the challenges ahead on those metaphorical paths, not just to Reinhardt but to myself. If it is to be worthwhile, it must take time, and if it does not strain, it is likely not worth it. One of Reinhardt’s more revealing exercises in autobiography is the sketch of his train journey to Salzburg to take up that first engagement in 1893. The rhythm mimics the pulse of an engine, short and long sentences in alternation, full of expectancy and fear, but never losing that essential grasp of exhilaration. It’s a good example to follow.