Did you know where Magic Theatre’s name comes from? Back in 1967 our illustrious founders derived the name of their new theatre from the novel Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, in which the central character is invited to attend an:
“Anarchist Evening at the Magic Theatre
For Madmen Only
Price of Admission Your Mind.”
The book is presented as a manuscript by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, who leaves it to a chance acquaintance, the nephew of his landlady. The acquaintance adds a short preface of his own and then has the manuscript published. The title of this “real” book-in-the-book is Harry Haller’s Records (For Madmen Only).
As it begins, the hero is beset with reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of everybody; regular people and his unhappiness in the frivolity of the bourgeois society. In his aimless wanderings about the city he encounters a person carrying an advertisement for a magic theater who gives him a small book, Treatise on the Steppenwolf. This treatise, cited in full in the novel’s text as Harry reads it, addresses Harry by name and strikes him as describing himself uncannily. It is a discourse of a man who believes himself to be of two natures: one high, the spiritual nature of man; while the other is low, animalistic; a “wolf of the steppes”. This man is entangled in an irresolvable struggle, never content with either nature because he cannot see beyond this self-made concept. The pamphlet gives an explanation of the multifaceted and indefinable nature of every man’s soul, which Harry is either unable or unwilling to recognize. It also discusses his suicidal intentions, describing him as one of the “suicides”; people who, deep down knew, they would take their own life one day. But to counter this it hails his potential to be great, to be one of the “Immortals”.
The next day Harry meets a former academic friend with whom he had often discussed Indian mythology, and who invites Harry to his home. While there Harry both becomes disgusted by the nationalistic mentality of his friend, who inadvertently criticizes a column written by himself, and offends the man and his wife by criticizing his wife’s picture of Goethe, which he feels is too thickly sentimental and insulting to Goethe’s true brilliance, thus cementing his belief that he does not fit in with regular society. Trying to postpone returning home (where he has plans to commit suicide), Harry walks aimlessly around the town for most of the night, finally stopping to rest at a dance hall where he happens on a young woman, Hermine, who quickly recognizes his desperation. They talk at length, with Hermine alternately mocking his self-pity and indulging him in his view of life, all to his astonished relief. By promising another meeting, Hermine provides Harry with a reason to learn to live, and he eagerly embraces her instruction. Over the next few weeks Hermine introduces Harry to the indulgences of what he calls the “bourgeois”: she teaches Harry to dance, introduces him to the casual use of drugs, finds him a lover (Maria), and more importantly, forces him to accept these as legitimate and worthy aspects of a full life.
She also introduces Harry to a mysterious saxophonist named Pablo, who appears to be the very opposite of what Harry considers a serious, thoughtful man. After attending a lavish masquerade ball, Pablo leads Harry to his metaphorical “magic theater”, where his previous concerns and higher notions about his soul disintegrate as he participates in several ethereal and phantasmal episodes. The Magic Theater is a place where he can live out possibilities and fantasies of his mind and life. It is described as a long horseshoe-shaped corridor, with a vast wall-to-wall mirror on one side, and countless doors on the other. He enters five of these labeled doors, each symbolic to his life in their own way.