By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 21 in the series)
January 16, 2021: Today is the 57th birthday of my daughter, Bambi, which I’d like to celebrate by choosing January 16 for this installment of “On This Day in New York Theatre.” A number of important shows have opened on January 16 over the years—including Hello, Dolly!, which opened in 1964 on the day Bambi was born—but this series focuses on the twenties, thirties, and forties of the last century. And since, like all births, Bambi’s was a miracle, what more appropriate work to write about than one actually called The Miracle. The Miracle had much about it that was, indeed, miraculous, so, unlike my other postings in this series, which cover multiple shows opening on a particular day across one or more decades, what follows is devoted to The Miracle alone.
The Miracle was a super-spectacular, religiously themed, pantomime-drama authored by German playwright Kurt Vollmoller, with music by Engelbert Humperdinck, directed by German director Max Reinhardt, and produced by F. Ray Comstock and Morris Gest at the Century Theatre, where it ran for 300 performances. Reinhardt was at that moment probably the world’s most famous director, a man who ran several theatres, staging numerous plays of every description in often technically path-breaking ways, mainly in Germany and Austria.
The Miracle originally had been staged, not in Berlin, Reinhardt’s home base, but at London’s vast Olympia Hall in 1911, with a cast (gasp!) of 1,800, including actors, dancers, musicians, and choir. (It was seen in Berlin in 1914, and in other cities over the years.) Attendance sometimes reached 30,000 in the large, rectangular space. It was the kind of work which exported best because the audience needed no German and could concentrate instead on the expertise of the staging values. Consequently, Reinhardt’s reputation in England and America was more that of a director of spectacles than of normal-sized dramas, although German audiences considered his work with the latter his greatest achievements.
Hoopla surrounding the imminent New York production led George Jean Nathan to grumble that “art and dignity should have something in common.” Vollmoller’s script, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Sister Beatrice, tells of a medieval nun who leaves her convent for a worldly existence, only to have her place at the convent taken by a statue of the Virgin Mary that miraculously comes to life and carries out the absent nun’s duties while she is away. The simple but powerful tale moved from temptation to sin to redemption, all of told through movement, sound, lighting, and scenic effects, accompanied by music and choral singing.
For the new staging, Norman Bel Geddes was hired to redesign the production, which meant turning the interior of the massive Century Theatre, blocks north of the Broadway district at Columbus Circle, into the interior of a Gothic cathedral. Bel Geddes shared Reinhardt’s growing distaste for the proscenium arch and sought solutions to the problems of the audience-actor relationship, which he, too, wished to see established on a deeper than usual level of communion. Bel Geddes’s concept disturbed not one permanent feature of the auditorium or stage in creating the sense of a magnificent place of worship within what was a large proscenium theatre.
The Times devoted an article strictly to statistics about the show—how many props, how much lamp black, how many workers—for a preproduction payroll costing over $40,000 a week. It took 20 to 30 tons of scenery to effect the transformation, with sets shifted almost supernaturally by hanging all the movable scenery from racks and moving them by electric motors. The extremely complex plan was executed by a single technician seated before a switchboard in the second balcony, controlling the hundreds of instruments, none of them visible to the spectators.
Only in the opening and closing scenes were realistic costumes used. The intervening dream scenes were highly formalized, everything being united by a motif based on a medieval craft product, such as woven hangings, stained glass, enamel, and sculptural elements, much of it faux versions closely replicating actual artifacts.
Then there was the battle of the virgins. Reinhardt was unable to break a contract with his London Madonna, Maria Carmi, married to Vollmoller during the London run but since then become Princess Matchabelli. However, Reinhardt seized an opportunity to engage Lady Diana Manners, a duke’s daughter considered by many the world’s most beautiful woman, and producer Gest hit upon ways to ease Carmi out. Lady Diana and the Princess were to alternate performances; in a lot drawing stacked in her favor, Lady Diana won for opening night. The princess bowed out, and Lady Diana alternated with opera star Mary Garden, and the Nun with Rosamond Pinchot. Other notables included Werner Kraus of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame as the Piper and Rudolph Schildkraut as the Emperor. At least 700 extras were employed. The cast and designs all earned lavish praise.
Percy Hammond described what happened as the audience entered. They heard sacred music, were ushered by women in nun’s wimples to seats that were pews, and heard the distant sound of church bells. Bel Geddes’s cathedral featured “vaulted ceilings, columns, chimes and pipe-organs, stained glass windows and organs.” When the pantomime began, choirs sang, organs pealed, and the widened aisles filled with worshipers. Nuns flooded the scene in hundreds, and, as light lifted upon the altar the Madonna was seen “motionless in her niche, all the sorrows of the Lady of Tears in her eloquent eyes.”
John Corbin was entranced, praising all of the elements and concluding, “But in it all and through it all was the masterly magic of Reinhardt’s manipulation of crowds. . . . Everywhere the scene was multitudinously animated, vitalized, by the sweep of Reinhardt’s imagination and his marvelous sense of detail.”
Both Corbin and Heywood Broun compared the production favorably with the Moscow Art Theatre’s repertoire, Broun noting that not even the Russian troupe “has made man in the mass more completely alive.” He praised “an extraordinary event in the history of the American stage. Max Reinhardt has brought into the theatre more beauty than we have ever seen there before. And combined with this beauty there is a mad, terrifying excitement.”
Note: this essay combines material from Holly Hill’s entry in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1920-1930, with the Max Reinhardt chapter in my From Stanislavsky to Barrault: Representative Directors of the European Stage.