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.