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Spring Awakening
EN302: European Theatre
Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)
Bertolt Brecht on Wedekind in
�His vitality was his finest
characteristic. … A few weeks ago at
the Bonbonniere he sang his songs to
guitar accompaniment in a brittle
voice, slightly monotonous and quite
untrained. No singer ever gave me
such a shock, such a thrill. It was the
man’s intense aliveness, the energy
which allowed him to defy sniggering
ridicule and proclaim his brazen
hymn to humanity, that also gave him
this personal magic. He seemed
indestructible.’ (1977: 3)
Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)
1864: Born Benjamin Franklin Wedekind in Hanover. Parents both German:
mother a singer, father a doctor.
1872: Family left Germany for Switzerland due to increasingly authoritarian
and conservative German politics under Bismarck.
1886: Clashed with father, who wanted him to continue his legal studies, while
Frank wanted to be a writer. Left for Zurich after a physical fight with his
father. Worked as advertising manager for Maggi soup and as secretary to a
1891: Published Spring Awakening (FrГјhlings Erwachen) at his own expense.
1899: Tried and imprisoned for nine months for �libelling the crown’,
following anti-Government poems in the political satirical magazine
1901: Founded political cabaret troupe The Eleven Executioners in Munich.
1906: Married Tilly Newes, the 19-year-old star of his play Pandora’s Box,
following her suicide attempt at the discovery that she was pregnant with his
1918: Died in Munich.
Spring Awakening
(FrГјhlings Erwachen)
1891: Publication.
1906: Theatrical premiere of Spring Awakening in Berlin.
1908: Banned in Germany (ban subsequently revoked).
1910: Private performance in England by the Stage Society.
1912: First US production, given in German in New York.
1917: First full English-language production, also in New York.
1963: English Stage Society produce two Sunday night
performances at the Royal Court Theatre.
1974: First uncensored English-language performance at the
National Theatre, in a version by Edward Bond.
2006: Adapted into a rock musical on Broadway.
Formal features
Structural features:
Patterns and parallels:
Moving from one mode (naturalism?) into another (expressionism?)
Episodic form – principle of montage and juxtaposition
Act One: mostly outdoors; children dominate.
Act Two: mostly indoors; moved towards monologues.
Act Three: mostly institutions; adults dominate.
Violent climax to each act (though the third, like the Oresteia’s, is averted by the
intervention of a god-like figure).
Moritz and Melchior’s moments of choice.
Typography (e.g. hayloft scene, Moritz’s suicide, graveyard scene)
Movement through spring, summer and autumn.
Woods (like fairy tales)
Wind / storm
Autobiographical elements
�I began writing without any plan, intending to write what gave me
pleasure. The plan came into being after the third scene and consisted
of my own experiences or those of my school fellows. Almost every
scene corresponds to an actual incident.’ (Wedekind, quoted in Bentley
2002: xxi)
Wedekind, like Moritz, struggled at school and was held back a year.
The young Wedekind came close to suicide himself after two
classmates shot one another in a suicide pact in 1880.
In 1881, another classmate killed himself:
�Last Friday Frank Oberlin cut school. Saturday morning at 4 o’clock he
took his history book and went to the embankment to review his history
lessons. Two hours later at 6 o’clock his body was found washed up on
the banks of the Aare River.’ (Wedekind, letter to Adolf Vögtlin, quoted
in Ham 2007: 52)
A fourth classmate, Moritz DГјrr, killed himself in 1885.
German schools
Key question: �Don’t you agree, Melchior, that the sense of shame is
simply a product of a person’s upbringing?’ (Moritz)
Industrialisation of Germany in late 19th century resulted in a massive
increase in the size of the middle class; knock-on effects included an
increasingly authoritarian sense of morality, and expanding education
system, and an ever-larger audience of readers and theatregoers.
�By the end of the century… an increasing number of young people
remained in school for longer periods of time, during which they were
expected to behave like children although their bodies and drives were
fully developed. An increasing number of social disorders attended this
peculiar custom, the most dramatic of which were student suicides. …
Adolescent suicide soon became one of the leading subjects of German
dramas and novels. And, as might be expected, the growing host of
school reformers became preoccupied with this problem as well. They
saw the increase in suicides as the direct result of an evil and outdated
educational system.’ (Fishman 1970: 172)
German schools
Student suicide was a specifically middle-class problem (Fishman 1970:
�By Wedekind’s day, an incredible forty percent of male adolescent
suicides were attributed to undue stress and failure in school’ (Ham
2007: 51).
Aspects of schooling included attempts to instil unquestioning respect
for authority (through discipline) and competition between pupils
(through ensuring a set proportion of failures).
Fishman paraphrases an article by educational reformer Ludwig
�The most vicious aspect of the German educational and bureaucratic
system… is its impersonality. Every administrator, teacher, and student
becomes part of a vast, impersonal apparatus. Each day students are
herded into pedagogical barracks and disciplined by state pedants. No
attempt is made to understand the nature and needs of young people.’
(Fishman 1970: 177)
Spring Awakening as social critcism
The play gives a very satirical presentation of the German
educational system and authority figures.
Attempts to keep young people in ignorance about their
sexualities leads to at least two tragic outcomes.
Emma Goldman, The Social Significance of Modern Drama, 1914:
�More boldly than any other dramatist Frank Wedekind has laid bare the
shams of morality in reference to sex, especially attacking the ignorance
surrounding the sex life of the child and its resultant tragedies. … Never
was a more powerful indictment hurled against society, which out of
sheer hypocrisy and cowardice persists that boys and girls must grow up
in ignorance of their sex functions, that they must be sacrificed on the
altar of stupidity and convention which taboo the enlightenment of the
child in questions of such elemental importance to health and well-being.’
Max Reinhardt’s production, 1906
First performance at the Berlin
Kammerspiele, 20th November 1906,
directed by Max Reinhardt.
Reinhardt had opened the Kammerspiele
earlier that year with a production of Ibsen’s
J. L. Styan describes the production as �an
historic event in the growth of expressionism’
(1982: 33).
�His [Reinhardt’s] production, with its
masterly use of the most up-to-date stagingtechniques (revolving stage, no �realistic’ sets,
gauzes) set a precedent for later productions
of a work soon regarded in the Germanspeaking countries as the spearhead of a new
concept of drama.’ (Skrine 1989: 77)
Wedekind himself played the Man in the
Mask (left).
Max Reinhardt’s production, 1906
Max Reinhardt’s production, 1906
�A Tragedy of Childhood’?
Reinhardt discouraged Wedekind from attending
�I wasn’t allowed to attend until the tenth day… What I
found in preparation was a veritable tragedy in the grand
dramatic style, without a trace of humour. I did my best to
give the comedy its due, and tried to enhance the playful,
intellectual elements and dampen the passionate elements,
notable in the last scene in the cemetery. I believe the play is
more moving the more harmlessly, sunnily and light-heartedly
it is performed. If passion and tragedy are brought to the
fore, I believe this play can seem slightly repellent.’ (quoted in
Forsyth 2010: xxxi)
�A Tragedy of Childhood’?
In 1911, Wedekind wrote:
�Since about 1901, above all since Max Reinhardt put
it on stage, it has been regarded as an angry, deadly
earnest tragedy, as a thesis play, as a polemic in the
service of sexual enlightenment – or whatever the
current slogans of the fussy, pedantic lower middle
class may be. It makes me wonder if I shall live to
see the book taken for what, twenty years ago, I
wrote it as – a sunny image of life in every scene of
which I tried to exploit an unburdened humour for
all it was worth.’ (quoted in Bermel 1993: 31)
Naturalist or not?
MELCHIOR: I’ll tell you everything. – I got it partly from
books, partly from pictures, partly from observing nature.
You’ll be surprised: it made an atheist of me for a time.
�From the start, Wedekind rejected the Naturalists’ aim
of exact representation and their fatalistic theories of
determinism by heredity and environment. His hostility
was heightened by a quarrel with Gerhard Hauptmann,
a leading Naturalist writer.’ (Boa 1987: 16)
�When Naturalism has had its day, its practitioners can
earn a living in the secret police.’ (Wedekind, The World
of Youth, 1890)
Naturalist or not?
Wedekind considered his plays a rejection of
�What my plays cannot stand is a naturalistic approach, with
hands in pockets and the words sloppily mumbled so that
nobody can catch them. And please spare me your
psychological subtleties: there is no such thing as
“psychological” style – the psychological dimension goes
without saying and will emerge of its own accord if my
characters are presented consistently. Their psychology is my
business, it is not the business of my characters, still less of
the actors playing them.’ (quoted in Skrine 1989: 72)
Naturalist or not?
Many of the adult characters are grotesque, one-dimensional
caricatures: the teachers have names like KnГјppeldick
(Thickstick), Zungenschlag (Stickytongue) and Knockenbruch
�The outburst of furious indignation provoked by Spring’s
Awakening was aggravated by its plan to have the audience
sympathize with the moving scenes of the children, and then see
themselves depicted on the stage as pompous fools.’ (Styan 1981:
The New York Times review of the first English-language
production, though, points out that the play �calls for the service
of players who can suggest children’, and that it was only
partially successful in this respect (31 March 1917).
Brechtian elements?
Wedekind’s friend and biographer Artur Kutscher:
�Unlike the naturalistic school… he does not want people to
forget that they are in the theatre, but he emphasizes the
theatre and always keeps the public and its reactions in mind.’
(quoted in Willet 1977: 106)
Bertolt Brecht described Wedekind as �one of the great
educators of modern Europe’ (1977: 3-4).
�Wedekind adopted the structure which Brecht would
later call epic, and which was inherited from the
Elizabethans via Goethe: it aims not at a single
luminous image, but at varied perspectives.’ (Bentley
2002: xxv).
Brechtian elements?
In 1929, Brecht’s
collaborators Peter Lorre,
Carola Neher and Lotte
Lenya played Moritz, Wendla
and Ilse in a production at
the Berlin VolksbГјhne.
The production was updated
and transposed to 1920s
Berlin, and the pastoral
setting replaced with a
modern tenement block.
Spring Awakening and censorship:
a brief history
Spring Awakening has been heavily censored for most of its theatrical life.
Scenes 2.3, 3.4 and 3.6 were usually cut in their entirety, from the very first
performances until the 1970s.
Censored elements in Reinhardt’s production included the teachers’
names, Melchior’s beating of Wendla, and the three scenes mentioned
above (two of them removed by the censor, while Wedekind and
Reinhardt chose to lose Hänschen’s monologue after the censor’s cuts).
Reinhardt wrote to the police appealing against the censorship of the play:
 �In this work it is not merely a question of new material, but also of an
original form of psychological presentation, and the theme (the mental
and physical struggle of adolescent youth) is approached with such moral
seriousness, honesty, sense of value and tragic weight, is so far removed
from the frivolous, so entirely free from ugly suggestion, that the chance
of giving any offence to a sensitive viewer seems quite out of the
question.’ (Styan 1982: 35)
Spring Awakening and censorship:
a brief history
American critic James Huneker:
�The seduction scene is well managed at the
Kammerspielhaus. We are not shown the room, but a curtain
slightly divided allows the voices of the youthful lovers to be
overheard. A truly moving effect is thereby produced.’ (1915:
English critic Austin Harrison:
�The inner thoughts of both the boy and girl are outspoken
with a frankness positively embarrassing in a public place, and
in the end the girl dies in childbirth, while the boy passes on
triumphantly into life.’ (The Observer, 23 June 1907)
Spring Awakening and censorship:
a brief history
Emma Goldman’s account accidentally gives some
intriguing insights into the effects of the play’s
censorship upon its meanings:
�The Awakening of Spring is laid in three acts and fourteen
scenes, consisting almost entirely of dialogues among the
children. … Melchior, the innocent father of Wendla’s
unborn baby, is a gifted boy whose thirst for knowledge leads
him to inquire into the riddle of life, and to share his
observations with his school chums. … Wendla and
Melchior, overtaken by a storm, seek shelter in a haystack,
and are drawn by what Melchior calls the “first emotion of
manhood” and curiosity into each other’s arms.’ (The Social
Significance of Modern Drama, 1914)
Spring Awakening and censorship:
a brief history
The play’s first English-language performance was a single
matinee in New York in 1917. The producers had to go to court
to get an injunction to allow them to go ahead.
Following this, a Supreme Court Justice declared that it had �no
proper place on the stage of a public theatre’ and that it did
�infinitely more than harm than good’:
�Apparently the young are to be equally enlightened without giving the
parents a prior choice of some less turgid channel of education. Some
may find a beneficial moral in this play, but the majority, particularly the
younger element, would find in the portrayal only what is portrayed – a
pruriency attributed as typical of youth – to which type, happily, many do
not conform.’ (New York Times, 3 May 1917)
Spring Awakening and censorship:
a brief history
The earliest uncensored performances were not given until 1958 in the US
(Chicago), 1965 in Germany (Bremen), and 1974 in Britain and France
(London and Paris respectively)
In 1963, the English Stage Society staged two Sunday night performances at
the Royal Court, in a version translated by Literary Manager Tom Osborn:
�… after two years of negotiations with the Lord Chamberlain, the play was given
a licence to be performed before the general public, but only providing “there was
no kissing, embracing or caressing” between the two boys in the vineyard scene,
the words “penis” and “vagina” were omitted and an alternative was found to the
masturbation game in the reformatory.’ (Osborn 1969: 5)
�Despite recommendations from [Kenneth] Tynan and Laurence Olivier, the
National [Theatre] initially rejected the play, with Osborn quoting an NT
spokesman as saying the play was “all right for some poky experimental
theatre in Sloane Square”, and it was not until 1974 that the first complete
uncensored performance in Britain was given in London by the NT at the
Old Vic’ (Forsyth 2010: xxxv).
Spring Awakening and censorship:
a brief history
Even now, the homosexual elements tend to be played
against the grain of the text; Bentley recalls a modern
production in which Hänschen and Ernst merely
shared a cigarette rather than kissing (2002: xiv-xv).
Stacy Wolf points out that even in the musical version’s
�seemingly progressive representation of
homosexuality’, the gay scenes are �played for laughs,
with Hänschen a stereotype of a fey, arrogant cruiser.
The presence of the gay couple effectively re-centres
the straight couple as the norm’ (2011: 217).
Political theatre:
Edward Bond’s version, 1974
Edward Bond’s �Note on the Play’:
�Spring Awakening is partly about the
misuse of authority. All the adult men in
the play work in the professions… They
are members of institutions that are part
of the state, and they base their work on
the state’s ethos and teach its doctrines.
… They are typical authoritarian men:
sly, cringing, mindless zombies to those
over them, and narrow, vindictive,
unimaginative tyrants to those under
them.’ (1980: xxv-xxvi)
�Many of the young people in Spring
Awakening are already like their elders.
… All these boys will go to the trenches
and die with the same obedience they
learned at school and were rewarded for
with exam passes.’ (1980: xxvii)
Political theatre:
Edward Bond’s version, 1974
�The ineffectual pessimism which Moritz
describes in the last scene – sonorous,
world weary, smiling serenely over the
tragedies and absurdities of the world –
has great academic respectability. … It
can immediately be seen to be a false
attitude.’ (Bond 1980: xxviii)
�The play isn’t out of date. It becomes
more relevant as our armies get stronger,
our schools, prisons and bombs bigger,
our means of imposing discipline
themselves more disciplined and more
veiled, and our self-knowledge not much
greater.’ (Bond 1980: xxix)
Political theatre?
But is the play so straightforwardly political?
Eric Bentley argues that:
�If we take the play as simply social-revolutionary, Moritz’s
orientation is to be attributed to pressure from the school
authorities. But none of the other boys respond as negatively
as Moritz, though they all experience the pressures. His
opposite pole in Hänschen Rilow who responds with
defiance, and lets himself fully enjoy the awakening of spring.’
(2002: xxxv)
Is the play, perhaps, also exploring a more humanist
idea about �aliveness’?
�All shall know the wonder
of purple summer…’
The famous rock musical version, with a score by
Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater,
premiered in 2006. It won 7 awards, including Best
Musical, at the 2007 Tony Awards.
Some stylistic innovations included:
Casting just two actors (one male, one female) as all the adult
The use of hand-held microphones for the characters’ inner
thoughts (contrasting with the 19th-century setting, which was
Video link:
�All shall know the wonder
of purple summer…’
Stacy Wolf has argued that the musical version �offers a tackedon celebrate-the-day ending that differs from its source material,
even more jarring since it follows the suicide of one character
and the death from a botched abortion of another’ (2011: 217).
The �tidied-up’ ending is perhaps reminiscent of those of the
musicals Les Miserables and Rent.
Edward Bond wrote in 2009:
�Actors act onstage as if they were playing theatre in a TV studio but no
drama school teaches them how to act in “the public place of drama”.
Designers decorate theatre spaces but no design school teaches them how
to create “the public place of drama”. And now Spring Awakening is made
into a musical. Musicals are for those who are locked into the toyshop.’
(2009: xvi)
A hymn to life?
�Wedekind drew inspiration from the lower echelons of
the theatrical world – circus and music hall – and from
the outcasts of society – the crooks, adventurers,
acrobats and prostitutes who became his friends – to
develop his personal creed of resilience, sexual freedom
and physical vitality.’ (Forsyth 2010: xvi)
Wedekind dedicated the play to the Man in the Mask.
Symbolism of becoming headless: the dangerous
consequences of separating body and head, mind and
Think about Melchior’s choice in the final scene.
A hymn to life?
But as Elizabeth Boa points out,
�Spring Awakening connotes not just meadow flowers, but
involuntary erections. In this context at least, two voices
sound in the title and the subtitle. … Sex, the fertile source of
life and pleasure, is also potentially deadly: like the river, it
threatens to overwhelm and extinguish the individual. Only
those strong enough to swim, to explore their sexuality and
survive, enjoy a truly full life.’ (Boa 1987: 27-8)
We might reflect on Wedekind’s play in light of the
victory of the Dionysian in The Bacchae…
A hymn to life?
Alan Best argues that
�The case for accepting the masked gentleman as the positive
figure some critics have suggested is far from conclusive.
While he certainly rescues Melchior from Moritz and death,
the life offered by the masked gentleman has little to
recommend it. … There is very little difference between this
and Melchior’s own patronising statements to Moritz in the
first two acts. Melchior began the play as a brash adolescent
whose desire to patronise concealed a deep insecurity.’ (1975:
�…when life appeared to Moritz as Ilse it was as
overpowering sexuality, the Achilles’ heel in Moritz’s
character; now, to Melchior too, life appears as an
exaggerated form of his own failings.’ (1975: 81)
A hymn to life?
As Boa points out, �[t]he focus in the play is masculine
�…both sexes are induced to feel guilt or shame. … The boys
project their guilt on the object which arouses sexual desire –
Melchior beating Satan out of Wendla – while the girls
helplessly accept their own guilt as grounds for punishment.’
(Boa 1987: 41)
Think about the contrasting presentations of the �life spirit’ in
Ilse and the Man in the Mask.
Think, too, about the associations between sexuality and
cruelty in the play.
�Whatever Wedekind may have intended, Spring Awakening
promises freedom of sorts for men but not for women.’ (Boa
1987: 46)
Bentley, Eric (2002) [trans. & ed.] Spring’s Awakening, New York: Applause.
Bermel, Albert (1993) Comic Agony, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Best, Alan (1975) Frank Wedekind, London: Wolff.
Boa, Elizabeth (1987) The Sexual Circus: Wedekind’s Theatre of Subversion,
Oxford: Blackwell.
Bond, Edward (1980) [trans. & ed.] Spring Awakening, London: Methuen.
Bond, Edward (2009) [trans. & ed.] Spring Awakening, London: Methuen.
Brecht, Bertolt (1977) Brecht on Theatre, ed. John Willet, London: Methuen.
Fishman, Sterling (1970) �Suicide, Sex, and the Discovery of the German
Adolescent’, History of Education Quarterly, 10: 2, pp. 170-188.
Forsyth, Julian & Margaret (2010) [trans. & ed.] Spring Awakening, London:
Nick Hern Books.
Ham, Jennifer (2007) �Unlearning the Lesson: Wedekind, Nietzsche, and
Educational Reform at the Turn of the Century’, The Journal of the Midwest
Modern Language Association, 40: 1, pp. 49-63.
Huneker, James (1915) Ivory Apes and Peacocks, Fairford: Echo Library.
Osborn, Tom (1969) [trans. & ed.] Spring Awakening, London: Calder and
Skrine, Peter N. (1989) Hauptmann, Wedekind and Schnitzler, Basingstoke:
Styan, J. L. (1981) Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3: Expressionism and Epic
Theatre, Cambridge: C. U. P.
Styan, J. L. (1982) Directors in Perspective: Max Reinhardt, Cambridge: C. U. P.
Willet, John (1977) The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, London: Methuen.
Wolf, Stacy (2011) �Gender and Sexuality’, in Raymond Knapp, Mitchell
Morris and Stacy Wolf [eds] The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical,
Oxford: O. U. P., pp. 210-24.
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