Exploring the greatest new and classic plays


Spring Awakening – A New Musical
Almeida Theatre London 2022
Photo by Marc Brenner

055 – Spring Awakening, by Frank Wedekind

Nov 21, 2022 | Podcast Episodes | 0 comments

German playwright Frank Wedekind’s dark, expressionist play Spring Awakening – A Children’s Tragedy was written in 1891. It is an extraordinarily frank depiction of teenage anxiety and sexuality, which includes graphic scenes of masturbation, sado-masochism, homosexuality and rape, as well as suicide and abortion. The play was so controversial in its time that it was 15 years before it was first performed in 1906 in Berlin, and only then with cuts demanded by the censor. It is a nightmarish, cautionary portrait of adolescent angst and rebellion against oppressive social strictures and family expectations.

The play is also the unlikely source for the modern rock musical of the same name, which premiered on Broadway in 2006, and was recently revived at the Almeida Theatre in London in a storming new production directed by their Artistic Director, Rupert Goold. The musical retains much of the dark narrative of the original, adding a score that enunciates all of the young people’s yearnings, fears and frustrations, as well as their hopeful energy and defiance, though it arguably also softens some of the shock of Wedekind’s original play.

To talk us through the contemporary controversies and enduring power of Spring Awakening, I’m delighted to welcome the Professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford, Karen Leeder.

Professor Karen Leeder

Karen Leeder studied German at Oxford and the University of Hamburg. After teaching for three years at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, she took up her Fellowship at New College in 1993 and became Professor of Modern German Literature in 2008, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2017 and Fellow of the Academia Europaea in 2020.

She is a prize-winning translator of contemporary literature and has published widely on modern German culture, especially of the post-1945 and contemporary periods.

In 2016 she received an English PEN and an American PEN award for her translations of Ulrike Almut Sandig Thick of it. She is a Trustee of the Stephen Spender Trust and the Poetry Translation Centre and regularly appears on radio and television talking about aspects of German culture. 

Recommended Play

Karen recommended Woyzeck by Georg Buchner.

Photo by Stefan Rumpf

Photo © Marc Brenner
We have footnotes for this episode …

The Footnotes to our episode on Spring Awakening include observations on how Wedekind’s own life reflected events and values contained in the play; notes on how the first production was finally able to take place fifteen years after the play was written; and some of the parallels with Goethe’s Faust.

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