Max Reinhardt’s Play for Life : Re‑reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Par Isabel Guerrero
Publication en ligne le 22 avril 2015


Max Reinhardt, together with Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, contributed to the scenographic revolution that changed thetheatre at the beginning of the 20th century. Although he directed all kinds of genres and formats, there is a common characteristic in his productions that defines his style : they were all visually attractive shows. Although he staged different Shakespearean titles in his career (i.e. The Merchant of Venice in 1905, Macbeth in 1916), Reinhardt´s life‑long obsession was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He directed more than thirty productions of the play from 1905 until 1939, including the 1935 film version. The purpose of this paper is to briefly analyse Reinhardt´s mythical productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and show how they set the starting point of early 20th century productions. This analysis focuses, above all, on the 1935 film, probably the culmination of Reinhardt´s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition, a number of topics will be analysed successively : the importance of the mise‑en‑scène, the darkness of Oberon and his train, Puck´s evolution, sexuality and the revision of elements from the 19th century tradition.


Texte intégral

« I believe in the immortality of the Theatre, it is a most joyous place to hide, for all those who have secretly put their childhood in their pockets and run off and away with it, to play on to the end of their days1. »
Max Reinhardt

1Max Reinhardt’s style was part of the scenographic revolution that shaped the theatre at the beginning of the 20th century. The theories expressed by Richard Wagner, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig initiated the visual revolution that was going to change the appearance of the stage as known until then. Although Appia’s influence and, above all, Craig’s are undeniable in Reinhardt, his works are to be considered more influential on the theatre of his time because, whereas Craig was mainly a theoretician, Reinhardt’s productions were performed in many theatres across Europe and America. As Dennis Kennedy states, « the real story of the twentieth‑century visual approach to Shakespeare begins here2 », with Reinhardt’s works. Reinhardt’s approach to the stage was that of Wagner for the opera : he wanted to transform the theatre into a « total work of art » combining amazing décors and music with the latest technologies in lighting. He aimed to create a theatre that was truly spectacular and yet he was accused of not having a personal style because his choice of works was so eclectic, as he directed all kinds of genres and formats. Nevertheless, there is a common characteristic in his productions that defines his style : they were all visually attractive.

2 Considering his playful approach to drama and his attraction for experimentation, it seems natural that the play which most obsessed Reinhardt during his lifetime was none other than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Indeed, this early comedy was Reinhardt’s constant favourite for thirty‑four years. According to John L. Styan, he directed twenty‑nine productions of the play before the film was made in 1935, and he continued staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream until 19393. The first production was in Berlin in 1905 and the subsequent versions underwent numerous changes in cast, staging and even language, until the Hollywood film production appeared in 1935.

3The purpose of this paper is to briefly analyse Reinhardt’s mythical productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which marked his success at the outset of his career, and to show how these productions set the starting point for staging the play at the beginning of the 20th century. This analysis focuses, above all, on the 1935 film, co‑directed with his former pupil William Dieterle for the Warner Bros Company, probably the culmination of Reinhardt’s variations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some topics will be discussed in particular here : the importance of the mise‑en‑scène in Reinhardt’s productions, the darkness of Oberon and his train, Puck’s evolution, sexuality, and the revision of elements from the 19th‑century tradition.

4All his productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the first in 1905 to the last in 1939, were powerfully visual. In the first theatre production Reinhardt used the revolving stage of the Neues Theater in Berlin4. Kennedy describes the set, designed by Gustav Kinina, as « spectacular woodland settings, using a forest of thick tree trunks, realistic branches, and a carpet of grassy moss in the manner of Beerbohm Tree5 ». The mise‑en‑scène was full of baroque elements and was later considered by both critics and Reinhardt himself as a naturalist illusion taken to the extreme6. The revolving stage divided the two worlds of the play, the City of Athens and the forest, and was used to move quickly from the one to the other. This three‑dimensional set was the response to the new need shared by most directors of the time : to replace the painted scenery from the previous century with modern stage architecture.

5From the illusionist trend of the first mise‑en‑scène, some of his later productions evolved towards a bare stage in an attempt to approach symbolism. Ernst Stern, the designer of the 1913 production, replaced the heavy set with « a more suggestive treatment of light and shade7 » ; in 1925 the stage of the Theater in der Josefstad, Vienna, was almost completely bare, with green curtains suggesting the trees in the forest. In spite of the simplifications of the setting, these more symbolic approaches still tended to encourage the spectacular mode, one of the main characteristics of Reinhardt’s works as the aesthetics of the film proves.

6Reinhardt was undoubtedly good at producing plays in different spaces : from huge theatres to small venues and, above all, outdoors. Good examples of this are his 1934 and 1935 productions of The Merchant of Venice staged across a real canal in Venice8. Of all the open‑air performances of A Midsummer, two are especially remarkable : the one in the Boboli Gardens in Florence and the other in a field outside Oxford, both in 19339. Kennedy points out that Reinhardt « was exploiting the natural environment in an extravagant, cinematic manner » in these productions10. They were an anticipation of his 1935 Warner Bros film because, apart from the cinematic trend that Kennedy mentions, they introduced the revision of the traditional reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that features in the film.

7The new reading of the play appeared in the Oxford 1933 production, presenting Oberon and his train as dark creatures. Although there is little information about this performance, Philip Arnhold, the actor in the role of Oberon, was reported to possess a gentle malevolence in his rendering when the production was brought to the Hollywood Bowl the following year11. This perspective is preserved in the film, where Oberon is depicted as a threatening character dressed completely in black and whose followers are dressed in the same colour with bat‑like costumes and masks. Thus wearing black from tip to toe, Oberon and his followers not only confronted Titania and her fairies, all dressed in white, but also showed their wickedness. According to Williams, the outdoor‑production at Oxford was the starting point of a more sinister interpretation of the play, with a darker tone than ever before12.

8The play’s evolution towards darkness is noteworthy, as several elements underwent numerous changes until the final form they take in the film, for instance, the crown worn by Oberon. In the first production (Berlin's Neues Theatre, 1905), it was a lighted crown that served to illuminate his way through the dark wood, but then his head‑gear evolved : it was a rack of antlers in some later productions and, in the film, it appears as a crown of silver and twigs. The same goes for his steed. In the film, Oberon appears riding a black horse that enhances the darkness of the character ; however, the prompt book of the 1905 production indicates that he might have made his entrance riding a white stag13.

9The 1933 outdoors Oxford production already featured the abduction of a fairy, and such a sequence also occurs in the 1935 film. In this scene Titania’s fairies dance to Mendelssohn’s music, chased by Oberon’s men and, although they seem to be afraid of them, they keep dancing together as if they were enchanted. The scene ends with the dance of one of Oberon’s followers and the First Fairy. The delicate dance finishes when he lifts her and takes her away into the dark. This image, with the man in black carrying the white fairy in his arms while she is making frantic gestures with her hands, is full of eroticism. Apart from increasing the sinister tone of the play, this moment gives a very new outlook that Williams comments thus : « [it] hinted at a dark eroticism never seen before in connection with this play14 ».

10These elements were preserved in the film and, together with the uncanny character of Puck that will be analysed later, gave rise to the first dark production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the big screen. However, as Williams points out, the outdoors productions were still neoromantic ; the abduction of the fairy and the treatment of Oberon were only « the first dark theatrical images in the performance history of the play15 ». What is true is that Reinhardt’s new reading was the starting point for many productions, as the possibility for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be not only a dream but also a nightmare was left open.

11This evolution of A Midsummer Night’s Dream towards darkness could be a reflection of reality : the fantasy world of the fairies was still possible at the beginning of the century ; however, the changes in the western world after WWI inevitably brought with them darker notes. In contrast with the variations of the play produced between 1905 and 1927, Reinhardt’s versions from 1933 onwards include darker overtones which have often been associated with the effects of Nazism. Anthony Guneratne comments that the forest was transformed into a place of danger, and the new vision of the play provided « a visual allegory of the conquest of the light by the powers of darkness in the mid‑European hinterlands16 ». The Oxford production, in which the dark reading was introduced for the first time, took place only a few months after Reinhardt had left Berlin because of Hitler’s rise to power. In connection with this, Williams comments that Reinhardt’s first visions of the play were escapist, and completely disconnected from the world’s reality : « A world war had been fought in Europe, but not in these woods17. » However, he reacts differently towards the sinister changes and concludes that, « [i]n this they belong to the troubled twentieth century18 ». Whether there are direct references to Nazism or not, the sinister additions invite the audience to remain alert as well as reflecting that the vision of the play cannot be the same in a society that had suffered one world war and was about to endure another.

12Reinhardt’s re‑reading of the play is not only concerned with darkness, it also revisits many of the pervasive elements from the 19th‑century tradition. His main purpose seems to have been to reinvent A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the aesthetic delight of the audience. However, it can be assumed that, after the many performances of the play in almost any imaginable location, Reinhardt’s purpose in his film is not only to show the exuberant fantasy world that he has created, but also to exploit the comedy of the play to the extreme. In order to fulfil both purposes, the fantasy world is given more importance than it had had before, and the conflict between the lovers is reduced to « an extension of the fantasy19 ». In the film the lovers appear as ridiculous characters that cannot be taken seriously, an example of this being the effeminate representation of Lysander. Although this vision is just the opposite of the romantic epitomes of the 19th century, these features work perfectly for the comedy, and the comicality is reinforced by Puck’s constant presence, mocking, imitating, and irritating the snooty couples.

13Puck’s evolution is another interesting point in Reinhardt’s productions. In the 19th century, Puck was quite often performed by a young female actress with fairy‑like manners. Reinhardt’s first production followed this convention in some way, as the part was performed by a woman, Gertrud Eysolt. However, her interpretation was far from the fairy‑like ballerina that used to be interpreted as in keeping with the character of Robin Goodfellow. She was dressed in furs, leaves and branches, and was in turn mischievous and playful. Eysolt’s Puck was an ugly, uncanny figure, not the cute and whimsical creature that audiences were used to20. After Eysolt’s Puck, the tradition of casting women in this role seems to have been abandoned, as there are no remarkable Pucks – at least in film adaptations– performed by women in the 20th and 21st centuries.

14Puck evolves from the wild woman to the wild child in Reinhardt’s productions, as the performance of the fifteen‑year‑old Mickey Rooney in the 1935 film shows. Although the actor is a child, a teenager to be more precise, his behaviour and even his voice suggest that this Puck is a creature of a non‑human kind, an untamed sprite of the forest inspired by the myth of the wild child. Rooney’s character is part of the natural world where he lives, but his behaviour marks him as an uncanny, mischievous creature that lacks the innocence of a child. Some of the most remarkable features of this character are his sonorous laughter and his ability to transform himself into different animals. He enjoys seeing the consequences of his own mistake when he confounds Lysander with Demetrius, and laughs at the lovers’ ridiculous suffering at the end of the second scene of act 2. This treatment of Puck enhances the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a dark sort of way,as the character mocks, echoes and teases the young lovers more than ever before, much to the viewers’ delight.

15 Rooney is not the only child actor in the film, as Titania’s fairies Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed are also played by children who are even younger than him. Although they may seem cute baby‑looking characters, their magic strength marks them as the supernatural creatures that serve the Queen of the Fairies. The rest of Titania’s train is composed of the fairies, performed by ethereal ballerinas dressed in white pertaining to the 19th‑century tradition, and some elves from German folklore that are also part of the fantasy universe that Reinhardt wants to offer his audiences. It is worth mentioning that the ugliness of the elves contrasts with the stylized representation of the fairies who are the incarnation of romantic beauty. However, the elves’ repulsive appearance is neutralized thanks to their ability to play the music that is heard in some scenes. The portrait of the elves as musicians in a string orchestra helps to include them in the fairies’ universe of beauty, although their physical ugliness also introduces some hints of unsettlingstrangeness.

16Productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century have increasingly enhanced the sexuality of the play, as is the case of the film directed by Peter Hall in 1968 with a semi‑nude Judi Dench as Titania, or A Midsummer Night´s Rave directed by Gil Cates Jr in 2002, set in the sexual ambience of a rave instead of the original forest. In contrast, Reinhardt’s exploration of the characters’ sexuality may seem quite naive for a modern audience. The most sexually and explicitly erotic scene is, as mentioned before, the abduction of the fairy. Apart from that, sexuality is used for comic purposes in the film, as in the second scene of act 2, when Hermia begs Lysander not to lie next to her and then grumbles about his uncomfortable bed far from his lady’s bosom, instead of simply accepting his lady’s wish, as a romantic gentleman would have done.

17Referring to the 1905 performance starring Gertrud Eysoldt Peter W. Marx concludes that « The lavish production celebrated infatuation, eroticism and desire, beyond all social or moral considerations21. » However, this celebration of « infatuation, eroticism and desire » is barely distinguishable in the 1935 film, above all from our modern perspective. In fact, the relationship between the lovers in Reinhardt’s film is dictated by chastity and socially accepted love even when they are on their own in the forest. In addition, Titania’s infatuation with Bottom turns into a mother‑son relationship as she sings and cuddles him until he falls asleep. As Russell Jackson comments, Bottom « has taken the place of the Indian Boy », as his relationship with Titania is « clearly chaste22 ».

18The Puck interpreted in 1905 as a wild woman may have been a fully eroticised character because of her costumes (furs and branches) and her mischievous behaviour, and also because of the actress herself, who had previously performed the erotic stage woman par excéllence in Oscar Wilde´s Salome at Max Reinhardt’s Little Theatre in Berlin in November 1902. As Peter W. Marx indicates, the choice of Eysoldt as Puck was interpreted by some critics as a new reading of the play, a much more erotic and sensual one23. The question now is whether or not this reading applies when Puck is performed by a teenage boy. Obviously, the lavishness of the wild woman is lost and Puck is devoid of the eroticism which may have been pervasive when performed by Eysoldt. On the other hand, the part’s comicality is exploited further by Rooney as Puck and, in addition, his mischief is more socially acceptable as he is a young boy and, therefore, more suitable for a Hollywood audience.

19On the other hand, there is something of the 19th‑century reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Reinhardt preserves : the music. Mendelssohn’s score is used in all his productions, transforming them into « total works of art », to quote Wagner’s much‑used phrase, where music, dance and fantasy are brought together. Apart from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, excerpts from other pieces by this composer (e.g. the Symphony No. 3 Scottish, the Song without Words, or the Symphony No. 4 Italian)were introduced in the film. Reinhardt’s use of Mendelssohn’s music can be considered a strategy to make a claim about the mythical status of his own productions, as Mendelssohn’s music gives a veneer of respectability to Reinhardt’s fantasy world. Moreover, Mendelssohn’s music was proscribed in Germany when the film was released in 1935, transforming this choice in not only aesthetic but also political terms. The film proves that, thanks to his extensive experience with the play, Reinhardt is able to achieve his purpose of creating his own fantasy universe, borrowing the 19th‑century tradition of having full companies of fairies dancing ballet all through the performance. The equivalence between fantasy and the ballet world, a commonplace in 19th‑century performances, seems to prevail here. Thirty‑five years had to elapse before Peter Brook created his own forest with acrobats in 1970 under the assumption that modern audiences do not have the necessary symbols to conjure up a fantasy world.

20The question why Reinhardt’s theatre productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were more successful –there were 500 performances of the 1905 play, a record for a classical play at the time– than the film which was a box‑office failure when it was launched is still to be solved. However, it surely contributed to Warner Bros’ prestige as a film company, as they had only produced gangster movies and soap comedies when they decided to upgrade their reputation by turning to Shakespeare. What is more, Reinhardt’s life experience with the play contributed to the creation of a new vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was more suitable for a 20th‑century audience. In Reinhardt’s hands, the Puck role turned wild, as he introduced the evolution from fairy‑like ballerina to the mischievous Puck ; dark hints were added to the play in general and to the character of Oberon in particular ; the comicality was exploited to the extreme and the fantasy world gained even more importance than before. His film, which can be defined as hovering between the 19th‑century ballet tradition and the film adaptations that were yet to come, paved the way for the new visions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 20th and 21st centuries.


BERTHOMIEU, Pierre, « A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle : Shakespeare should have emigrated to Hollywood », in Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne‑Guerrin (eds.), Shakespeare on Screen, Rouen, Publications de l’Université de Rouen, 2004, p. 201‑210.

CATES, Gil (dir.), A Midsummer Night’s Rave, USA, 10 Cates Pictures and Filmtrax Entertainment, 2002.

GUNERATNE, Anthony R, « Cinema Studies : ‘Thou Dost Usurp Authority’ : Beerbohm Tree, Reinhardt, Olivier, Welles, and the Politics of Adapting Shakespeare », in Diana E. Henderson (ed.), A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006, p. 31‑53.

HALIO, Jay L., A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare in Performance), Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003.

JACKSON, Russell, « Shakespeare’s Comedies on Film », Antony Davies and Stanley Wells (eds.), Shakespeare and the Moving Image : the Plays on Films & Television, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 99‑120.

KENNEDY, Dennis, Looking at Shakespeare : A Visual History of Twentieth‑century Performance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

_______________, « Max Reinhardt », in Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds.), Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 372.

MARX, Peter W., « Max Reinhardt », in John Russel Brown (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare, New York, Routledge, 2008, p. 374‑388.

REINHARDT, Max, « The Theater Fights Back », The Rotarian, September 1931, p. 15‑17, 53‑54.

REINHARDT, Max and William DIETERLE (dirs.), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, USA, Warner Brothers, 1935.

STYAN, John L., Directors in Perspective : Max Reinhardt, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

WILLIAMS, Gary Jay, « Our Moonlight Revels » : A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Theatre, Iowa, University of Iowa Press, 1997.


1  Max Reinhardt, « The Theater Fights Back », The Rotarian, September 1931, p. 54.

2  Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare : A Visual History of Twentieth‑century Performance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 58.

3  John L. Styan, Directors in Perspective : Max Reinhardt, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 51‑68.

4  See Gary Jay Williams, « Our Moonlight Revels » : A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Theatre, Iowa, University of Iowa Press, 1997, for descriptions of different versions of Reinhardt´s productions of A Midsummer Night´s Dream.

5  Dennis Kennedy, op. cit., p. 58.

6  Gary Jay Williams, op. cit. p. 168‑169.

7  John L. Styan, op. cit., p. 57.

8  John L. Styan, op. cit., p. 115.

9  Dennis Kennedy, op. cit., p. 59.

10  Dennis Kennedy, op. cit., p. 59.

11  Gary Jay Williams, op. cit., p. 175‑176.

12  Gary Jay Williams, op. cit., p. 170.

13  Jay L. Halio, A Midsummer Night´s Dream, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 38.

14  Gary Jay Williams, op. cit., p. 168.

15  Ibid., p. 176.

16  Anthony R. Guneratne, « Cinema Studies : ‘Thou Dost Usurp Authority’ : Beerbohm Tree, Reinhardt, Olivier, Welles, and the Politics of Adapting Shakespeare », in Diana E. Henderson (ed.), A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006, p. 44.

17  Gary Jay Williams, op. cit., p. 174.

18  Ibid., p. 176.

19  John L. Styan, op. cit., p. 58.

20  Peter W. Marx, « Max Reinhardt », in John Russel Brown (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare, New York, Routledge, 2008, p. 381.

21  Peter W. Marx, op. cit., p. 381.

22  Russell Jackson, « Shakespeare’s Comedies on Film », Antony Davies and Stanley Wells (eds.), Shakespeare and the Moving Image : the Plays on Films & Television, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 106.

23  Peter W. Marx, op. cit., p. 380.

Pour citer ce document

Par Isabel Guerrero, «Max Reinhardt’s Play for Life : Re‑reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°9 - 2015, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Isabel Guerrero

Isabel Guerrero is a PhD candidate in Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Murcia (Spain). Her research focuses on Shakespeare´s presence at theatre festivals of different nature, from official to fringe and off festivals. She is currently working on her dissertation about Shakespeare and the festival phenomenon, with special attention to commemoration, canonicity and the carnivalesque. Isabel Guerrero completed her MA in European Literature at the University of Murcia in Septemb ...