Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), one of the first theatrical directors to achieve broad acclaim as a major creative artist, is renowned for transforming theater through his flamboyant sense of theatrical glamour, spectacular productions, and pioneering innovations, including the projecting rostrum, the revolving stage, the “apron stage” designed to bring the actors close to the audience, and ensemble acting.

He introduced new and revolutionary elements into stagecraft through harmonizing strong staging techniques with stage design, language, music, creative lighting, costuming, scenic motifs, and choreography. The first director to use Symbolist and Expressionist ideas in his theatrical interpretations, he was also a pioneer of studio production and site-specific staging.

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Reinhardt’s most important and lasting contribution, however, was undoubtedly his transformation of the director’s role in theatrical productions from mere administrator to powerful influencer. Ironically, although he attained fame for his theater work, he was actually more interested in film; he founded his own film company, directed several motion pictures, and occasionally served as a film producer.

By 1920, when he founded the Salzburg Festival and turned it into a legendary annual event, Reinhardt had already founded the celebrated Vienna Seminary for Acting and Directing and established himself as a director of international renown. By the 1930s, before the Nazis expropriated his halls and banned him from working in the theater, he was administering 11 theaters in Berlin, including the celebrated Deutsches Theater, and one in Vienna.

During the first four decades of the 20th century, he directed more than 300 plays throughout Europe and the United States, where his notable productions included a popular stage version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1927), which introduced Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland to the public.

As an interesting aside, some commentators have criticized “The Sound of Music” for not featuring a single Jew among the musical’s characters – “as if the nine von Trapps were the only ones fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria in the 1930s.” In fact, “Uncle Max,” the family’s friend in the film, was modeled after, and named for, Reinhardt.

Born Maximilian Goldmann, the son of a Hungarian Jewish merchant active in the organized Viennese Jewish community, Reinhardt was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, but he was not himself a practicing Jew. Nonetheless, he opened his memoirs, begun while in exile from Nazi Germany but never completed, with the following revealing declaration:

I am a Jew. That says a lot and is the proudest thing I can say about myself…. In every being, the properties of his parents and ancestors flow together and that is why I begin my memoirs with this statement.

Although Reinhardt remained a strong self-identifying Jew throughout his life – once even referring to himself as a “frommer Jude” (an observant Jew) – he married a non-Jew (1947) and, in response to her request that he be baptized so that they could marry in church, he responded that he would agree to recite the baptism lines by rote, but that he wasn’t happy about it. He later wrote that, even after his so-called baptism, “religion had never played any part in my life, and I still had no religion.”

In any event, Reinhardt seldom spoke of his Jewishness in public, and his Judaism rarely manifested itself in his theatrical work, with one important and conspicuous exception, as we shall see. And although he generally rejected Zionism, he nonetheless manifested his strong identification with the Jewish people – and, arguably, with their Zionist aspirations – through his historic production of “The Eternal Road” in response to Jewish pleas to help the Jewish cause.

Three Reinhardt stamps, one Austrian (center) and two German.

Reinhardt was very much a victim of the Holocaust. He was publicly maligned by the Nazis; his works were ceremonially burned by the Gestapo; the Nazis liquidated all his property including, pursuant to an order from Goebbels, all his theaters; and he fled as a refugee to America (1934), where he became a citizen on November 29, 1940.

Though safe in America, Reinhardt was very concerned about his relatives stuck behind in Nazi Europe (he was able to get some of them out, but others, including his sister, perished) and was also deeply affected by the plight of European Jews and the dearth of available opportunities to help them. Accordingly, when he was approached by American Zionist leader Meyer Weisgal to help him produce a “theatrical answer to Hitler” that would draw on the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish cultural heritage, he jumped at the opportunity to make a difference.

The result was “The Eternal Road,” an unprecedented and unique production that, even today, defies classification; it has been characterized as a staged oratorio, a musical drama, an opera, a biblical marathon, a morality piece, a pageant, and a “Jewish passion play.” Combining eternal Biblical themes with pre-WWII Jewish history and featuring a cast of 245 actors/singers/dancers and colossal sets, the extravaganza provides valuable insights into the convergence of the pre-WWII worlds of theater and Jewish-Zionist activism.

Given broad creative control of the project, Reinhardt brought together two Jewish Third Reich refugees: composer Kurt Weill (music) and author Franz Werfel (libretto). Ironically, though Weill was a Marxist atheist, he played an important role in promoting the Jewish emotion of the production by incorporating familiar Jewish liturgical melodies.

Werfel, however, understood the Bible from a Roman Catholic perspective; took issue with the emphasis of Jewish particularism over universalism; and envisioned the drama as a modern incarnation of a passion play. The radically different approaches to Judaism manifested by Weisgal, Weill, and Werfel in the production of “The Eternal Road” contributed to some of the ambiguity regarding the ultimate message of the work.

The drama opens with a group of Jews of diverse backgrounds, reflecting the full range of the modern European Jewish community’s philosophical and religious views, all cowering together in a synagogue, where they have taken refuge from a raging pogrom. As they sit through the night contemplating their fate, the rabbi reads from the Torah and recounts Bible stories, including the binding of Isaac, Joseph’s rise to the height of Egyptian power, the leadership of Moses, the miracle of the Exodus, and tales of valor of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, all of which are re-enacted on stage with great spectacle and pageantry.

Since each Jewish character represents a Jewish stereotype, none of them has a proper name. Instead, we have “the Rich Man,” “the Pious Man,” “the cynical Adversary,” “the Fanatic,” “the Timid One,” and “the assimilated Estranged One” and his son, all of whom ask questions through the night and share their thoughts and emotions.

At the end of the play, the son of the Estranged One, played by a teenage Sidney Lumet, movingly recounts the centuries of Jewish pain and longing and, as he blends together the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and the contemporary deportation of the Jews as bookends to one long history of a scattered people’s despair, he asks why the Messiah has not yet come.

After an angel (represented by an ethereal image of light) prophesies to the boy, he proclaims G-d’s message of hope to the others – that the messianic arrival, which will redeem the Jews and lead them to Eretz Yisrael, is imminent – and he leads them all out, heads held high, to greet the long-awaited Messiah.

The staging of a production with the scope, breadth, and vision of “The Eternal Road” represented an almost inconceivable challenge, as nothing on this scale had ever been previously attempted. The entire Manhattan Opera House in New York was gutted to house the acre-long seven-story set, which included a movable mountain rising 30 feet from below the orchestra and a Temple of Solomon with 40-foot columns.

Some 26 miles of electrical wiring and a thousand stage lights had to be positioned, and seven hydraulic elevators were used to transport the massive sets. In his inimitable style, Reinhardt maintained close supervision over every aspect of the impossibly colossal production.

The spectacular opened over a year late on January 7, 1937, and the reception by critics and attendees alike was overwhelming. Reinhardt sobbed at the final scene on each night the show was performed, and he was not the only one. The very proper Sara Delano Roosevelt, the president’s mother, reportedly broke down and kissed Lumet on his head as she congratulated him.

Sadly, though the show was a great success, the enormous expenses bankrupted Weisgal and his financial backers, and the show was forced to close in May 1937 after 153 performances. After the final performance, which was a benefit for the bankrupted Weisgal, Reinhardt wrote to him: “The light that we lit together in the Manhattan Opera House will shine undimmed in the history of the theater and of the Jewish people.” Unfortunately, however, both Reinhardt and “The Eternal Road” have been largely forgotten.

Although the critical reception was phenomenal, most of the reviews missed the point entirely, as the critics placed misdirected emphasis on the universalist appeal of the play since the creative and emotional presentation of Biblical themes moved both Christians and Jews. “The Eternal Road” did not contain any specific anti-Nazi message, but its intent was supposed to be clear: to alert the then-ignorant public about Hitler’s persecution of Jews in 1937 Germany. As one reviewer correctly noted, the drama was “a symbol of solidarity to rally World Jewry to the defense of their fellow Jews suffering the lash of Nazi persecution.”

Similarly, although there was no specific reference in the play to the modern Zionist movement, “The Eternal Road” was also supposed to convey the Zionist message that the reign of the Third Reich was proof positive that assimilation was not the answer to the “Jewish problem” and that the only effective means of Jewish survival, as represented by Lumet’s idealistic character, was to bring the Jewish people home to Eretz Yisrael. The “Eternal Road” of the title was a reference to the two millennia-long road of Jewish defenselessness and vulnerability, which would finally come to an end through the Zionist initiative.

Reinhard died thinking about the Jews of the Holocaust and his family trapped in Europe. His final request before his untimely death in 1943 was that anyone inclined to send flowers should instead contribute “to any war effort to defeat Hitler.”

* * * * *

In this September 9, 1939 correspondence written on his letterhead, Reinhart writes to Mabel R. Hastings at Yale University’s Department of Drama:

I take pleasure in answering your inquiry regarding Dr. Johann Reich and Dr. Otto Preminger. Both are my pupils and went to my Vienna Seminary for Acting and Directing. I accept the assurance given in your letter that this will be treated absolutely confidential since I feel the full responsibility of telling my frank opinion without any restraint to a world famous institution like yours.

[Text about Reich omitted]

I have known Dr. Preminger for many years. For a period of time he has been managing director of my Theatre in der Josefstadt in Vienna and proved highly qualified for such a position. He has great experience along producing as well as administrative lines. While Dr. Preminger is a capable director, whose knowledge and experience undoubtedly can be very valuable to drama students, it is my conviction that his greatest ability, and his future, lies in the field of theatrical administration and business management.

As to their personal characters, I consider both Dr. Reich and Dr. Preminger men of integrity, sincerity, and great capacity for work….

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Preminger (1905-86) was only 24 when he was asked by Reinhardt to serve as the managing director of one of his theaters, which Reinhardt mentions in our letter. Ironically, Reinhardt’s prediction regarding Preminger’s future career badly missed the mark; though Preminger began his career as a theater director, he earned renown as the director of more than 35 feature films, including two for which he earned Best Director Academy Award nominations, “Laura” (1945) and “The Cardinal” (1963).

In Jewish circles, however, Preminger is best known for directing “Exodus” (1960), a poignant drama about the founding of Israel based upon the novel by Leon Uris of the same name. Uris was a passionate Zionist who wrote his historical novel as an unadulterated tribute to the righteousness of the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael and to tell the magnificent story, albeit in fictionalized terms, of the Jews who fought bravely and with great determination and zeal to reestablish their ancestral homeland.

As such, he was enraged by Preminger giving equal time in the film to the indefensible Arab and British positions, and he never forgave the director for the perversion of his novel.

Preminger was born into a secular Eastern European family and, though he never denied his Judaism, he was enrolled as a child in a school where he was taught Catholicism and he remained a wholly secularized Jew all his life. Nonetheless, at an important juncture in his early career, he spurned a prestigious appointment to serve as head of the Vienna State Theater because he would have been required to convert to Christianity.

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