Vienna’s dramatists have a long, brilliant and turbulent history. But no year was quite so momentous as 1929, the year modernity was born.

Hedwig Kiesler was determined to act. She had traveled all the way to Berlin to study under the great Viennese director Max Reinhardt. But it seemed impossible to get an audition. So during a rehearsal, she slipped into the empty theater and sat in the back to watch. Then he spotted her, irritated, and called her up onto the stage. She was very young – only 17 – with raven hair and penetrating green eyes. “I just wanted to see you direct,” she later remembered saying.

Hedy Lamarr
The young Viennese actress Hedwig Kiesler was groomed by Max Reinhardt to eventually become the Hollywood superstar known as Hedy Lamarr.

Photo: APA Picturedesk/Everett Collection

“Do you speak English?” he barked. “Y…yes,” she managed, thus winning herself the part of “2nd American girl” in Reinhardt’s Das schwächere Geschlecht (The Weaker Sex). 

The young actress’s only notion of America  then was of a flotilla of states encircling an island of magic called Hollywood. But then, she came from Vienna, a city where theater was part of life – a glasshouse of directors, actors, writers, teachers and psychologists, spinning tales of the human experience out of logic, myth and madness. Acting was almost second nature.

“I acted all the time,” she told an interviewer in 1938. She copied the gestures and mannerisms of her mother, their dinner guests, the servants and people on the street. “I was a living copy book; I wrote people down on me.”

Still agonizing over the loss of an empire, recovering from the upheavals of the war, and torn apart by increasing hostility between the Socialists and Christian-Democrats, Vienna was also the place where theater could and did blossom, wildly and vigorously. Theatrical creativity, inspiration and innovation seemed to sweep away all the sorrows of the present. At least for some.

In this hotchpotch of misery and ambition, the ingenue Hedwig Kiesler was on her way to Hollywood to become Hedy Lamarr, her trajectory set, navigating the zeitgeist that would carry the German-speaking world out of one war and into another, where she herself would play an important role.

All the World’s a Stage

The great names of that time have long since made their exits from Vienna streets. But theater itself, suspending disbelief, continues to lift the stories of our age, the facts, figures and maps of our world, off the page into reincarnate life.

“We’ve always had broad support,” says Robert Dressler, director of the theater program at the Deparment of Culture for the City of Vienna. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Vienna’s theaters were privately sponsored by the nobility and the new industrial fortunes aspiring to become a part of high society. Before that, Dressler explained, theater was mostly confined to the court and, to some extent, the church.

After three decades working in support of the arts here, most notably at Vienna’s venerable English Theatre, he cares deeply about keeping the tradition alive. “In the late 1920s, along the Praterstraße, there were quite a number of theaters,” he says, “many for operetta, including Jewish theaters,” that had just begun to prosper by 1929. They would only have their brief butterfly day in the sun.

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Before his death in 1929, Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s most famous work, Jedermann, played for nine years at the Salzburg Festival and annually ever since.

Photo: APA Picturedesk/Foto Wilhelm/Interfoto

Ecce Homo

The year 1929 also brought heavy losses and unlikely reconciliations. Just two days after his son’s suicide, dramatist Hugo von Hofmannstal, giant of the German-language fin-de-siècle poetry and the Wiener Moderne, himself succumbed, dying of a broken heart.

And it was the irrepressible Stefan Zweig who, despite years of petty jealousies, delivered the eulogy at Hofmannstal’s funeral, before joining a procession that led from the Burgtheater, past the Volksgarten, and over Rudolf Geschwind’s famous roses, now petals strewn yellow, damask and red.

Hofmannsthal had been a phenomenon, a prodigy already published by the age of 17, and famous by 25, one of a group of bohemians who called themselves Jung Wien, communing at around writer Hermann Bahr at Café Griensteidl. Out of “multiplicity and indeterminacy [where] everything fell into parts,” Hofmannsthal evolved his theatrical “ceremony of the whole.” His plays were brimming with choruses, musicians, dancers and even animals, uniting the audience in a “mystical union” with the performers on stage, principles he used in his many librettos to the operas of Richard Strauss.

Among Hofmannsthal’s Jung Wien cohorts was the great novelist and playwright Arthur Schnitzler, who had about-faced from medicine to literature. Medicine had “sharpened my eye and enlightened my intellect,” he wrote in 1920, equipping him brilliantly for diagnosing society and human relationships.  A pioneer of the technique of the inner monologue long before James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), his novella Lieutenant Gustl (1900) was written the same year as Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Freud himself was in awe of Schnitzler, whom he was reluctant to meet for fear of encountering a doppelgänger.

“I have often wondered,” Freud wrote Schnitzler in 1906, “how it is you possess this or that piece of secret knowledge, that for me has come only with years of study?”

Freud and the theater

But perhaps they were not so far apart. “What’s important to understand about Freud is his classical, humanistic education,” says Prof. Monika Meister of the University of Vienna, “including the importance of ancient Greek tragedy.” Midway through The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, he brings in Oedipus, and refers to Sophocles’ recognition of the unconscious back in the 5th century B.C. “And Hofmannsthal’s Elektra was seen as a study of Hysteria,” she concludes. But theater in ancient times was more than just diagnosis and observation; it was also medicine and therapy. “Sophocles and Aristotle had discovered theater for catharsis, purging the community,” she says, playing the same purifying role as medicine.

After the Great War, Hofmannsthal’s world fell apart. Unable to overcome the dissolution of the monarchy, he became more conservative, and while his productivity never slowed, he felt increasingly out of step with his time. Still, he was adored by the public. At the time of his death in 1929, his most famous play, Jedermann (Everyman), had just played in the Salzburg Festival for its ninth consecutive year.

Schnitzler, on the other hand, was at home in the new age, delving ever deeper into psychology that was already basic to his work. His most famous play, Reigen, premiered in both Vienna and Berlin in 1920, unraveling a series of sexual encounters that shocked even liberal Vienna. The ensuing scandal, including a lawsuit in Berlin, culminated in Schnitzler withdrawing the play for some eight years.

The end of an era

But by then, Schnitzler, like Hofmannsthal, had lost a child to suicide, his beloved daughter Lilli. “On that July day,” he wrote in his diary, “my life, too, came to an end.”

In hindsight, Hofmannstal’s and Schnitzler’s deaths so close together appear like an omen for the horrors that followed, for a society whose creative glue was coming unstuck, unhinging the city, propelling artists and psychologists out into the diaspora. By the end of World War II, says Meister, “Jewish theater was tabula rasa.”

It’s unlikely that Lamarr, at the age of 15, would have seen Reigen, but she was no stranger to censorship. At 19, she made love to her then boyfriend in the Czech film Extase, the director had stuck a safety pin into her buttocks to make the love scenes look more passionate. The film ruffled some feathers in

Max Reinhardt launched his Seminar in Vienna in 1929, furthering a vision that found its fullest expression in his Hollywood films. APA Picturedesk/Friedrich/Interfoto
Max Reinhardt launched his Seminar in Vienna in 1929, furthering a vision that found its fullest expression in his Hollywood films.

Photo: APA Picturedesk/Friedrich/Interfoto

both Europe and America; but at least everyone knew her name.

“I went to Prague because I was in love with somebody,” she told a reporter in 1970. She never regretted it.

While there is no record that Lamarr met either Hofmannsthal or Richard Strauss, she did know the other of the Salzburg greats – director Max Reinhardt, who pioneered a third path of elaborate staging and set design, influenced by Richard Wagner’s idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk. The doyen of Austrian theater, he launched his still renowned Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna in 1929, furthering a vision that found its fullest expression in the director’s film work in Hollywood.

Reinhardt was against realism and the declamatory style of the past, cultivating in his students a thorough knowledge and deep respect for all aspects of stagecraft. His innovations included special lighting effects, revolving stages and sky-domed ceilings, which he exploited to the hilt and earned him the reputation as a master of stage direction. After Lamarr appeared in the lead as Sybil in Reinhardt’s 1931 production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at Theater in der Josefstadt, he proclaimed her “the most beautiful woman in Europe.”

Reimagining the self

The year 1929 was also a seminal one in philosophy, with the publication of the manifesto of the Vienna Circle. These logical positivists were the antithesis of the Jung Wien artists: Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Zweig and Karl Kraus, “the master of venomous ridicule.”

Theater’s strongest new impulse, however, may have come from refugee Michael Chekhov, nephew of the Russian playwright and former star of the famous Moscow Arts Theatre. Chekhov had sought out Reinhardt, hoping to play Hamlet, but was instead offered a character role in Artisten, at Theater in der Josefstadt in 1928. During the play, Chekhov had an experience of “double consciousness” – of acting and watching oneself act at the same time, leading his mentor Konstantin Stanislavski to fear for his sanity – and reconsider his technique for drawing out his actors. Artistic success, he believed, could be found by working from the inside out, or alternatively, from the outside in, echoing Carl Jung’s theories on introverts and extroverts. Stanislavski’s insight led to his “Method of Physical Action”, his reliance on the “magic if” of reimagining the self.

Vienna’s passion for theater also touched the young Adolf Hitler, who took lessons from the stage hypnotist Erik Jan Hanussen, a “clairvoyant” and charlatan. Hitler’s talent was oratory, which he used to optimum effect. He required a long warm-up, practicing his gestures to perfection in a mirror. He had a sonorous voice, not always evident in the hysterical tone of his public recordings. And like Reinhardt, his knowledge of staging was thorough and convincing – a consummate performer.

The world, a nightmare

By the spring of 1932 the young republics in Germany and Austria were both falling apart. On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and five years later, annexed Austria. Overnight, half of Vienna’s theaters were closed; the cabarets and the Jews were gone, most never to return.

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Billy Wilder (here with Gloria Swanson ca. 1950) was part of the mass exodus of Viennese theater genius to Hollywood.

Photo: Artur Andrzej/Wikipedia

The exodus gutted Viennese theater. Hedy Lamarr herself was saved by Max Reinhardt, with an introduction to Louis B. Mayer of MGM, escaping a suffocating marriage to a wealthy armaments manufacturer and getting her out of Austria.

Vienna’s theatrical genius blossomed anew in the lush garden of Hollywood, the new medium, cinema. Directors Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fred Zinneman, Fritz Lang and Michael Curtiz, actors -Peter Lorre, Paul Henried and of course Hedy Lamarr,  as well as nearly 400 others who left their stamp on Hollywood, winning no fewer than 33 Academy Awards in the decades that followed.

Psychology is back

Today in 2016, times are uncertain; the economy is turning as populations are on the move and technology is reshuffling the cards. We are again in a time of ideas, disturbing but also challenging. This is, on the whole, good for theater.

In Vienna, says Dressler, new work is again tackling political and social themes, often with post-modern, conceptual approaches that are mutable, that refuse to make fixed claims, and with many new aesthetics, often crossing or mixing disciplines, materials and settings. It might be multilingual, without traditional storytelling, with little text or none.

Playwrights are turning back to psychology, terrain where Vienna has a long tradition. “There’s very interesting work being done on catharsis and theater as therapy,” says Meister, particularly through “the psycho-physical connection, as in dance, in movement that digs deep into the psyche.”

Theater, now as ever, is a child of change; it thrives on experiment, but it also needs continuity and context as a frame for meaning.  Both are essential.

“Funding is split,” Dressler confirms,  “between an aging, more literary audience and a younger one [at home] with new technology, who certainly won’t watch a Hamlet for five hours and aren’t studying classical literature.” To serve them, “there are new forms emerging.”

Launched in 1929, it was Hedy Lamarr from Vienna who anticipated the direction of theater in the 21st century: the marriage of art and technology. In 1942, in partnership with modernist composer George Antheil, she invented a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, using a frequency hopping principle that later became the basis for modern wireless and broadband communications technologies.

Thus the “most beautiful woman in Europe” made it to the big stage, the big screen and the universe of big ideas – a bridge from of the artists’ world of Jung Wien, to that of the scientists, the Vienna Circle – and helped lay the foundations for the modern world.