In 1890, Franz Wedekind, an ex-circus performer cabaret singing sex addict, wrote a play called Spring Awakening. It was about teenagers being gay, getting pregnant, crumbling under exam pressure, beating each other, killing themselves and above all being lied to by adults. No one dared to perform it for 15 years.
In 2014, setting out to write a new version for Headlong where my brief was to set it in 21st century England rather than late 19th century Germany, I expected a lot was going to have to change. Surely a play about oppressed and repressed 14 year olds in a provincial town during the thriving economy 1890 Germany has little to say to modern day British teenagers?
Since it was written we’ve invented social media, we’ve got sex education classes, counselling, BBC bitesize revision, adverts warning us not to rape each other. We’ve even invented the notion of the teenager since Wedekind’s elaborate and dire warning of a play. Before there were children and adults, now we’ve created a whole new buffer stage where angst and mistakes are not only allowed but expected. A whole new stage of life and target market created, you would expect the life and fears of a 14 year old to have changed.
But somehow it all remains true, looking at my list of what the play is about, we can’t pretend that any of that doesn’t still happen. It’s all sex and death really. But I thought maybe it’s the same symptoms but a different illness?
Looking at the play you get a sense that Wedekind blames dishonesty, above all dishonesty from adults to children. A 14 year old’s mother reassures her daughter that the stork brings babies and when pressed she hides her face in her apron and promises her daughter you only get pregnant if you’re married. A 14 year old’s father disowns his son while standing at his graveside because he took his own life convinced that his son was sent mad by his friend’s sketch of sex. Nowadays we’re taught understanding and openness, but in working on this adaptation I don’t think it’s made us more honest.
For example, in rehearsals for the play we looked at the material provided for a sex ed class; ask them their opinion, tell them to talk freely about their feelings, teach them to put a condom on a banana, try to keep them from calling each other gay and then when the bell rings get them to collect their stuff quickly and quietly and go to maths. Perhaps not dishonest but I wouldn’t call it honest either, I wouldn’t call it helpful. I can’t imagine anyone walking out that class and feeling more informed, more ready for the world or a first sexual experience.
And where else can teenagers learn about sex now? The perennial answer to any question is ‘Google it’ and that is what a teenager is going to do. But in the same way a GP grimaces when a patient has searched their symptoms on the internet, we should grimace at teenagers learning about sex from forums, Yahoo Answers and porn. Perhaps it’s the same illness then, if the illness is dishonesty, it’s just a different cause of illness. Before there was too little information, now there’s too much.
And that’s all we had to do with the adaptation, take it from the opposite end of the spectrum in cause but we ended up with the same results. The mother, convinced she should be ‘open’ tells her daughter too much, tries to explain about love and forgets to tell her about sex. The boys don’t learn from hand drawn sketches passed between them but from hard core porn. But it ends in the same results.
I would argue it’s the same with death. In the opening scene of the original a mother tries to persuade her daughter to wear a longer dress only to abandon this attempt as soon as her daughter tells her she thinks about death. A teenager’s suicide is rejected by his friends; afraid and suspicious of such an act and prefer to focus on him owing them money and upcoming exam results. But that’s from a play written in another country in another century so why do both those scenes seem totally plausible to me as a member of the 21st century audience? Suicide is one of the biggest killers of young men but it isn’t talked about, unless it’s throwing the helpline out at the end of a hard hitting programme or having a few leaflets lying in the school office.
Inevitably to talk about that honestly though, we’ve had to introduce the idea of social media into the adaptation. Social media has given death, especially young people’s deaths a new facet to be dealt with. Teenagers grow up in a time where they are more likely to find out about someone’s death over Facebook rather than someone telling them. Rumours of how, and in a suicide case , why someone’s died always circulate but things like Twitter and Facebook make it not only possible for you to throw your viewpoint out but also expected.
That’s not to say that it isn’t a hard topic to talk about, not just because of its nature but because talk of suicide does sometimes engender it. I’ve worked on enough projects where even the mention of suicide sends everyone into hyper driver with the party line being ‘best leave that one alone’. But here’s a 19th century madman (because I’m pretty certain Wedekind was) not only talking about it but showing it. It’s the same with sex it’s hard to talk about. The mother’s struggle in the original Spring Awakening remains the same as a mother’s today; in having a conversation about sex am I then forcing my child to grow up before she’s ready but if I don’t have that conversation am I running the risk of sending a child out into the world unprepared? They’re hard things to talk about or know even how to start to but sex and death is what you care about when you’re 14, at least it’s what I cared about. Maybe it’s all we ever should care about. In researching the play the director showed me an article about sexting and a woman’s hunt to try and find a picture of her vagina before giving up the search accepting it was lost in a sea of virtual vagina. One day the world’s gonna be run by people who’s bits are up on the internet and no one will care, or at least no one will know.
I don’t know what the answer is to all that, I don’t think Wedekind did either. But I don’t think a play’s job is necessarily to provide answers but to ask questions, I think Dennis Kelly recently said something similar and if he said it I’m definitely on board. But in writing something about modern day teenagers we have been forced to throw a few new questions in there too, because it be dishonest not to.
I don’t think social media is an inherently bad thing but it’s worth the questions. The same with porn, porn isn’t by nature evil. It’s just that it can scare the hell out of you at 14. I hadn’t watched porn as a teenager, I watched it in researching the play and I can tell you it scared the hell out of me. But it’s the same as Wedekind’s kids, information (the little they had) scared them, really what I’ve learnt is that very little changes. It’s all sex and death, and social media. Anyway, follow me on twitter.