Frank Wedekind was in many ways a forerunner of modern drama, in terms of both dramatic style of presentation and “revolutionary” content. He consequently had to fight censorship as well as lack of understanding on the part of the audience.
Although Wedekind’s uvre is indebted to naturalism , which was the reigning literary movement when he started writing, his own style turned away from the meticulous mimesis of naturalist description and psychology. Most of his characters are not true-to-life human beings; their features are often distorted and their behavior patterns exaggerated to the point that they appear to be marionettes rather than real people. They are representatives of ideas or types. This is why psychological criteria fail in the attempt to understand them and why they often speak in a stilted manner.
As a dramatist, Wedekind paved the way for expressionism, which practiced a similar antimimetic style of literary presentation, although its philosophical views were more comprehensive than those of Wedekind. Both Wedekind and German expressionism (which established itself around 1910) were hostile to modern industrial civilization. Although Wedekind’s criticism focused primarily on the role of women and sexuality in modern middle-class society, expressionism went far beyond those issues, painting a grim picture of commercialism (only a minor theme in Wedekind’s plays), modern technology, and war. Nevertheless, expressionist dramatists such as Georg Kaiser and Carl Sternheim learned much from Wedekind, as did a younger playwright whose international reputation was firmly established only after World War II: Bertolt Brecht. One dramaturgical device of Wedekind that Brecht adapted to his own intentions is the use of songs that are integrated into the text of the play.
Wedekind’s fight for a more liberated attitude vis-à-vis eros and sexuality was a courageous one; it helped to initiate the long process of challenging and ultimately changing a repressive morality. Today, after the “sexual revolution,” Wedekind’s message seems to have lost its sting and its urgency. Its provocative flavor is gone. Still, even though it has become dated, Wedekind’s work remains an important document of the cultural development of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Germany.