by Monika Grzesiak
Spring Awakening is a play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), a German playwright. The work depicts schoolchildren in a German provincial town in the 1890s whose struggle to reconcile their budding sexual feelings and the moral code of their society leads them to tragedy.
Biography of Frank Wedekind
Frank Wedekind was a German playwright who worked in Munich between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is considered a forerunner of expressionism as well as the theater of the absurd. Unable to reconcile himself with the naturalistic trends in theater supported by most of Munich’s artists, Wedekind propagated an early expressionist approach whose purpose was to delve beneath the surface of reality. Wedekind’s work shows his lifelong antagonism toward the moral code of the bourgeoisie. Irritated by what he saw as the hypocrisy of German society’s attitude toward sexuality, Wedekind shows in plays such as Spring Awakening the tragedies that can result from repression and societal pretense. He was one of the first to present frank depictions of teenage sexuality, homoeroticism, and masturbation on the stage, and his disregard for conventional morality caused many to dismiss him as a pornographer. He faced frequent censorship throughout his working life.
In Act I, we are first introduced to the three main characters and their responses to their budding sexual consciousness. The play opens with 14 year-old Wendla Bergmann asking her mother where babies come from, insisting that she is too old to believe in the stork. Meanwhile, her classmates Moritz Stiefel and Melchior Gabor discuss their “masculine stirrings” after school. Moritz struggles with feelings of shame and guilt because of his sexual dreams, while Melchior tries to reassure him and agrees to write a pamphlet detailing his knowledge of sexual reproduction. In the next scene, Wendla and her friends discuss boys, but the conversation turns solemn when Martha reveals that her father beats her every night. This confession reveals a masochistic streak in Wendla, who envies Martha’s experience. In the final scene, Melchior asks Wendla why she participates in charity work, and when she answers that it makes her happy, he insists that altruism is only a veil for selfish desire. The scene ends with a discussion of Martha’s abuse, and Wendla begs Melchior to beat her, which he does.
In Act II, the combination of ignorance and sexual awakening begins to have tragic consequences for the teenagers. Melchior and Moritz have a discussion about the pamphlet Melchior has made as well as Moritz’s struggles in school. Wendla, meanwhile, again begs her mother for an explanation of where babies come from, and her mother finally responds that babies result from a woman loving her husband with all her heart and soul. This is followed by a scene in which Hansy Rillow, another classmate, masturbates to ancient paintings. In the next scene, Wendla climbs up to a hayloft to meet Melchior, where their initial embarrassment from their previous meeting evolves into an ambiguous sexual scene in which Melchior appears to rape Wendla. The final scenes reveal Moritz’s mounting frustration with his school troubles and shame because of his grotesque sexual thoughts. His classmate Ilse offers him a chance at sexual bliss, but he turns her down and commits suicide.
In Act III, the full impact of the teenagers’ ignorance and the pretension of the adult world results in yet another death and an inquiry into the moral code of society. In the first scene, incompetent school administrators find Melchior’s sex pamphlet and determine that it was the cause of Moritz’s suicide; Melchior is expelled. Melchior’s parents, shocked by the knowledge of his expulsion and his behavior with Wendla, labor over the decision of whether to send him to a penitentiary. Meanwhile, Wendla has become pregnant and her mother calls for a doctor, who prescribes abortion pills and reassures Wendla that she is only suffering from anemia. Her mother, however, demands an explanation from Wendla, who insists that she cannot be pregnant because she isn’t married. A homoerotic scene between Hansy Rillow and Ernst Roebel follows, and finally we encounter Melchior alone in a graveyard, where he stumbles upon the fresh grave of Wendla Bergmann. Distraught and guilt-ridden, Melchior meets the dead Moritz, who offers him a chance to end his life. They are interrupted, however, by the appearance of a Masked Man, who attests that the conventional morality is nonsense.
Generational conflict: The lack of positive adult characters in the play is an attempt by Wedekind to show the way in which older generations fail younger ones by forcing them to conform to societal standards. Wendla’s mother refuses to tell her the truth about human sexuality, and the result is Wendla’s pregnancy and later death by a botched abortion. Moritz’s father accepts the societal definition of success, and Moritz’s bad grades subsequently lead him to suicide. Finally, school administrators expel Melchior for creating a sex pamphlet, hoping to shift the blame of Moritz’s suicide to him and avoid their own responsibility.
Social taboos: The presence of teenage sexuality, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, rape, etc. in the play show an attempt to force audiences of the early 1900s to confront issues that were not discussed in polite society. The teachers and parental figures in Spring Awakening, representative of bourgeois society, refuse to speak about these things, and the result is the death of two teenagers.
Morality: In Spring Awakening, Wedekind presents morality as a social construction. He blames the tragic ending of the play on the hypocritical moral code of society, or, as Leroy Shaw puts it, “an attitude toward it based on an exaggerated sense of piety and a false notion of what morality really is.”
Application to Modernism
Spring Awakening is generally considered a modernist work. In the Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis describes the modernist crisis of representation as “a crisis in what could be represented and a crisis of how it should be represented.”
In Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind shows “what could be represented” in the form of the world beneath the surface of bourgeois life in German society. In tune with the modernist enthusiasm for “newness,” Wedekind not only includes social taboos, but also makes them integral to the action of the play, key examples being Moritz’s suicide and Wendla’s abortion. The stiff, unsympathetic world of the adults is also a depiction of the world beneath the surface. The exaggerated incompetence of the school administrators and the lack of human feeling in any of the parents represent an adult world that forces the next generation to conform to its standards of behavior or be left behind.
Wedekind in this play confronts the problem of “how the subject could be represented” with “fragmented dialogue, frenetic episodes, a distortion of natural phenomena to arrive at the true center, and… isolation as seen in the tendency of characters to talk past rather than at one another.” These are defining modernist techniques influenced by the revolutionary figure of Georg Buechner. Examples of fragmented, unrealistic dialogue in the play include the awkward and insincere language Frau Gabor uses in her letter to Moritz and the dated, poetic language used by Melchior and Moritz to discuss their future lives. Wedekind also experiments with a nonrealistic theater, creating a surreal graveyard scene in which the dead Moritz returns from the grave, and the mystery figure of the Masked Man explains the meaning of their experiences. As Shaw writes, “In rejecting the notion that reality is to be found in actuality,Spring Awakening begins that destruction of illusionistic theatre which had continued into our own time.” The Masked Man’s important words in the final scene reveal Wedekind’s attempt to unearth morality from its deep-rooted place in society and present it as a social construction.