by Qingyuan Jiang

Lulu is a five-act play written by German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864—1918). Early critics considered it to be “the climax of Wedekind’s artistic creativity” and “the most significant of the author’s works,” and such positive opinions have prevailed in the critical literature since that time.[1]

The Lulu Play(s)

According to Alan Best, Wedekind struggled over the material of Lulu from 1892 until the summer of 1895, when he submitted to his publisher a completed manuscript titled Die Büchse der Pandora, eine Monstertragödie (Pandora’s Box, a Monster Tragedy). The publisher, Albert Langen, feared legal repercussions stemming from the murder of Lulu by Jack the Ripper at the end of the play, so Wedekind was forced to divide his original work into two plays. The first published version of Lulu appeared as Der Erdgeist (The Earth Spirit) in 1895, containing the first three acts of the “Monster Tragedy” with a new act inserted between Acts Two and Three. In 1902, the reminder of the original manuscript was published in a modified form under the name Die Büchse der Pandora, prefaced by a new first act.[2] These two plays were henceforth collectively known as “the Lulu plays.”

Since most theaters, for practical purposes, wanted Lulu to be played within one night rather than two, the play underwent a variety of stage adaptations, including a compressed version edited by the playwright himself in 1913. Comparing the original Lulu to the two “Lulu plays,” the translator Eric Bentley proposes that the original version not only “contains all the raw and raunchy bits,” but is also “superior in style and structure.”[3]

Plot Summary

Act One

Schwartz, a young painter, is discussing a work with his client, Dr. Schön, in his studio. The topic turns to a portrait of Lulu, whose jealous husband, Dr. Goll, had her costumed as Pierrot. Dr. Goll and Lulu pay a visit to the studio, where Goll accepts Schön’s invitation to attend a show. Left alone in the studio, the enamored painter Schwartz chases Lulu around the room until she collapses on the sofa with him. At that moment, Goll returns to the room, and witnessing the scene, he attempts to strike Schwartz but dies suddenly of a heart attack. Schwartz is hysterical; Lulu stands aside with marked indifference.

Act Two

Lulu has become the wife of Schwartz, who is enjoying success due to a sudden growth in popularity. A mysterious visitor named Schigolch is introduced; he claims to be Lulu’s father-protector. Lulu, who is involved in an affair with Schön, complains to her lover of her dislike for Schwartz. Schön, however, now officially engaged, wants to sever his ties with Lulu. He reveals his relationship with Lulu to Schwartz, hoping that the latter will take tighter control of his wife. Instead, Schwartz becomes overwhelmed with self-pity and commits suicide. Under growing hysteria, Schön takes Lulu as his new wife.

Act Three

As Schön’s wife, Lulu becomes familiar with his son, Alwa, as well as with Rodrigo the acrobat and Countess Geschwitz, an arrogant lesbian attracted to Lulu. They amuse themselves by humiliating Schön. Schön, once well composed and calculating, is now at his wit’s end. In a moment of desperation, he hands a gun to Lulu, hoping that she will kill herself and end his misery. In a scene of great confusion, Alwa and Rodrigo rush out from their hiding places and create a distraction as Lulu pulls the trigger and kills not herself but Schön. Alwa and Lulu escape to Paris.

Act Four

Lulu and Alwa are now married. Together with their pretentious friends, they profit from investments in the Jungfrau cable-car company and enjoy a lavish lifestyle. Lulu, still chased by the German police because of the murder, is blackmailed by Rodrigo, who wants money, and Casti-Piani, a white slave-trader who arranges for her to serve in a brothel in Cairo. The sinister Schigolch reappears, and by offering to lure Rodrigo and Geschwitz to his lodgings, promises to “take care of” the threatening Rodrigo. As the police arrive to arrest Lulu, she changes her clothes and makes a narrow escape. The Jungfrau share price has meanwhile collapsed, leaving her penniless.

Act Five

In a cold and dark London attic, Lulu earns a living as a prostitute, supporting Schigolch and Alwa. Geschwitz reappears with the Lulu-as-Pierrot painting. Lulu’s first customer is a mute doctor, and the deal becomes a pantomime. The second visitor is a self-proclaimed African prince, who kills Alwa by accident. The third is the inexperienced Dr. Hilti, who flees in a horror as Geschwitz unsuccesfully attempts suicide. The final customer turns out to be Jack the Ripper, who murders both Lulu and Geschwitz. The play ends with a dying Geschwitz trying to express her heartfelt love for Lulu.


Most criticism focuses on the character and symbolic significance of Lulu the protagonist. According to Ward B. Lewis, from the beginning critics have argued over several conflicting interpretations. One major critical viewpoint casts Lulu in line with the femme fatale tradition, accentuating her potential to destroy males. She embodies the demonic power of female sexuality, a natural force seeking revenge in a masculine world. Another school instead associates Lulu with women’s sexual emancipation. She uses sex in order to gain power, and her actions suggest the Freudian pleasure principle of immediate sexual gratification. Still others believe that Lulu represents a vision of human morality completely unconstrained by the limits of bourgeois society (Lewis, 28—32). Gail Finney, in an altogether different vein, interprets Lulu’s name as an indicator of her infant-like, innocent characteristics.[4] Skrine proposes a similar idea, underscoring Lulu’s “essential vulnerability” by linking her fate with that of Pierrot: Lulu is “simply what she is” (89), a figure that defies all specification.

Critics have also shown interest in the play’s social criticism. In Lulu’s Paris circle, for example, economic fraud is interwoven with unscrupulous selfish motivation. According to Skrine, however, Wedekind had a much broader intention: Lulu’s career is an allegory for Germany’s economic boom, the Unification, as well as the rise of plutocracy: “Men worked hard to acquire wealth and to improve their social station, and were not afraid to show off their success” (85). Best goes one step further, arguing that “Lulu’s is a world of eccentrics, each afraid to come to terms with the world as it is and each determined that the world of his imagination is a true reflection of the world outside” (84). The recurring motif of Lulu’s renaming, carried out by each of her lovers, has inspired several Marxist interpretations, which view Lulu’s multiple roles as analogous to the reification of mankind under capitalism (Lewis 36). Her husbands are interpreted as symbolic of the self-righteous, hypocritical morality of the bourgeoisie (Schön), or of the limited, banal vision of aestheticism (Schwartz, Alwa).

Schigolch and Geschwitz are two complex and ambiguous figures. Schigolch’s ominous otherworldliness suggests an ontological evilness. “His evil…emanates from his position as an outsider; he sees through human machinations and nevertheless affirms what transpires, assuming no responsibility.” (qtd. in Lewis, 38) According to Lewis, Wedekind considered Geschwitz the central figure of the play, an incarnation of love, devotion and sympathy (38). However, she is also attacked as a ludicrous representation of the feminine, having no identity other than perverted sexuality (Lewis 39).

A unique blend of tragic, comic, burlesque and grotesque elements, there is no consensus about the genre of Lulu, but is widely considered to be a forerunner of German Expressionism. The London scene is one of the play’s strongest and most disturbing, with its depiction of bleak urban life and Lulu’s ghastly death under Jack the Ripper. The play is saturated by death wishes and their fatalistic fulfillment: Lulu imagines herself to be a victim of a rape/murderer, and the fantasy comes true. Similarly, all of her four husbands predict their violent deaths the very moments they become bound to Lulu. The intensification of and fascination with torture and death anticipate the direction of German art in the following years.

Acceptance and Adaptation

According to Skrine, both Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora were well received upon their premieres and remain Wedekind’s most popular works alongside Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) (83—84).

Both Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora underwent numerous stage variations with different aesthetic emphases. The two most notable adaptations of Lulu are G. W. Pabst’s film Pandora’s Box (1929) and Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (1937 premiere). Starring American actress Louise Brooks, the Pabst film originally met with critical and commercial failure. However, it is now considered to be one of the most memorable productions of Weimar cinema.[5] Pabst deliberately recasts the story in a modern setting, adapting the film into a criticism of the Weimar status quo.

Acknowledged as a towering achievement of twentieth-century opera, Alban Berg’s adaptation not only emphasizes Lulu’s femininity; it intelligently restructures the story through the doubling of roles (Schwartz/African prince, Goll/Hilti, Schön/Jack). This creates the effect of déjà-vu, as the latter half of the story becomes a lurid distortion of the first half.[6]

  1. ↑ Ward B. Lewis, The Ironic Dissident: Frank Wedekind in the View of His Critics (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997), 40.
  2. ↑ Alan Best, Frank Wedekind (London: Oswald Wolff, 1975), 82.
  3. ↑ Peter Skrine, Hauptmann, Wedekind and Schnitzler (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 11.
  4. ↑ Gail Finney, Women in Modern Drama: Freud, Feminism, and European Theater at the Turn of the Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 86.
  5. ↑ Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, trans. Roger Greaves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 296-303.
  6. ↑ Elizabeth Boa, The Sexual Circle: Wedekind’s Theatre of Subversion (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 122.