Spring Awakening was Frank Wedekind's first play. He had it published at his own expense in 1891, but it was not performed until Wedekind started his own repertory company in 1906. The first production in the United States took place in 1912, but since the play was in German it failed to attract widespread interest. The play was finally performed in English in 1917. The debut performance almost didn't take place because the New York City Commissioner of Licenses tried to shut it down, claiming that the play was pornographic in nature. Almost immediately, Wedekind was able to secure an injunction from the Supreme Court that allowed the play to go on. Unfortunately, the audience seemed to agree with the Commissioner, and the play closed after a single show. During the Nazi era, Wedekind's work was not actually banned, but since he did not advocate the views espoused by the Nazis, his plays were rarely produced. After Wedekind's death and the end of WWII, the play was frequently produced in Germany. The play finally returned to America in 1958, where a new translation was performed by the University of Chicago Theatre.
Even today the play is considered controversial, though it is widely respected, and many feel a need to defend Wedekind's choices with a variety of strategies. Many supporters claim that the play is fundamentally autobiographical in nature. Some evidence supports this view, for Wedekind said of Spring Awakening: "I started to write without any sort of plan, merely aiming to set down whatever appealed to me. The plan emerged after the third scene and was compiled from my own personal experiences or the experiences of my class-mates." However, Wedekind's diaries contain no information about Spring Awakening besides an infrequent note that someone had read it or suggested that he send it to such-and-such publisher...and in truth, not everything Wedekind wrote about his life proved to be reliable.
Whether or not the events of Spring Awakening were personally experienced by Wedekind, many of the most startling implications of the play are supported by the historical record. Around the time that Wedekind was beginning to write, there was a "marked increase of suicide among schoolchildren" (Boa, 6-7). During the late nineteenth century Germany also saw an explosion of the population, which, coupled with migration from the countryside, lead to a vast increase in the number and size of cities. Repeated economic crises in 1873, the 1880s and the 1890s led to a period of obsession with imperial control embodied in the Kaiser, the symbolic father of the nation who stood for the "authoritarian ideology of law, order and conservative morality" (Boa, 6). In Spring Awakening Wedekind not only dramatizes one such suicide, but also critiques the damaging effects of authoritarian, paternalistic culture.
Spring Awakening addresses a large number of loosely related themes primarily through a series of dialogues. The plot lacks a clear structure, and many of the characters are indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore, Wedekind seems to undermine and satirize a number of ideas without providing positive counterparts to replace them. This confusion seems rooted in Wedekind's tendency to undermine ideas without actually pointing any fingers. In many ways Spring Awakening is a satire with a strong political message; however, Wedekind never directly or implicitly blames "the government," "German society," or even specific characters. Wedekind seems to be shooting arrows in all directions, lacking a single, clear target.
A fuller understanding of Spring Awakening can be achieved if the work is viewed as a chronicle of the damages done rather than as a polemic meant to inspire action. Wendla, Moritz, and Melchior are best viewed as a triangle. The three characters both interact with and act in parallel to each other as each struggles to make the transition to adulthood. The title of the play, Spring (or Spring's) Awakening, refers to both the incipient adulthood and the incipient sexuality of the children who form its center. Both meanings suggest beginnings, the promise of the future, and a period of warmth and peace. However, by the play's end two characters are dead - one by suicide, one by a botched abortion. Wedekind's play forces the reader and the audience to see that children cannot be sheltered from life's hardships and dangers. What may seem like a peaceful development is actually difficult, frightening, and fraught with danger. Only Melchior survives, aided by the mysterious man in a mask. The hidden identity of the man in the mask hinders a complete understanding of Melchior's survival, but suggests that there is no formula to ensure the smooth passage from childhood to adulthood.
Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, subtitled A Children’s Tragedy, was his first major work and the one that made him famous—and infamous. When the play was first produced, many regarded it as pornographic; riots broke out at performances, and the work was subjected to repeated censorship. The play, however, avoids the explicit and obscene, and later generations have come to see it as a powerful creation shaped out of inner experience.
The world of anxiety in which students live and suffer was familiar to Wedekind from his own school years. He shaped Spring Awakening not as a documentary, however; rather, it takes the form of a bizarre fantasy charged with irony. The adults, especially the teachers and the pastor, are grotesque parodies. Even their names resemble the sorts of mocking epithets students might invent. Scenes such as that in which Melchior is interrogated by the faculty and that of Moritz’s funeral are bitter parodies of the cruelty inflicted on children by adults as that cruelty is perceived by the children.
Indeed, Wedekind places all the lyricism and humanity in the play in the world of the young, perhaps for the first time on the German stage giving expression to the experience of this age group. Using naturalist techniques, Wedekind accurately captures the speech patterns and behaviors of young people while lifting them beyond the level of mere naturalism. That the play is allied more with the Symbolist school is evident from the fantasy of the final scenes: the temptation of Melchior by Moritz and his rescue by the “masked man.” Wedekind dedicated the play to this mysterious figure, who clearly represents the life force, perhaps within Melchior himself, which enables him to reject death and return to the world of the living, grotesque though it may be, to experience the fullness of life, of which Moritz, by his suicide, has robbed himself.
Many have considered Wedekind a precursor of German literary expressionism, and Bertolt Brecht considered him to be one of the principal influences on his own political and experimental plays. Spring...
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