In many of his plays, Frank Wedekind championed a new, liberated attitude toward humankind’s instincts and drives, especially in the sphere of sexuality. He attempted in his own way what Sigmund Freud achieved in a more detached scientific manner: to lift sexual taboos and to integrate sexuality into a modern enlightened image of humanity, to interpret it as a positive life force. In his mission to tear down repressive and outdated moral standards for the sake of a new morality that would do more justice to the role of women in society, Wedekind was supported by many of the great liberal writers and critics, such as Alfred Kerr, Karl Kraus, and Thomas Mann. In Wedekind’s later works, however, there is an increasingly stronger undercurrent of skepticism. The nagging doubt arises whether “life” in its untamed and “raw” instinctual power and beauty (as it manifests itself in sexuality) would really guarantee a happier form of existence than that shaped by civilization.
This liberated attitude is unmistakably present in Spring Awakening, which established his fame and is still considered by many critics to be his finest play. Its major characters are youths of high school age in late nineteenth century Germany. They are the innocent victims of adults (parents and teachers) who impose a meaningless system of “higher learning” on them. Their young minds are crammed with factual knowledge that has little, if anything, to do with the real world. So harsh is the discipline in school and so heavy the pressure to achieve and succeed that failure to be promoted to a higher grade often results in the suicide of the unfortunate student who failed. A case in point is Moritz Stiefel, who shoots himself because his teachers refuse to promote him.
Far worse than this excessively rigorous and disciplinarian system is the failure of the adult world to help the adolescents cope with the emotional bewilderment caused by the first stirrings of awakening sexuality. Sex in this society is taboo: One does not talk about it, and it is evil. Stifled by this outdated moral code, the youngsters are forced to fall back on a confusing and tantalizing conglomerate of half-truths, falsehoods, and the fabrications of overheated imaginations in their desperate efforts to explain “the facts of life.” In one instance, middle-class puritanism coupled with timid bashfulness destroys the life of a young girl, Wendla Bergmann. When Wendla asks her mother about conception, she receives the answer that in order to have children one must love the man to whom one is married “as much as one can love a man.” Wendla becomes pregnant by a young fellow student, Melchior Gabor. To her, her first love and pregnancy are totally natural and emotionally uplifting experiences, a viewpoint that is shattered when her parents force her into an abortion from which she dies.
Melchior, who has—through his reading and observation of animal behavior—gained some unbiased and undistorted knowledge about human sexuality, writes a treatise “On Cohabitation,” which is found among the belongings of the deceased Moritz Stiefel. The writing of this pamphlet is interpreted by Melchior’s teachers as an act of utter depravity and an assault on the established moral code, and the unfortunate author is expelled from school without being granted a chance to defend himself.
In a grotesque and surrealistic scene at the graveyard, the dead Moritz Stiefel appears carrying his head under his arm. As an emissary from the realm of death, he tries to lure Melchior away from life. Another mysterious emissary appears, however, a gentleman whose face is covered by a mask and who appeals to Melchior’s desire to live. The masked gentleman prevails; Melchior will not take his own life.
The adult characters in the play are almost without exception reduced to absurd caricatures who lack any love or understanding of their children. The satiric portrayal of the authoritarian parents and teachers reveals that Wedekind is taking sides, that his play is intended as a bitter indictment of a generation of unfeeling citizens whose “respectability” and “morality” vilify the beauty and dignity of sexuality. The need to expose and criticize engenders a style that, by means of distortion and exaggeration, goes far beyond the tenets of naturalism or realism. On the other hand, the need to present an exact and sympathetic image of the victims (the children) calls for a style still akin to realism. The fact that the portrayal of the children contains comic elements (intended by the author) does not diminish their positive status as pitiful victims. In the graveyard scene, which is neither satiric nor realistic, a third (and, once again, nonrealistic) mode of presentation can be observed: the grotesque. Combining in a unique way the features of comedy, satire, tragedy, and the grotesque, Spring Awakening does not fit the naturalistic mold typical of late nineteenth century literature in Germany.
In Earth Spirit and its sequel, Pandora’s Box, Wedekind’s fight against traditional morality takes on the form of an antagonism between society and a mysterious force that threatens the moral code from a position outside the social structure. The central character of both plays is Lulu, a young woman of obscure origin who is rescued from misery by Dr. Schön, a wealthy newspaper publisher. Lulu turns out to be a creature of instinct, blissfully ignorant of any moral taboos, a product of nature untamed by civilization and its mechanisms of sublimation. Whenever she becomes involved with “respectable” members of bourgeois society, Lulu causes disaster. Her animal innocence and her totally amoral way of entering and breaking relationships with male members of middle-and upper-middle-class society clash violently with established values. Virtues such as honesty and faithfulness mean nothing to her. She is the “archwoman” (das Urweib), a nymphlike creature whose presence spells scandal and death. While enjoying the power she has over men, she feels happiest when her behavior provokes her male companions to beat her. Paradoxically, physical punishment enhances her self-esteem and adds to her triumph over the bourgeois world. She personifies undomesticated female eros. Her quasi-mythical role elevates her above the social status of a whore. Rather than a negotiable “commodity,” she is a menace to those who want to protect their social respectability. Wedekind invented the figure of Lulu in order to deal a blow to the puritanism and the smug self-complacency on which that “respectability” is based. Confronted with the pure and original force of eros, civilization reveals not only its “dissatisfaction” (as Freud later taught) but also its loss of vitality, primeval happiness, untamed instinctual gratification, psychic health, and emotional freedom.
Lulu’s first husband, Dr. Goll, becomes her first victim when he surprises her in the arms of the painter Schwarz. Her only comment about Goll’s subsequent suicide is: “He left me in the lurch.” Dr. Schön, who himself feels threatened by Lulu’s erotic spell, marries her off to Schwarz. When Schwarz learns through Dr. Schön that Lulu’s past does not measure up to accepted moral standards, he, too, takes his own life. The prompt suicides of Goll and Schwarz tragicomically reveal the power of the established moral code. Lulu’s next victim is Dr. Schön, who totally succumbs to her eroticism and is forced by her to write a letter to his fiancée in which he is to inform her that he will break the engagement.
In a tragicomic scene at the end of Earth Spirit, Dr. Schön, in utter despair, tries to persuade Lulu to kill herself while several other suitors are hiding in the same room. When their presence is revealed in a moment of turmoil and confusion, Lulu, panic-stricken, points the revolver given to her by Dr. Schön toward him and kills him.
The ending of Earth Spirit represents both the climax of Lulu’s power over society and the beginning of her downfall. In Pandora’s Box, she in turn becomes the victim, the hunted creature. Her power and her mythic, demoniac inspiration decline. Her mysterious strength as an opponent of civilization vanishes. Lulu, who serves a prison term for the murder of Dr. Schön, manages to escape to Paris with the help of Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian who is in love with her. By this time, Lulu has lost her independence, since anybody who knows about her escape can threaten to report her to the police. The marquis of Cast-Piani, a procurer, wants to sell her to a high-class bordello in Egypt, a proposition that Lulu finds utterly insulting. In order to escape all the scheming and manipulation surrounding her, she flees with Dr. Schön’s son Alwa, the Countess Geschwitz, and old Schigolch, a beggarlike father figure, to London, where she is forced to live in abject poverty in a Soho attic. Lack of financial resources brings further humiliation on her: She must sell her body as a prostitute and is finally murdered by Jack the Ripper, the infamous London murderer. Thus one social outcast becomes the victim of another, who indirectly represents society striking back at the creature who dared to provoke it.
The tragic meaning of the two plays lies in the incompatibility of nature, in the guise of precivilized eros, and civilized society. Here, Wedekind’s viewpoint is a pessimistic one. Since...
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