The Magic Theater
“Nothing,” said he in the mirror, “I am only waiting. I am waiting for death.”
“Where is death then?”
“Coming,” said the other.
Outside the Magic Theater, Pablo holds a small looking glass up to Harry. Harry sees the trembling reflection of a creature into which a man and wolf flow irregularly, each trying to destroy the other. Harry recognizes that this is how he sees himself, and that with Pablo’s help all of his soul will be made visible to him. Pablo leads Harry and Hermine into a horseshoe-shaped theater. He explains that victory over time is achieved through the dissolution of the personality. Pablo instructs Harry to walk down the left corridor while Hermine walks down the right. He shows Harry the pocket mirror again and tells him that the Magic Theater is a “school of humor.” Harry laughs, fully and with a feeling of wonderful release. The mirror chars, as though burned, and turns opaque.
Congratulating Harry and laughing the same eerie laugh from the end of the dance, Pablo tells Harry that the Magic Theater is a world of “pictures, not realities.” To cast aside the “spectacles” of his old personality, Harry looks into a gigantic mirror in which he sees infinite Harrys of all ages. One is a young teen who leaps out and runs down the corridor. Harry runs after the teen and stops with him at a door that reads “ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS—ONE QUARTER IN THE SLOT.” The boy disappears into the slot. Harry discovers everyone else has also disappeared, and he is left to negotiate the Magic Theater alone.
Harry opens a door that reads “JOLLY HUNTING—GREAT HUNT IN AUTOMOBILES.” He finds himself in the middle of a war between men and machines. The scene is apocalyptic, filled with flames and death and reckless, gratuitous bloodshed. Gustav, Harry’s school friend, suddenly appears. Next, Harry opens a door that bears the words “GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY. SUCCESS GUARANTEED.” Inside, a man who looks like Pablo asks Harry to put the pieces of his personality on a chessboard, and shows him how to infinitely reconfigure them. When finished, Harry puts these wonderful pieces into his pocket.
The third door Harry chooses is marked “MARVELOUS TAMING OF THE STEPPENWOLF.” Inside, Harry watches a man humiliate a broken wolf by making it behave like a man. Harry is horrified to see the hungry wolf swallow chocolate while it is forced to put its paws around a rabbit and a lamb. Then man and wolf switch positions, and the man rips off his clothes and tears through the flesh of the rabbit and lamb as if he were a beast. In the fourth room Harry enters, “ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS,” he gets to enjoy all the women he has ever wanted in his life. Each one of these lovers readies him for his final encounter with Hermine.
Finally, Harry stands in front of a door marked “HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE.” He is reminded of his early conversation with Hermine, when she told him she would give him a final command to kill her. Filled with dread, Harry reaches in his pockets for the pieces of his life so that he may rework them into a different conclusion. However, all he manages to fish out of his pocket is a knife. Harry runs away, back to the gigantic mirror, where he sees a wolf that turns into Harry. The reflection tells Harry that it is waiting for death.
Strains of the opera Don Giovanni and a peal of unearthly laughter herald the appearance of the composer Mozart, the person Harry most admires. The two discuss music and see Brahms and Wagner marching drearily below past them, dragging hosts of followers. Mozart does a somersault and laughs at Harry for being so despondent. Harry tries to catch Mozart’s pigtail, but it turns into the tail of a comet, which Harry follows into the cold atmosphere of immortals. Harry then passes out.
When he comes to, Harry returns to the final door. He opens it to see Hermine and Pablo sleeping on the floor naked. Harry immediately thrusts the knife under Hermine’s left breast, the spot where Pablo has left a mark. Pablo awakes, smiles, hides Hermine’s wound with a corner of the rug, and leaves. Mozart enters, now in modern dress, and begins fixing a radio set. When Mozart turns on the radio, Harry is horrified that Mozart has sided with this terrible, modern, and mediocre bourgeois machine. Mozart laughs, explaining that the radio displays the battle between the real and the ideal, between humanity and divinity. Criticizing Harry for having done such a foolish thing as to kill Hermine, Mozart sends Harry to “HARRY’S EXECUTION.” In a bare yard enclosed by four walls, Harry is indicted for misusing the Magic Theater and for having no humor. A frightening, otherworldly laughter descends upon him.
Harry comes to again, and Mozart is there to tell him that he cannot die. He says that Harry must live on to “listen to the cursed radio music of life” and that he must go on to “live and to learn to laugh.” When Harry threatens refusal, Mozart offers Harry a cigarette and suddenly transforms into Pablo. Pablo, referring to Hermine, is disappointed that Harry has made such a mess of the Magic Theater. Pablo picks up Hermine, who shrinks into a toy figure, and packs her into his waistcoat pocket. Pablo tells Harry that he will do better the next time.
At this point, Harry understands everything. He understands that “all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in [his] pocket,” and he is determined to start the game anew. The novel closes with the optimistic words: “One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.”
I understood it all . . . . I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket.
The episode of the Magic Theater questions the boundary between life and art. The worlds Harry discovers inside the doors are highly stylized representations that match up to an emotional or psychic reality rather than depicting a physical reality. They remind us of theatrical arts as well as visual ones: Harry is in a theater, and his actions are actually a performance. Pablo himself declares that the Magic Theater is a place of pictures rather than reality. We are entirely in the realm of art or magic. Critic Ralph Freedman suggests that the scenes behind the doors symbolize the transformation of life into art, and that the mirror of art transforms what is ambivalent in real life into images and motifs. Freedman argues that Hesse’s sense of being both wanted and rejected is manifest in Harry’s “pilgrimage among alternating motifs: those depicting pleasure, a unified vision, humor, or transcendence contrasted with others which depict isolation, failure, betrayal, and despair.”
The Magic Theater scene clarifies the importance of laughter, one of the novel’s key concerns. From the start, Pablo explains that the Magic Theater is a school of humor. Pablo laughs constantly and encourages Harry to laugh at his own personality and life. When Harry encounters Mozart, the composer also states that Harry takes life too seriously, and he laughs the beautiful laughter of the immortals. In this regard, Mozart resembles the jocund Goethe of Harry’s dream at the Black Eagle.
The nature of the laughter that these characters discuss, however, is complex. It is not the kind of laughter that results from a propensity to see the sunny side of life. Rather, in Steppenwolf laughter is seen as a response not to the amusing but to the dreadful. The laughter of the immortals belongs to them because it transcends the dramas and worries of human life. Though Harry does not learn the lessons of the school of humor right away, at the end of the novel he optimistically believes that he will.
Harry’s determination to try to learn how to laugh suggests that a great, transcendent life is not out of mortal reach. Indeed, in much of the Magic Theater episode, Hesse laughs at his own writing in the same way that his characters suggest Harry should laugh at his life. Hesse’s painfully earnest story of a tortured, gifted man may make the author seem humorless. But there is a strong element of self-mockery in the Magic Theater episode that reveals Hesse’s sense of humor.
Hesse’s self-mockery is most obvious in the embedded titles of some of the doors in the Magic Theater. Doors along the corridor promise things such as “delightful suicide,” “the wisdom of the East,” “transformation from time into space by means of music,” “downfall of the West,” “laughing tears,” and “solitude made easy.” These titles are a catalog of Hesse’s own obsessions, the ideas that appear throughout Steppenwolf and Hesse’s other works. That Hesse can list his obsessions so plainly shows that he is fully aware of his own inclinations. Furthermore, the fact that Hesse reduces his obsessions to unceremonious phrases, thrown out helter-skelter in the fantastic Magic Theater, is an indication that he can laugh at them, that he does not take them too seriously. The door titles imply subtly that Hesse has arrived at a fuller reconciliation of his own multiple selves and has learned the lesson of humor that Harry glimpses at the novel’s conclusion.