Production History
Synopsis
Scenery, decoration, music and acting (London production)
Reviews of the American production
The Lubitsch Film

PRODUCTION HISTORY

This is a play without words, a 'pantomime play with music', adapted from the tales of the Arabian nights by Friedrich Freksa. This production deviated in many respects not only from the usual productions of dramatic theatre of the time, but also from other - innovative productions by Reinhardt. The production was conceived as an experiment. In place of language, the performer's body should dominate. Not, however, like 'the old pantomime which replaces the words by stereotypical gestures, so that one wonders why the people do not rather speak'. On the contrary, scenes were to be created, 'that, basically, could do without words'.

In Sumurun Reinhardt brought about another radical innovation. For the first time, he employed the hanamichi from the Japanese kabuki theatre, the 'flower-path', as he called it. Reinhardt was informed about the hanamichi and its particular possibilities by one of his stage designers, Emil Orlik. Orlik had lived in Japan for about a year in 1900-1 to study the art of the wood block print. When he told Reinhardt about the hanamichi, its concept was already quite well-known and discussed among theatre reformers. Information about the hanamichi was available through many publications that appeared on Japan and the Japanese theatre from the 1880s. In 'Le Theatre au Japon' (1888) Alfred Lequeux, for example, describes the spatial conception of the hanamichi as well as the actors' use of it. He comes to the conclusion: La vie du drame gagne beaucoup a ce procede. Toute la salle participe, pour ainsi dire, a l'action. On voit quelle proportion prend la scene empietant ainsi jusqu'a l'entree du parterre par dessus les tetes des spectateurs.

This spatial conception allowed the simultaneous representation of different actions taking place on the path and a subplot evolving on the stage. Lequeux concludes: 'Chacun se trouve ainsi au milieu du drame, il y prend peutetre un interet d'autant plus vif.'

The production Sumurun opened on 24 April 1910 in Berlin, was recast in London in 1911 and toured to Paris and New York in 1912. (It remained in the repertory of the Deutsches Theater, and was staged there as late as 1918). Wherever it went, it was an overwhelming box-office success, although the critics' response was quite different. Nonetheless, whatever stance was taken, the reviews provide us with a wealth of information concerning the structure and the effect of the production.

In the summer of 1910, it was made into a film which 'bored its audience by wasting 2,000 meters of film on an exact duplication of the original stage performance.' The audience reproached it for a complete lack of details and close-ups offered by even the average film. In 1920 Sumurun (or One Arabian Night) was made starring Pola Negri and directed by Ernst Lubitsch - who played the Hunchback. (Paul Wegener also starred). It 'withdrew from the realms of history into Oriental fairy-tale surroundings, making an old sheik in search of sex adventures the comical counterpart of Amenes and Henry VIII.' It was also made into an American musical.

Conrad Veidt starred on stage as Nur-Al-Din for Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater in 1918.

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Synopsis
as told by Huntley Carter

Scene I

Long before the play opens, Nur-al-Din has been dreaming of the perfect woman. One day, as the play opens, she arrives, at the bazaar where he carries on his merchant business, in order to see the show of Nur-Al-Din's neighbor - a hunchback showman, who has a troupe of performers including a beautiful dancer, an old woman who charms snakes, and a huge negro. The Hunchback also has his romance: he is in love with the beautiful Dancer.

Within the bazaar, the glances of Nur-al-Din and Sumurun meet. They fall instantly in love. But their is an obstacle to their happiness. The old Sheik has to be removed.

The Sheik and Sumurun are accompanied to the bazaar by the Sheik's son, who, being a lover-adventurer, is willing and anxious to bestow his favors on the first promising object. First he tries to flirt with one of Sumurun's maids, and, being defeated there by Sumurun herself, turns his attention upon the Hunchback's Dancer. The Hunchback, though poor and humble, is not a man to be trifled with. He has poured all his passion into his love for the Dancer, and though there is a great division in rank between him and his rival, nothing restrains the Hunchback's jealousy and the frenzy of his anger. The officials of the bazaar intervene.

The Hunchback, half-killed, turns to Sumurun and begs her to restore peace between him and his powerful; adversary. Sumurun promises to do what she can.

The Sheik soon appears, in search of his wife. But he sees the Dancer himself, and is captivated by her. The Sheik attempt to buy her from the Hunchback, but he will not sell. However, the old woman snake charmer takes it upon herself to do so.

The Hunchback depicts in vivid gestures his horror at this cold-blooded plot to rob him of his pearl of great price.

Scene II

The interior of the Hunchback's theater. The performance proceeds and the Hunchback shows nothing of the passions raging within him. The Sheik's son continues to make approaches to the Dancer, while the Sheik himself bides his time. By this time the Hunchback is in a more conciliatory mood. He sees a way to revenge himself upon the son, by disposing of the Dancer to his father. So the deal is concluded.

A scene follows, in which the power of color to communicate magnetic action is demonstrated. The Dancer arranges her gorgeous wardrobe and packs her trunk. In doing so she turns her back on the Hunchback who, driven to despair, attempts to commit suicide by swallowing a poisonous piece of food called Bhang. The Bhang, however, obliginingly sticks in his throat.

The old snake chgarmer returns from with the gold which she has obtained for the Dancer, and finding the Hunchback to all appearances dead, flings him on a couch, covers him with draperies, and departs. The Sheik's son returns and discovers the hidden body, which at first he takes to be the Dancer asleep, but on learning the truth bundles the body unceremoniously into a sack belonging to the merchant, Nur-al-Din. The curtain falls as the Sheik's son exits and the merchant's slaves enter to bear the sack away.

Scene III

The scene opens with the Hunchback passing to his ultimate destination (the shop of Nur-Al-Din via the exterior of the Sheik's palace) and receiving many unkind buffets on the way. A sack is not a comfortable form of transit and it does not inspire reverence in those who handle it. Meanwhile Nur-Al-Din converses with Sumurun's ladies-in-waiting - they are all for his suit with Sumurun. However, the Sheik's suspicions are aroused, and the Sheik's son quickens his pursuit of the Dancer.

Scene IV

The Hunchback arrives at the shop, in his sack considerably more damaged than when he first started. The merchant's servants discover him, assume him to be dead, throw him into a large basket, and flee.

Sumurun arrives, presumably to buy, but really to make love to Nur-Al-Din.

The old snakecharmer comes in and moves the furniture in the shop around, so that the box stands out prominently. When Sumurun returns to the shop after a brief absence, her eyes fall upon the box and she gets the idea of smuggling Nur-Al-Din into the Palace in it.

Then comes the 'famous silhouette scene', where the characters of this fantasy pass before the audience in review, as it were, on their way to the Sheik's palace. At the tail of the procession are the baskets to be delivered to the sheik's palace.

The Sheik's servants come out to search Nur-Al-Din's baskets, and very ingeniously Sumurun's maid contrives to transfer the merchant to a basket which has already been inspected. She also discovers the Hunchback, and manages to dislodge the piece of Bhang that had been stuck in his throat.

The Hunchback, revived, witnesses the son's renewed effort to possess the Dancer. So when the old Sheik draws the daring Dancer into the palace, after having discovered her intrigue with his son, and the son follows at the Dancer's beckoning, the Hunchback follows, too, creeping into the palace unobserved.

In Sumurun's chambers, an Eastern voluptuousness where the wife and her ladies hold carnival while the master is absent. Nur-Al-Din is released from his basket by the ladies, who proceed to make the most of his company. The spirit of dance is set free, and rapidly succeeding emotionjs are expressed in rhythmical gesture and motion.

The Sheik enters unexpectedly. But they dance away his suspicions. Sumurun even communicates her love for him through her dance, or so it seems to the Sheik. But he is mistaken, for when he approaches Sumurun she repels him, and in his anger he calls for his new slave, with whom he departs in sight of Sumurun and her women. Sumurun turns to console herself with Nur-Al-Din. As the curtain falls the figures of the son and the Hunchback are seen following the direction the Sheik has taken.

Scene VIII

The Sheik's bedroom. The Sheik and the Dancer are asleep. The Hunchback enters, and conceals himself within the drapery at the back of the bed. Then comes the son. He signals to the Dancer. She responds and they embrace. They are pledged to each other, they will fly together, but first there is one thing to be done. The Sheik must be killed. The son hesitates. She urges him. Time is flying. The son moves forward.

A form appears. To the Dancer it is the ghost of the Hunchback. She shreiks. The Sheik wakens. He drives his dagger into the body of his treacherous son. As the scene closes, the dying son leads his father to to the harem.

Scene IX

Sumurun and her lover, weary of their love-making and dancing, have fallen asleep. They hear movement, waken, and search hurriedly for a place to conceal Nur-Al-Din. The Sheik searches for him, while the women, seeking to abstract his attention, dance madly round him. Suddenly he catches sight of the white face of the Hunchback, in the gallery above. He swiftly drags him down. The women make one more appeal. Sumurun stoically invites him to kill her. Then Nur-Al-Din steps from his hiding place. There is a feirce fight between him and the Sheik, but the strength of the old man prevails. Nur-Al-Din is about to be killed when the battered figure of the Hunchback moves forward and plunges his knife into the back of the Sheik. The lovers are united.

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SCENERY, DECORATION, MUSIC AND ACTING, London production

From the London production mounted by Reinhardt in 1914

The scenery was noticeable for its almost austere simplicity. The background was little more than a whitewashed wall against which the vivid colors moved. This gave the representation of a number of set scenes, rather than scenes unified and continuous. They were scenes carefully composed in the way they would look best, in which the light fell on the draperies and created a fantasy of colors, bringn ut lines in bold relief and strengthening the general design, and where nothing was accidental.

There was no attempt to build up architectural uniformity and coherence. In fact, there was very little of the Arab characteristic in the background. The lines of the smuggling scene should have been alive with inquietude and eccentricity. The lines of the very impressive silhouette scene, with one simple mass against another, black against blue did not harmonise with the quaint rhythm of the fiugres moving along the white base. There is no quietness in the Arab character, and there should be no quietness in its widest expression.

There was an indication of fiery impulsiveness in the bedroom scene.

And that big and attractive harem scene should have been ringing with the symbols of imaginative exciteability, arches buckling and bending in all directions, lines curved, filiated, and twisted into innumerable designs, the whole forming one big rhythmic design. Still, though the background was lacking in the essential movement, the colors were full of it.

There were slaves dressed in riotous patterns, there were gorgeous draperies that strewed the floor and decorated the walls, and appropriately took up their harmonious cues. When a red drapery entered you knew there was a blue to keep it company. In the scene before the Palace there were the whitewashed walls, the deep black exits, the row of red men before the main entrance, and above them at the casement window the bevy of fair women in scintillating colors - reds, yellows, greens, blues. So they went dancing joyfully across the play.

Some details of the staging of Sumurun, which are new to London, deserve mention. One was the Eastern idea of the players crossing the floor of the auditorium by means of a ''flower path'' as though coming from a distance, while another was the arrangement of entrances and exits to suggest the coming of persons from nowhere in particular.

The music, by Victor Hollaender, was composed to tell the story. It was an accompaniment, rather than supplementary. For example, at one part Sumurun taps the basket in which the merchant is concealed. The music taps also, thus giving the impression of two persons doing the same thing at one time.

Pantomimic acting is not new to London (in 1914. web editor). Jane May revealed some of its great possibilities in L'Enfant Prodigue. With this standard in mind I can still say that the pantomimic acting in Sumurun was exceedinly good, seeing that modern actors are only accustomed to elocutionary acting.

In fact, the conventional stage mode of expression is speech, and for one player who can express by a gesture, a pose, a movement, a dance step or two, a thought or emotion, there are nine hundred and ninety-nine who can only express them by so many words.

The cinematograph

The best test of pantomimic acting is the cinematograph. In England acting will not stand the test of this medium. The public crowd to the cinematograph to see acting, where the best examples of Italian, French, and American acting are alone to be found. Take our leading players. Sir Herbert Tree is a failure on the cinematograph. SO is Mr. Gerald du Maurier. So would be the ''stars'' of the discussion drama. In Germany the acting is good, and it is significant that there are, comparatively speaking, few cinematograph theaters. The public frequent the playhouse instead.

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REVIEWS, American production

The critic of the New York Review even went so far as to discuss the effect of the production in the context of physical culture theory: Sumurun is a great feather in the cap of the physical culturists who hold that the body is the instrument of the soul and mind, designated by the creator solely for the purpose of expressing its emotions and thoughts and all that. [. . .] The physical culturists have possibly never before had such an excellent demonstration made for them as this Sumurun. It proves, better than all the books on the subject ever written, or all the lessons in 'bodily expression' ever given by teacher or professor, 'how eloquent is silence'.

Since this eloquence of the body, however, was not realized according to a given code, the process of meaning generating referring to its elements (gestures, postures, movements) was open to different results depending on the different subjective presuppositions of each spectator. The emphasis on materiality determined not only the use of the body but the use of colour as well. The New York critics stated that the use of colour was 'not only beautiful, but novel and refreshing [. . .] Reinhardt seems to have studied the soul of each color. He gets his effect of Oriental wealth by getting each color to a glow and then adding other colors but sparingly until he gets the effects he wants.' In other words, in Sumurun only those theatrical sign-systems prevailed that either did not have a coded meaning - as music and colour -,) or they were used in a way that divested the system of any coded meanings - as acting. Thus, the materiality of body, colour and sound was stressed, a materiality that was per se asemantic. As a result, the two processes of perceiving and of meaning-generating were related to each other in a new way. First, the spectators perceived the presented elements in their particular materiality. Then, depending on their perception and their universe of discourse, the spectators could attribute meanings to the elements they perceived.

Lequeux interprets the hanamichi as a device which creates a totally different kind of interaction (compared to Western standards) between actors and spectators. This point is also made by Adolf Fischer in his article 'Japans Buhnenkunst und ihre Entwicklung': Often two scenes unfold before the eyes of the spectators at the same time: one on the stage and the other on the hanamichi. You will not believe to what extent the audience, sitting between both parties, becomes emotionally involved and wrapped up in the action, and sometimes, carried away by its mood, even participates.

The positive judgement of the hanamichi, is decidedly contradicted by another critic who writes that the hanamichi 'distracts the audience's attention', because 'the actors make their entrances at some vital point in each scene of the play'. This is fatal, since no spectator is able, 'to resist the temptation of turning round or looking skyward as a flock of very fat eunuchs or a bevy of gaily fledged ladies of the harem come clattering down the centre of the theatre just two feet above your head'.

...the characters appeared 'from the back of the theatre over the heads of the audiences'. The critic from the Erie Dispatch describes the hanamichi as 'a flower-decked path, illuminated by coloured lights'. The characters 'in the wordless drama came apparently from nowhere and walk upon the stage over this symbolic pathway to take their places in the moving scenes of the amusing melodrama'. The coloured light established relations between the hanamichi, the costumes of the actors and the stage space. The flowers on the path - the pictorial translation of the word 'flower-path' - indicate that the dramatic figures do not reach the stage via the hard boards of reality, even if they come from the same direction as the spectators when they enter the auditorium. However, they do not appear from 'nowhere': in making their entrance 'over the heads of the audience', they seem to have sprung from their heads; they appear as the creatures of their imagination, as the creatures of their dreams. Most New York critics underline the fact that the production had an 'atmosphere of unreality', that 'seeing Sumurun [. . .] is like looking on in a tense, vivid dream', that 'there is a quality of unreality, a rich mysteriously exotic spell which the pantomime weaves about the spectator as he sits looking at it, that is like nothing as much as the feeling in a heavy dream'.

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More details of SUMURUN film, by Ernst Lubitsch

The UFA Story has a still of the dancer performing in a square outside the Sheik's palace.

The Haunted Screen has a still of two slaves carrying a sack (presumably containing the Hunchback) across a bridge beteen two buildings, while through the archway below one woman glances back in fear at another.

Reinhardt's influence on Lubitsch
Eisner says, '...that famous square market place, around which Lubitsch was so fond of moving his crowds, in Madame Dubarry, Sumurun and Anna Boleyn. In each of these instances, the imitation of Reinhardt effects is of an almost documentary fidelity.'

...Recollections of Reinhardt's art prevail above all in something for which Lubitsch is famous, his handling of crowd scenes. Yet stills and frame enlargements clearly reveal the arid (web editor's italics) regularity behind the groupings and the mechanical application of Reinhardt's techniques.....

...Sumurun was a favorite pantomime of Max Reinhardt's. (He first produced it in 1909, affectionately remoddelling it in all its Arabian Nights splendour for each subsequent revival)..which left its mark on Lubitsch's style.

In Sumurun Lubitsch himself plays the Hunchback, a tragic buffoom. When he launches into a bizarre, disjointed robot-like dance in which his arms and legs seem to have a life of their own, he is inspired by the stage version of the famous pantomime. Wherever this light rhythm comes through, so rare in a German film, it is to Reinhardt that we should render homage.

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SOURCES

The Theater of Max Reinhardt, by Huntly Carter. Copyright 1914. Benjamin Blom, Inc.
From Theater to Theatricality, Erika Fischer-Lichte, 1995, Theater Research International, Oxford University Press
From Caligari to Hitler, by Siegfried Kracauer, 1946
The Haunted Screen, by Lotte Eisner, 1952
The UFA Story, by Klaus Kreimeier, 1996


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