Frank Wedekind wasn’t really a playwright. Of course that makes no sense, since he wrote a whole bunch of plays, but it does have a meaning and it is possibly helpful to remember when staging Spring Awakening.
Satirist, actor, writer, cabaret singer, bohemian and tormentor of the German bourgeoisie, Wedekind was never committed or confined to one art form. He was that rare old thing, an artist, and in Brecht's words 'his greatest work was his personality.' This ability and desire to express oneself in various forms is something we are perhaps less forgiving of today, certainly in the theatre, where we all learn our roles and don’t stray above our station but it goes some way to explaining his approach to structure and character: the innovative way he invented the rules for his plays. It is also part of the reason that a play written over 120 years ago can still feel dangerous.
When Wedekind first wrote Spring Awakening in 1890-91, aged 26, he was fairly sure that its explicit content meant it would never be performed. It was finally performed, 15 years later in Germany but only under heavy censorship (incidentally, Wedekind appeared in this production as the Masked Man, but was allegedly so drunk on opening night that he forgot his lines) and the play’s ability to shock continued long beyond that first performance. When it first opened in New York in 1917 (the year before Wedekind died) it closed after one night amid public outrage and charges of obscenity and it was banned in the UK as late as 1965.
Wedekind was born in 1864– to an actress and a gold-rush millionaire. German by birth but raised largely in the USA- he returned to Germany only in his late teens to complete school, earning him the nickname ‘Frederick the American.’ The family didn’t stay long in Germany either- Wedekind’s father became disillusioned with the politics of the time and moved them again, this time to a castle in Switzerland.
After training (at his father’s insistence) as a lawyer then dropping out, Wedekind became interested in the theatre and it was as a cabaret artist that he found fame during his lifetime. He was the founder of a group called The Eleven Executioners, who developed a cult following. He wrote and performed satirical songs with the Executioners, as well as writing essays and poetry. He spent several months in prison for insulting the government in one essay.
Theatre historians find him hard to place. Often thought of as part of a revolution in playwriting spearheaded by Ibsen, Wedekind did indeed strive to represent things on stage that had never before been shown. He shared Ibsen’s daring use of real world people on stage (Ilse, a character in Spring Awakening, was based on someone he knew, and she reappears in a song from his cabaret act), but there is a streak running through his work of the grotesque, the broadly satirical, and the downright weird, which comes from carnival, from cabaret. Spring Awakening sometimes feels more like a set of “numbers” from a cabaret show, rather than a well-worked play. The declamatory, moralistic fervor of his writing saw him influence Brecht, and get lumped in with the “expressionist” playwrights. Another label that doesn’t quite seem to fit.
When he died, the community of artists to whom he had become so central felt his death with deep shock. Munich was at the time referred to as the “Paris of Germany,” and Wedekind, this mysterious, multitalented magician, was at its heart. At the funeral, apparently a chaotic, joyful affair, a friend threw himself into Wedekind’s grave. A young Brecht summed it up well saying, ‘try as they might… they couldn’t bury this juggler.’
Wedekind’s wildness and refusal to conform gives us hints when staging his work but I think it also explains how he was able to capture the thrill and vitality of youth so strangely and luridly in Spring Awakening. There seems to be something driving Wedekind that is to do with rules, and the fact that we grow into them. That one of the defining characteristics of growing up is the feeling that there is no “proper” way to do things; or rather, that there is, but doing things the “proper” way might be a straightjacket just as much as a helpful template. As he put it himself, “The fog is clearing; life is a matter of taste”.