Wedekind (1864−1918) wrote Spring Awakening between 1890 and 1891 in Munich. He is reported as writing, in an article for a German publication:
I started writing (Spring Awakening) without any plan, only for the sake of the joyful writing itself. Actually, the plan for the play was only there after the third scene when I took a few personal experiences of my schoolmates as example. Almost every scene is based on a real story.
Liukkonen and Pesonen describe Wedekind as “a forerunner of Expressionism and the Theatre of the Absurd,” and they state that he was a sharp observer of the uptight German society. The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter illustrates this in terms of a class system, noting that “he lived among lower-class, under-privileged drifters who were not encumbered by bourgeois morality.” Wedekind is known to be a freethinker, and Liukkonen and Pesonen identify that “his stock of characters vary from pillars of society to outcasts”.
Although Wedekind finished writing the play in 1891, Max Reinhardt only produced it for the first time fifteen years laterWilhelminismus. society (under the Kaiser Wihelm II) wasn’t ready for a play that dealt with the sexual and identity problems of teenagers, and saw the published book as sheer act of provocation. Liukkonen and Pesonen assert that the ruling class was unlikely to accept Wedekind’s play without uproar, give the mix of:
Competitive Protestant work-ethic, military discipline, Christian morality, fear of scandal in matters of sex and money, [and] punitive and repressive… approach to the natural development of young people.
Wedekind fought many accusations of pornography and struggled on a daily basis with the censorship; yet he forced audiences of the early 1900s to confront issues that were not discussed in polite society, where, as Edward Bond describes, “the only purpose of the society was to keep the total machine running. Human objectives were sacrificed to this mechanical imperative”.
Bond summarizes the theme of Spring Awakening as “the misuse of authority.” In the play, adults fear breaking rules and the possible consequences, whereas teenagers only fear failing their parents. Wedekind portrays the teenagers as feeling repressed and being unable to make any decisions of their own. The following passage of the play proves Moritz’s curiosity about life and his frustration when he cannot find answers:
MORITZ. What good is it in an encyclopedia if it doesn’t answer the first questions about life?
The next passage of the play shows Moritz’s anguish about the upcoming school results:
MORITZ. If I fail my father will have a heart attack and my mother go into a madhouse. I’d never survive it. Before the exams I prayed like Christ in the garden.
This passage proves that Moritz wasn’t entirely a bleak student with suicidal ambitions: he still had hope, praying like Christ.
In scene seven, Moritz’s survival is at stake. The stakes are indirectly high for the parents also, because no matter how afraid they are of losing face in public, they would still have to cope with the loss of their son: the love of a father and mother for their own children is stronger than anything else in the world.
In the first moment of the seventh scene, Moritz is suicidal, and in a soliloquy he proves to himself why his decision is right. The last moment of the scene is similar, as Moritz is again certain about his decision.
The unexpected appearance of Ilse in this scene, causes some tension (albeit subtle), as Ilse’s presence stands in the way of Moritz’s macabre plan. Later, another moment of tension is apparent when Ilse invites Moritz to her place and he lies, saying he must return home. This moment is the turning point of the scene: had he gone with her, a comforting evening with his sister may have removed his thoughts of suicide.
Ilse’s description of how she leads her alternative life may have been the last thing Moritz needed to hear at that point, as he had decided that he did not want to become a heartless adult, nor he did he wish to end up like his sister or her “loser-friends.” That evening, Ilse just wants to rest and “curl her brother’s hair,” whereas Moritz wants to be alone to carry out his deadly plan. This is the dramatic irony of the scene, as the audience has become aware that Moritz will kill himself, whereas Ilse has no idea of it.
The moment that delivers the impact of the scene arguably occurs shortly before Ilse arrives. When Moritz is standing alone he says: “life gave me the cold shoulder,” and this passage proves that he sees nothing to contradict his final act. Although the key image of the scene could have been Moritz burning Frau Gabor’s letter, when he does this he has already made up his mind: the burning of the letter is just a final gesture for him to bid farewell to the world, as its content no longer affects him. Moritz felt that society compelled him to the action of suicide: either he would have to comply with all the rules or he could choose to leave it all behind.
Moritz as a character draws sympathy from the audience, yet he still ends up committing suicide. The audience does not see Moritz’s death and this creates suspense. The scene could be further intensified by placing Melchior in it, as if Moritz no-longer felt alone, and yet ended up killing himself anyway (in a setting other than a windy evening with clouded skies), the suicide scene would have been a more appropriate expression of character. The portrayal of the characters of adults and teenagers isn’t stereotyped in this play, when compared to the society of Wihelm II. Despite being shocking, the scenes are more realistic than symbolic. Although the main characters are teenagers, and their lives are considered short, the scenes invoke the idea that they had experienced a lifetime.
In this scene adults are portrayed as evil, while teenagers are seen as pure (despite the rape, beating, suicide, masturbation and the homosexuality), because of their lust for innocent experimentation and because they don’t know any better. This differentiation marks the system of categorization and opposition that is present throughout the entire play.
Writer J.L. Styan suggests that “the manner of playwrighting is inseparable from the kind of theatre it is written for,” and this agrees with Wedekind’s approach. The teenagers’ capitulation in Spring Awakening doesn’t mean that Wedekind capitulated in any way; he instead pushes the adults to capitulate to a world more human. Theorist Mark Fortier notes that “we are a product of our social embodiment;” because of the superego of the society Moritz lived in, he felt he didn’t have to follow the same path of mental imprisonment as his elders.
I chose to comment on this seventh scene because it shows that it is difficult to change a teenager’s mind. In addition, this scene indicates that most adults see teenagers’ problems as trivial, or even as nonexistent. The world of any teenager⎯just like Moritz’s⎯could be crashing down, and no adult would be able to see it coming.
Moritz’s suicide symbolizes the loss of hope. Although fear of consequences sometimes drives people to commit suicide, this was not so for Moritz. He was clearly afraid of his parents’ reaction to his failure as a student, however, he killed himself because he didn’t see the point of arguing in such a flawed world.
Anthony Hozier identifies that “a good play is a single organic unity,” and Moritz’s last scene alive relates to the rest of the play, in the sense that he feels he has failed, and that other people failed him. Wedekind didn’t spare the teenager, as a way to show that things can indeed go terribly wrong. This scene acts as a wake-up call to the audience, and also to the other characters in the story.
The moral impact of this play is strong, because, as writer Edoardo Esposito evaluates, Wedekind “provoked in his readers/audience a confirmation of identity.” The theatre practitioner Serge Barbuscia states in an interview that “theatre is like a mirror, a meeting with ourselves,” and that “big worries will eventually touch everyone:” this was the case with Spring Awakening.
The ending of seventh scene could also relate to the hopelessness of so many young people today and the danger they face for being unable to find other ways to solve their problems. Contemporary society, and some rules, may have changed since the early 19th Century, however teenagers will always find that nobody seems to have answers or solutions to some of the important questions and problems they have.
On a final note to this analysis, it seems possible that Wedekind just wanted to say that we, as adults, should just let teenagers be.
Esposito affirms that “changes of mentality and of reaction of the audience are seen as a true re-writing,” and Wedekind never thought of re-writing anything just to please his crowd. Although the readers/audience who didn’t enjoy Wedekind’s play may have hoped that theatre was only an illusion, in this instance the play reflected the wider world. Wedekind used Spring Awakening as a display for his own revolt, and with good reason. Nobody who has read Spring Awakening or has watched a performance will remain unchanged.
Luciana B. Veit