Critical Context

The Lulu tragedies Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit, with their sharp attack on all forms of sexual repression, represent the climax of a long line of plays in which Frank Wedekind waged war on traditional morality, established social norms, and middle-class values, and in which he proclaimed a “new morality” based on a totally liberated view of human instincts and drives. The first in this line of plays was Frühlings Erwachen (pb. 1891, pr. 1896; Spring’s Awakening, 1960), which directs its criticism against inhibited middle-class parents who do not enlighten their teenage children about sexual matters, yet chastise their daughters when they become pregnant and even endanger their lives by forcing them to undergo illegal abortions.

A different type of attack against society is contained in Der Marquis von Keith (pr., pb. 1901; The Marquis of Keith, 1955). Here, the false values of German bourgeois society are mirrored in Keith’s use of fraud and deception to fulfill his dream of achieving material wealth and a luxurious lifestyle. By contrast, the play Tod und Teufel (pb. 1905, pr. 1912; Death and Devil, 1952) seeks to expose the discriminatory treatment of women, who are, Wedekind alleges, bred by the system to be subservient to men and to respect the patriarchal order underlying German society.

In one of his last plays, Die Zensur (pb. 1908, pr. 1909; censorship), Wedekind suggests a reconciliation between the earthly world of sexuality and instinct and the loftier world of moral values and rationality. This work is largely confessional in nature, as it was Wedekind’s lifelong ambition to unify within himself the sexual and the spiritual and thereby to emerge as a liberated individual characterized by inner peace and harmony. Significantly, no such harmonious individuals ever emerge from Wedekind’s dramas, and least of all from the Lulu tragedies, making it appear as if tension between the sexual and the spiritual (or rational) will always be a hallmark of human existence. This message, that inner discord will eternally plague individuals and society, was further developed by German expressionism, a literary movement whose major proponents, Carl Sternheim, Oskar Kokoschka, Georg Kaiser, and Bertolt Brecht, were all greatly inspired by Wedekind’s plays and by the revolutionary worldview contained therein.