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Spring Awakening – Footnotes

Nov 23, 2022 | Footnotes | 0 comments

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.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

“The flesh has its own spirit”
The life choices that the adolescents wrestle with in Spring Awakening are very much those that Frank Wedekind himself experienced in his own life. During our conversation in the podcast, Karen mentioned that the play had its origins in Wedekind capturing verbatim testimonies from young people, which gives the voices of the young characters a recognisable authenticity. Wedekind was also familiar with the pressures school children face, having known personally the trauma of two school friends who had killed themselves. He was a maverick figure himself at school, his letters from that age revealing a precocious interest in many of the issues raised in the play: sex, the family, education, religion and death.

Karen also referred to the difficult relationship Wedekind had with his father, which was severed by his decision to abandon law for literature. He was only 26 when he wrote Spring Awakening, so this breach would have been very much in his mind when he drafted his denunciation of parenting and traditional education.

It is also not surprising that Wedekind subsequently embraced the Masked Man’s invocation to fully explore “every single thing of interest in the world” in his own life. While living in Paris in the 1890s he worked in the circus, and later became a renowned cabaret performer in Munich. As Karen pointed out, the character of the Masked Man is suggestive of the ringmaster who orchestrates the panoply of acts on display.

It was while Wedekind was in Paris that he wrote the other plays that he is best known for: Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, known together as the Lulu plays. Their story of the life of the young dancer, Lulu, is equally frank in its depiction of sex and violence, including even an encounter with Jack the Ripper, a role Wedekind himself played in several productions. It was in one of these shows that he met and married the actress who played Lulu, Tilly Newes, who was 22 years younger than him. He and his wife continued to perform together, but their relationship was stormy, his promiscuity and perverse jealousy driving her to attempted suicide.

Wedekind clearly lived by his own motto: “the flesh has its own spirit”, a force that animates the irrepressible sexual urgings of the young people in Spring Awakening. The author apparently even designed his own personal coat of arms, which featured three women’s legs in different colours. This may be apocryphal, as sadly Google does not yield any examples of his artwork. Nevertheless, it sounds like a suitably vivid and provocative image for the maverick playwright.

The boys at school
Spring Awakening Musical
Almeida Theatre, London 2022
Photo by Marc Brenner

 

Frank Wedekind and his wife Tilly Newes

 

A remarkable photograph of the final scene
in the 1906 production of Spring Awakening
in the Deutsche Theatre in Berlin

The first production
As we reported in the podcast, although the play was first written in 1891, it was not actually performed until fifteen years later in 1906. As Karen pointed out there were several obstacles to its being produced, the first being its controversial subject matter and language, meaning that it would not pass the state censor. There were also practical challenges, including the need for young actors, and the difficulty of presenting a rapidly changing sequence of short scenes.

It was the renowned director Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin who first addressed these obstacles. He championed the play with the censor, claiming that it would be an “artistic sin” not to allow it to be staged. The introduction to the Methuen Student edition of the text includes an extract of Reinhardt’s pitch to the censor that is worth reproducing for its eloquent description of the play’s serious quality and intent:

“This work of art does not simply deal with a new subject matter, but the adolescents’ intellectual and emotional conflicts are treated with such moral gravity, honesty, grandeur and tragic force, are so far removed from frivolity and wholly free of ugly speculation, that any injury to sensitive feelings of shame is completely out of the question.”

The same introduction also informs us that Reinhardt assured the censor that the children’s roles would be played by adults, which Karen rightly highlighted is not artistically ideal, but was a necessary compromise at the time. The application was approved subject to some amendments to the language, and on the condition that the caricatured teachers’ names be changed to more ‘indifferent’ ones. The latter seems like a perversely, if appropriately, trivial response to the real weight of the play.

It is interesting to learn that Reinhardt’s production made use of a revolving stage to deliver the seamless transitions in scene, thereby addressing one of the practical obstacles that had been a constraint for conventional contemporary practitioners.

This first production of the play was a great popular success. Wedekind, ever the showman, played the role of the Masked Man himself, complete in dinner suit and top hat, although his performance was less than critically acclaimed.

Faust and Mephistopheles
Wedekind includes an explicit reference to Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust in the play, which Melchior and Moritz are studying at school and discuss with Melchior’s mother. In contrast to her professed liberal views on parenting, Frau Guber expresses her concern that the boys are not old enough to safely understand the sordid details of Goethe’s story. The reference to Faust is of course deliberate, not just as a focus for the contention between parent and children, but also because there are obvious parallels with the characters’ desires and fates in Spring Awakening. 

In Goethe’s play Faust is a scholar, who like the young students, longs to break free of the shackles of his academic life. The devilish figure of Mephistopheles offers him a life full of his every desire, in return for his yielding the devil his soul after death. The boys are likewise tormented by their desires. While Melchior is minded to fight for happiness, Moritz despairs that he will ever escape his own failings. In Goethe’s play Mephistopheles even taunts Faust for his failure to commit suicide on Easter Sunday – a day when Spring and faith promise to dispel the gloom of winter.

There are also narrative and thematic echoes of the earlier play in the fate of Wendla. Mephistopheles assists Faust in his seducing Gretchen, who becomes pregnant. Distraught at the social disgrace, she kills her illegitimate baby, for which she goes to prison, where she loses her mind. While Wendla is less aware of her predicament, the point about social shame is made and the girl is destroyed by it.

The most striking analogy between the two plays is enacted in the final scene, where the Masked Man emulates Mephistopheles’s offer to Melchior – that he will show him everything the world has to offer. In fact the comparison with Faust may also highlight a key difference, in that the terms of Melchior’s deal are not explicit, and Wedekind appears to be encouraging the young man to embrace the life of adventure without fear, or even despite the “tormenting doubt of everything”. It is likely that Wedekind did not believe in the tyranny of the devil and hell, or at least was willing to pay the unknown price.

Faust and Mephisto
from F. W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film
Faust – A German Folktale
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