The “total theatre” of Max Reinhardt and great-uncle Richard’s ill-fated book about it

Flamboyant Max Reinhardt was a theatrical revolutionary. A Jewish boy whose father was a corset-maker in Vienna, his wild creative ambitions brought revolving sets and hundreds of extras onto the stage. He is credited with the first notions of director as creative artist. My great-uncle Richard Flatter, a lawyer by day and literary translator by night, decided at the ripe age of 39 to audition for Max Reinhardt’s renowned theatre school in Vienna, known as the Seminary. 

Richard wanted to study direction so as to understand the inner workings of stagecraft, and thus perfect his ambition to translate Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre into German. He passed the audition and so spent the happiest and busiest two years of his life. By the time of the Anschluss in 1938, he was recognised as the German language’s foremost translator, and was working on a book about Max Reinhardt’s craft that never saw the light of day.

Reinhardt’s theatre was inspired by medieval mysteries, Elizabethan drama and the vast arenas of Greek and Roman theatre where audiences were swept up in a collective fever. His sets were cabarets, vast arenas or simply outdoors, as for his spectacular yearly production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Everyman in front of Salzburg’s cathedral and other buildings in the city. 

Wildly popular, Reinhardt bestrode both Vienna and Berlin where he owned several theatres that performed Shakespeare, the Greek classics, Molière, Ibsen, Wilde, J M Synge and George Bernard Shaw, also touring Europe and in the United States. He co-created the Salzburg Festival with Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss, and his work with actors was legendary.

But in 1933, the Nazi regime in Germany confiscated his theatres there and banned his work. They seized his Leopoldskron castle near Salzburg, a home he had lovingly restored down to the smallest detail. He left for Hollywood in 1937 where he was to put on a lavish production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl and found an acting school. He died of a stroke in 1943.

In his memoir, my great uncle recalls an evening at the Salzburg Schloss, set in magnificent manicured grounds stalked by flamingos. “Supper by candle light,” he wrote, “excellent wines, numerous toasts, but what I was most interested in was the library where we withdrew after dining.”

“It was an enormous hall, two sides filled with rows of books from floor to ceiling. Reinhardt showed me his Shakespeariana, and although I had known he was a Shakespeare fanatic, I was taken by surprise to see the huge number of translations he had gathered, as well as commentaries, illustrated editions, works on the Elizabethan stage, and much more.”

Next to the library was Reinhardt’s wood-lined study. It had just one window and was so narrow as to fit only a writing table and an armchair. He would stay up there until the small hours of the morning, writing the smallest details of his upcoming plays into a so-called Regie-Buch, a huge production book into which he pasted each page of the play surrounded by lots of white space.

On Reinhardt’s 60th birthday, Richard published a short essay about him. This prompted Reinhardt to modestly suggest he write a book dealing with his own directorial influence on great actors. Richard also had an idea: a book about Reinhardt’s art that could serve as a text book for actors and producers. Richard set to the task with Max Reinhardt’s enthusiastic encouragement.

“I sent him parts that were finished,” he wrote, “and he was more than satisfied. But then events in Germany came to a head; no publisher could now publish a book about a ‘subhuman being’ like Reinhardt, and the whole thing was dropped.” 

When Richard reached safety in London, he toyed with the idea of translating the book into English. “And then something happened that, besides being a personal shock, created a dilemma: Reinhardt died.” My great-uncle no longer felt entitled to publish the book without his theatre hero’s imprimatur.