Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, subtitled A Children’s Tragedy, was his first major work and the one that made him famous—and infamous. When the play was first produced, many regarded it as pornographic; riots broke out at performances, and the work was subjected to repeated censorship. The play, however, avoids the explicit and obscene, and later generations have come to see it as a powerful creation shaped out of inner experience.
The world of anxiety in which students live and suffer was familiar to Wedekind from his own school years. He shaped Spring Awakening not as a documentary, however; rather, it takes the form of a bizarre fantasy charged with irony. The adults, especially the teachers and the pastor, are grotesque parodies. Even their names resemble the sorts of mocking epithets students might invent. Scenes such as that in which Melchior is interrogated by the faculty and that of Moritz’s funeral are bitter parodies of the cruelty inflicted on children by adults as that cruelty is perceived by the children.
Indeed, Wedekind places all the lyricism and humanity in the play in the world of the young, perhaps for the first time on the German stage giving expression to the experience of this age group. Using naturalist techniques, Wedekind accurately captures the speech patterns and behaviors of young people while lifting them beyond the level of mere naturalism. That the play is allied more with the Symbolist school is evident from the fantasy of the final scenes: the temptation of Melchior by Moritz and his rescue by the “masked man.” Wedekind dedicated the play to this mysterious figure, who clearly represents the life force, perhaps within Melchior himself, which enables him to reject death and return to the world of the living, grotesque though it may be, to experience the fullness of life, of which Moritz, by his suicide, has robbed himself.
Many have considered Wedekind a precursor of German literary expressionism, and Bertolt Brecht considered him to be one of the principal influences on his own political and experimental plays. Spring...
(The entire section is 872 words.)