Frühlings Erwachen: The Play that Started it All
Living through the second half of the 19th century, Frank Wedekind completed Frühlings Erwachen, or The Awakening of Spring, in 1891. His play was a highly controversial tale and was automatically outlawed in Germany. The play had its first performance in 1906, yet did not have its second until 1917.
Late nineteenth century Germany was worlds away from contemporary America. Just before the First World War, Germany was going through an Industrial revolution (decades after England, may I add). The German Empire was formed in order to create a unified land and the Bible was the law. (See References to Know for more information on the times).
Frank Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen had two major impacts on the theatre. First, like the realist plays of the time, the ideas expressed in the play went against the German bourgeois society in order to speak the truth. The ending of his play, later formed the German movement of expressionist theatre.
Wedekind’s piece, a three act straight play, defied the social norms of the German Empire. Its story contained conversations about and elements of rape, homosexuality, suicide, abortion, Atheism, physical abuse, and death. Its subtitle, A Children’s Tragedy, was nothing but accurate. This play was not only satiric towards the bible, religion and the bourgeois attitudes, but the play also criticized the sexually-oppressive culture of late 19th-century Germany. This is why the play’s history is one of being banned in cities, having shortened runs, and getting few performances.
Considered one of the fathers of expressionism, Wedekind’s original play held a factor of expressionism that is not seen in Steven Sater’s musical. To end Wedekind’s play, a masked man comes out of nowhere and solves all of the problems of the play. (This is also referred to as deus ex machina—an inexplicable the tool used in ancient Greek tragedies where a play will end unrealistically). The masked man talks with Melchior and Melchior asks the masked man about God, life and death, and talks of killing himself. This then works to persuade Melchior to commit suicide, and thus created the birth of expressionist theatre: “a world where figures body forth the emotions of the central characters” (Sater xii). Though this does not happen in the musical, Wedekind’s use of the Masked Man became the foundation of expressionist theatre which was popular in the first few decade of the 20th century.