A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 3 - Winter 2011/12

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"Taboo and Tragedy in Frank Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen" by Thyra E. Knapp

Frank Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen: eine Kindertragödie (Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy) explores the experiences of three young characters as they attempt to navigate the treacherous path from childhood to adulthood in Wilhelmine Germany (1871-1918).  Caught in a perpetual clash of ignorance versus knowledge, the children are constantly at odds with their bourgeois parents and teachers.  At every turn, the adults in their lives respond to questions and problems with silences and obfuscations.  Parents and teachers are presented as authority figures more concerned with their own reputations than the mental and physical wellbeing of their children.1 With themes that still resonate today, Wedekind’s fin-de-siècle drama scandalously dared to broach the taboo subjects of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, abortion, sadomasochism, homosexuality, and suicide.2 This controversial play centers on the actions and interactions of Melchior Gabor, Moritz Stiefel, and Wendla Bergmann, three young people who struggle for enlightenment and understanding in a world where respectability and social standing are paramount.  Wedekind triangulates these characters in such a way that Moritz and Wendla stand as gendered opposites while Melchior inhabits the apex.  All three experience and affect taboo and tragedy, but only Melchior finds a way to navigate his own sensuality and intellect in order to survive.

            The taboos and resultant tragedies in Frühlings Erwachen have been a source of controversy since its publication in 1891.  In fact, having been turned down by several publishing houses, the work only appeared in print in October of that year with the financing of the author himself.  According to Mischa Meier, despite reprints in 1894, 1903, and 1906, Frühlings Erwachen remained, for the most part, ignored by the pubic at large and was only read by the literary avant-garde of its time.  Due perhaps to the provocative nature of the text and the power of its performance on the stage, not until the Berlin premiere in the 1907/08 season did Frühlings Erwachen truly achieve popular success. 3  More remarkably, the success came despite the fact that Wedekind’s play was missing several scenes that had been axed by the censors: a sexually suggestive monologue by Hänschen Rilow (II, 3), an episode involving group masturbation in a reformatory (III, 4), and a scene in which a young man (Ernst Röbel) professes his love for another boy (III, 6).  According to Heinrich Bosse and Ursula Renner, at the time of publication, the topics addressed in Frühlings Erwachen would otherwise have only been found in reference works under the heading “Perversions” (72). 

            The fact that these “perversions” were not just printed in books to be read quietly in the privacy of the home, but rather performed on the public stage, exacerbated their effect on viewers and critics alike.  As Julie Peters notes, “the public nature of theatre transformed what might be private titillation into public shame, and public shame into scandal” (212).  Thus, drama’s so-called “natural propensity…toward licentiousness” (George Bernard Shaw quoted in Peters 211) made the play a natural target for debates on morality and propriety, and thereby a target for censors as well.  In 1906, director and actor Max Reinhardt began to question whether theater performances should be subject to censorship at all; while defending Frühlings Erwachen in a letter to the Berlin Ministry of Police, Reinhardt contended several times that because theater is ‘art,’ it should instead be protected from censors (Peters 217).

            While it remains irrefutable that Frühlings Erwachen was a controversial drama at the fin de siècle, Wedekind’s motives are still a matter for debate.  Meier and others claim that the playwright specifically chose taboo topics with the intent of garnering attention from censors and critics.  Peters, on the other hand, prefers to think of the play as a weapon to combat censorship, further stating that Frühlings Erwachen “offers a challenge to the boundaries between art and obscenity” (225).  Adding another consideration to the dispute, Wedekind liked to make much of the fact that many of the play’s provocative plot points and much of the language were taken from his own life and the experiences of his friends in adolescence:

I began to write without any plan, simply with the intention of writing
what I enjoy.  The plan emerged after the third scene and came together
from personal experiences and the experiences of my school buddies. 
Almost every scene corresponds to an actual event.  Even the words:
‘the boy isn’t mine,’ which some have called a gross exaggeration,
really happened (my translation, quoted in Schönborn 556). 

Whether or not the “truth” of the events contributed to their justification for being seen on the Berlin stage was of little consequence to the author’s critics.  Furthermore, the truthfulness of Wedekind’s own admissions have since been brought into question.  Meier, for example, argues that the author’s school experience was nothing like that described in Frühlings Erwachen; “Although he was an average student, his teachers at the Gymnasium in Aarau (Switzerland) recognized his literary tendencies and talents early on and did not try to suppress them” (my translation of Meier 101-102).

            Whatever Wedekind’s motives or inspirations, Frühlings Erwachen seems to have captured the Zeitgeist of the Jahrhundertwende.  Perhaps this is due, in part, to the fact that the author appeared to recognize that a prevailing dichotomy of the new century would be one of generations.  Rather than the previous conflict of influences—Classicism (les anciens) versus Modernity (les modernes)—inspiration now increasingly arose from conflict between parents and children (Karl Eibl in Bosse and Renner.)  Scholars such as Gerhart Pickerodt praise Frühlings Erwachen and this new dichotomy for creating a multifaceted work grounded in a contemporary, naturalistic family drama, yet open to interpretation on various levels, all of which combine, intersect, and overlap (Meier 95).  This complex matrix of social critiques, on everything from pedagogical techniques to parenting philosophies to psychological manipulation, shows the simultaneous interrelationship and desire for autonomy shared by parents and children not only in 1891, but also throughout the modern era. 

            Declining birth rates from the late 1870s to the turn of the century, particularly among the bourgeoisie, meant that married couples of good social standing were having fewer children and could, therefore, afford to lavish them with both material luxuries and parental concern.4   A new interest in childrearing and education emerged, with mothers and fathers fixating on their children’s academic achievement as a direct reflection of their own success in parenting (Bosse and Renner 78).  Evidence of this association can be seen throughout Frühlings Erwachen, but perhaps most strikingly in case of Moritz Stiefel, whose character arc is fully dependent on his performance in school.  Wedekind traces the devolution of Moritz from the very beginning of the play with the boy’s reaction to constant criticism and judgment from parents and teachers alike.  At a time when it appears that Moritz may indeed be promoted to the next grade, he admits to his friends that were that not to have been the case (all in the subjunctive), he would have shot himself: “Wenn ich nicht promoviert worden wäre, hätte ich mich erschossen” (Wedekind 22).  Proof that his self-image and success are inextricably linked to those of his parents comes in the very next act when he compares himself to his competition for the last seat in the next grade level.  Explaining to his best friend, Melchior, that his case is much more serious than that of Ernst Röbel’s, Moritz exclaims: “Röbel isn’t going to shoot himself.  Röbel doesn’t have parents who sacrifice everything for him.  If he wants, he can become a solder, a cowboy, or a sailor.  If I fail, my father will have a stroke and Mother will end up in the loony bin” (my translation, Wedekind 28-29).  Indeed, the truth of this statement is witnessed in Moritz’ funeral scene (III.2), when his father disavows him, breaking all ties to his son by telling everyone: “The boy was not mine!  The boy was not mine!  Ever since he was little, I didn’t care for him!” (my translation, Wedekind 57).

            Interestingly enough, although the identities of parents and children are intertwined here to the point of confusion and misconception, there exists a paradoxical distance between them when it comes to clear communication and understanding.  As Bosse and Renner note, the inability of the older generation to speak to the younger one about corporeal/biological realities such as reproduction and childbirth creates an impassable abyss of speechlessness between the generations (48).  This lack of communication manifests itself not only in a silence between parent and child, but perhaps more detrimentally, in an unwillingness to speak the truth.  In the case of Wendla Bergmann, the fourteen-year-old female lead, she wants more than anything to understand the facts of life.  Her sister has just had a baby and she takes the opportunity to ask her mother, who continues to insist that the stork brought not only the child but also a brooch for Wendla, how babies are made.  There is much back-and-forth avoidance while Frau Bergmann tries to distract her daughter from the topic.  When it finally seems she will relent, the mother disappoints with a moral platitude: to have a baby, one must love a man—to whom one is married—with one’s whole heart, in a way that someone Wendla’s age is not even capable (Wedekind 37).5    Due to the inability of the parent to speak frankly to the child about procreation, Wendla becomes pregnant (believing conception to be impossible without love and marriage) and dies as the result of a botched abortion, insisted upon and arranged by the same mother who left her daughter so ill-prepared for adolescence.6

            Even in the case of Melchior Gabor, whose parents prefer to take an “enlightened” and more “progressive” approach to childrearing, communication between the generations is obscured by good intentions.  When Frau Gabor enters her son’s room to bring him and Moritz hot tea during their study session, she sees that the boys are reading Goethe’s Faust and tells him that if she were in his position, she would have waited two years to read the work.  To this, Melchior replies that he knows no other book in which he has found so many wonderful things.  When he asks why she would have waited, Frau Gabor replies, “Weil du es nicht verstehst” (because you don’t understand it).  Melchior argues that she cannot possibly know what he is capable of feeling and understanding at his age.  The mother then seems to remember her own philosophical stance on parenting and replies: “You are old enough, Melchior, to know what is beneficial and detrimental to you…I only wanted to make you aware that even the best things can have a negative effect when one is not yet mature enough to process them correctly.  I will always place my trust in you rather than in some popular educational guidelines” (my translation, Wedekind 31).  In this instance, too, there is an exchange of words but no real communication.  It is clear that Frau Gabor finds Faust to be inappropriate reading for her son at his age, but she would rather reassure her trust in his decision-making abilities than to discuss what concerns her about the text.7   In this very important way, then, Frau Gabor and Frau Bergmann are more similar than one might first think in their reactions to the unwanted realities of adolescence; one overreacts and misinforms while the other acquiesces and ignores, however, both actions maintain distance between parent and child.8

            The above interactions involving mothers and their children are undeniably gendered—Wendla wants to know the facts about childbirth and her mother is too ashamed to discuss it with her, while Melchior seeks knowledge on his own in books and confidently defends himself to his mother and her concerns—and perhaps that is a natural result of Wedekind’s creation of what both Schönborn and Jutta Kolkenbrock-Netz contend are prototypical male and female binaries based on the findings of psychoanalysis at the turn-of-the-century.9   In fact, Kolkenbrock-Netz goes so far as to suggest that even the names the playwright chose were meant to signify genders: W=Wendla=weiblich (female), M=Melchior=männlich (male), with Moritz standing as a combination of the two.  My analysis, however, places Wendla and Moritz as gendered binaries with Melchior as something of a mediating figure.  Melchior Gabor is an undeniably “masculine” presence in terms of his relationship to violence and sexuality, and would seem the logical counterpoint to Wendla’s “feminine” innocence and frailty, yet it is Moritz who ultimately measures up as her equal.  From the opening scene, in which Wendla convinces her mother that she is still a child and not yet ready to wear the long skirts of a proper young woman (I.1), to the sadomasochistic episode with Melchior (I.5) in which she begs for him to whip her so that she can know how it feels, Fräulein Bergmann is a stereotypically confused bundle of female contradictions.  For his part, Melchior does submit to Wendla’s pleading and whips her until he loses control, an act which arguably leads to the rape scene in the hayloft (II.5), however, he seems to be the only adolescent who is in touch with his natural, sensual side while simultaneously being capable of intellectualizing his condition.

            Moritz could not be more different than Melchior.  Constantly concerned with his academic performance and the ways in which his failure to advance to the next level will affect his parents, Moritz is wholly preoccupied with succeeding in school.  While his classmates explore their sexuality with corporeal dalliances, Moritz prefers to keep such interests purely theoretical.  When Melchior offers to explain sexual reproduction to him, Moritz refuses, asking instead for everything to be written out and diagramed instead: “I cannot.  I cannot talk casually about reproduction!  If you want to do me a favor, then write the instructions down.  Write what you know.  Write it as clearly and concisely as possible and during gym class tomorrow, put it in with my books.  I’ll take it home without even knowing I have it” (my translation Wedekind 14-15).  When he realizes he will not advance in school, Moritz decides to leave his home for America and writes (privileging pen and paper over conversation) to Melchior’s mother to ask for passage money.  Thus, even Moritz’ cry for help remains a silent one; for although the reader/viewer is not privy to his letter, it is clear in Frau Gabor’s response that Moritz threatens suicide if not given the financial means to flee the country. 

Soon after Frau Gabor refuses to lend him the money, Moritz finds himself walking near a river, at his wit’s end, contemplating possible courses of action.  Among his final thoughts before leaving the world, Moritz seems to most regret that he never “experienced” life: “There’s something humiliating about having been a human being without having gotten to know the most human thing of all” (my translation Wedekind 44-45).  In these last minutes before ending his life, Moritz is literally confronted with this thought, personified in the appearance of the outcast party girl, Ilse.  Someone who did not conform to what society expected of her, Ilse represents everything Moritz fears most.  With a family for whom social standing is seemingly inconsequential, Ilse now lives completely through and with her physical body—working as a model for artists and presumably trading room and board for sex.  Although he envies her free spirit and happy heart, he knows that such an existence would be impossible for him.  Thus, Moritz is left with no recourse but to shoot himself, an action that results in a final, literal separation of his head from his body; an act dividing cognition from corporeality once and for all. 

Wendla, his counterpoint in Wedekind’s adolescent harmony, longs to experience life’s sensual offerings, yet she fares no better in the end.  In contrast to Moritz, Wendla begs her mother to tell her the truth about sexual reproduction, but is left with vague, moralizing aphorisms.  As a result, Wendla has no idea that her rape by Melchior has led to pregnancy, and even after her mother has called the doctor to confirm her worst fear, it is clear that the girl is completely unaware of her own situation.  When Frau Bergmann is unable to convince the concerned Wendla that she has anemia, the mother screams at her daughter: “You are not going to die, child!  You do not have dropsy.  You are pregnant, girl!  You are pregnant!  Oh, why did you do this to me?”  (my translation Wedekind 70).  Here, the connection to Moritz is again striking.  In both cases, the identities and ethics of the parents are so closely identified with those of their children that the result is immediate blame and disgrace.  Without even informing her daughter of what is about to happen, Frau Bergmann procures a local woman to perform a back alley abortion, resulting in Wendla’s death.  Both Moritz and Wendla die because of the expectations placed on them by their parents, and the shame resulting from their disappointments.  Although the grounds are the same, the means of death here are clearly gendered.  Moritz chooses to commit suicide, claiming full agency in his own destiny, whereas Wendla remains powerless and uninformed, her fate chosen for her by her mother.

Somewhere between these two poles stands Melchior; the only main character who manages to navigate adolescence in both a sensual and intellectual way that allows him to survive, and indeed, choose life.  Armed with the rights and privileges of a man, born to parents who consider themselves progressive and open-minded, and clever enough to do well both academically and socially without much effort, Melchior is able to strike a balance between intellect and corporeality.  Melchior is also, in some ways, equally connected to the deaths of both Wendla and Moritz.  It was clearly the rape of Wendla that led to her pregnancy and resultant abortion, and the school directors, after discovering the treatise on procreation he had written for Moritz amid the boy’s belongings following his suicide, blame Melchior for his friend’s death.  These two tragedies lead to Melchior being sent to a reformatory (yet it takes great effort on the part of his overbearing father to convince his soft-hearted mother that their lax parenting resulted in these transgressions and he is in need of structure and discipline).  The boy manages to escape, only to find himself in the cemetery at Wendla’s grave.  As he laments his part in her death, the ghost of Moritz (his head tucked under his arm) appears and tells Melchior of the vanity of human existence.  At this point, the vermummter Herr (masked man) appears, just as Melchior explains the depth of his own self-contempt, declaring himself the most detestable creature in the universe.  The masked man convinces Melchior that suicide is not the answer to his misery, leading him from the cemetery and ultimately, back to life.10  

Whatever Wedekind’s intentions may have been, and whether the events in Frühlings Erwachen were taken from his life and the experiences of his school friends, the play remains a controversial and tragic work.  By addressing nearly every conceivable coming-of-age taboo, the author created a drama in which children and adults struggle over the possession and transfer of ignorance and knowledge.  Wendla, Moritz, and Melchior serve as examples of how to (not) negotiate corporeal and intellectual sides in this fin-de-siècle cautionary tale.  Somewhere between tragedy and taboo, Melchior is the only one to survive his spring awakening.


Works Cited:
Allen, Ann Taylor. “Spiritual Motherhood: German Feminists and the Kindergarten Movement, 1848-1911.” History of Education Quarterly 22:3 (1982): 319-339.
Bosse, Heinrich and Ursula Renner.  “Generationsdifferenz im Erziehungsdrama: J.M.R. Lenzens Hofmeister (1774) und Frank Wedekinds Frühlings Erwachen (1891).”Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 85:1 (2011): 47-84.
Carter, Julian B. “Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease: Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 (2001): 213-249.
Davies, Mel.  “Corsets and Conception: Fashion and Demographic Trends in the Nineteenth Century.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 24:4 (1982): 611-641.
Del Caro, Adrian. “The Beast in the Child: Wedekind as the Psychologist of Morals.”  Germanicotes 20:2/3 (1989): 28-30.
Gerlach, U. Henry.  “Wer ist der ‘vermummte Herr’ in Wedekinds Frühlings Erwachen?” Maske und Kothurn: Internationale Beiträge zur Theaterwissenschaft 31:1-4 (1985): 101-111.
Kolkenbrock-Netz, Jutta. “Interpretationen, Diskursanalysen und/oder feministische Lektüre literarischer Texte von Frank Wedekind.” Weiblichkeit in geschichtlicher Perspektive. Fallstudien und Reflexionen zu Grundproblemen der historischen Frauenforschung. Eds. Ursula A.J. Becher and Jörn Rüsen.  Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988.  397-422.
Meier, Mischa.  “Frank Wedekind, Frühlings Erwachen. Eine Kindertragödie?”  Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 28:112 (1998): 94-109.
Peters, Julie S.  “Performing Obscene Modernism: Theatrical Censorship and the Making of Modern Drama.”  Against Theatre: Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage. Eds. Alan Ackerman and Martin Puchner.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 206-230.
Schönborn, Sibylle.  “’Die Königin ohne Kopf’.  Literarische Initiation und Geschlechtsidentität um die Jahrhundertwende in Frank Wedekinds Kindertragödie Frühlings Erwachen.”  Zeitschrift für Deutsche Philologie 118:4 (1999): 555-571.
Wedekind, Frank.Frühlings Erwachen: Eine Kindertragödie.  Stuttgart: Reclam, 2000.

1 Scholars such as Ann Taylor Allen contend that the production of a new generation of good citizens was of primary concern to many parents in the nineteenth century, contributing to “the increased concern with child-rearing.”   “Spiritual Motherhood: German Feminists and the Kindergarten Movement, 1848-1911,” History of Education Quarterly 22:3 (1982) 320.

2 In 2007, a rock musical version of the play was performed on Broadway and nominated for eight Tony Awards.

3 That season there were 211 productions of the play and 2542 performances.  Mischa Meier, “Frank Wedekind, Frühlings Erwachen. Eine Kindertragödie?” Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 28:112 (1998) 103.

4 Mel Davies, “Corsets and Conception: Fashion and Demographic Trends in the Nineteenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 24:4 (1982) 611-612.

5 Frau Bergmann is proof positive of a prevailing fear of sexual education at the turn-of-the-century: “Education’s power meant that it could befuddle or corrupt, as well as enlighten […] The chief danger was always presumed to be that sexual knowledge would somehow transform itself into sexual activity.” Julian B. Carter, “Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease: Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 (2001) 216.

6 As Sibylle Schönborn notes, Wendla and her girlfriends are not only excluded from the male educational system, they are also not readers.  They are, therefore, unable to educate themselves with books and are left to surmise the facts of life from discussions with the people who surround them: mothers, sisters, and female friends.  This means that sexual knowledge and gender identity are formed though conversations, imitations, and strategic silences. “’Die Königin ohne Kopf.’ Literarische Initiation und Geschlechtsidentität um die Jahrhundertwende in Frank Wedekinds Kindertragödie Frühlings Erwachen,” Zeitschrift für Deutsche Philologie 118:4 (1999) 565.

7 It would seem that the Gabors are acting against the strict school system of the Wilhelmine Era that some believed resulted in “Seelenmorde” (death of the soul): “Schools obliterate self-actualization, spontaneity, and the desire to learn; and among schools, the college preparatory and seminaries are virtually personality annihilators.”  Heinrich Bosse and Ursula Renner, “Generationsdifferenz im Erziehungsdrama: J.M.R. Lenzens Hofmeister (1774) und Frank Wedekinds Frühlings Erwachen (1891),” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 85:1 (2011) 65.

8 As Adrian Del Caro notes, “Of course the adult strategy throughout Frühlings Erwachen has been to keep the adolescent children at a distance by any means.  The distance is maintained by lying, telling myths, dodging questions, writing letters, condemnation, incarceration, and ultimately burial.”  “The Beast in the Child: Wedekind as the Psychologist of Morals,” Germanic Notes 20:2/3 (1989) 29.

9 These scholars also suggest that Wedekind’s drama would come to influence Freud’s theories of sexuality and puberty.  Kolkenbrock-Netz 559.

10 There are three prevailing interpretations of the masked man: he is believed to be Wedekind himself, in part because the author played the character in both the Berlin premiere in 1906 and again in Vienna in 1908; or, perhaps most obviously, an allegory or personification of life; or a devil figure.  Henry U. Gerlach,  “Wer ist der ‘vermummte Herr’ in Wedekinds Frühlings Erwachen?”  Maske und Kothurn: Internationale Beiträge zur Theaterwissenschaft 31:1-4 (1985) 101.