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Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)

Frank Wedekind was a German playwright, writer and actor. Wedekind is best known for his socio-critical plays and his overt artistic treatment of various topics related to sexuality, which was often experienced as highly provocative by early audiences.

Wedekind was born in Hannover in 1864 and spent his youth in Switzerland where his father, who had made a fortune in the USA during the Californian Gold Rush, owned a castle. His early writing attempts date back to his school time. Wedekind started studying German and French literature and later law, none of which he finished. He temporarily worked as a journalist, advertising agent and as secretary at a circus. Having been left a considerable fortune by his father, between 1889 and 1898 Wedekind lived in Munich, Paris, Switzerland, London and Berlin. In 1896 he co-founded the satirical magazine Simplicissimus. Because of a satirical poem he had written about Emperor Wilhelm II, Wedekind was arrested in 1899 and spent several months in jail.

In 1906, Wedekind and his wife, the actress Tilly Newes, settled in Munich where he lived until his death in 1918.

Apart from working as a writer and journalist, Wedekind also appeared on stage as a cabaret artist and as an actor in his own plays, e.g. as the ‘Masked Man’ in Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening.

In his work, Wedekind criticises the hypocritical morality of Wilhelmine society, attacks capitalist ideology and promotes sexual liberation for both sexes. Because of his overt tackling of topics such as prostitution, sadomasochism, female sexuality and homosexuality he often came into conflict with state authorities and bodies of censorship – a topic which then entered his work, for example in Die Zensur; The Censorship or Franziska.

Wedekind’s most popular play to this day is his early ‘Kindertragödie’ (‘children’s tragedy’) Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening (1891). The play depicts the troubles of a group of adolescents trying to come to terms with their burgeoning sexual desires and shows the severe effects that derive from the lack of honest communication between different generations on the topic of sexuality.

Wedekind’s second major work is the double tragedy Erdgeist; Earth Spirit (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora; Pandora’s Box (1902), which in 1913 he combined in his play Lulu. The plays depict the life of young and beautiful Lulu, a strangely vague and undetermined character, who makes use of various men and one woman who fall under her spell. At the end, she is brutally murdered by Jack the Ripper.

After his late theatre breakthrough with Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening in 1906, Wedekind became one of Germany’s most popular playwrights. Opposing naturalist positions, Wedekind’s plays delineate – in some parallel with the dramatic developments of Viennese Modernism at the same time – an experimental, playful and anti-realist aesthetic. With this, Wedekind became an important forerunner of Expressionism.

Despite being one of the most popular and notorious playwrights of his day, Wedekind’s reputation as a writer, like that of many others, never completely recovered from the period of total denunciation of his work during the Third Reich. It was only from 1994 on that a critical edition of his works started to appear (Kritische Studienausgabe, also known as Darmstädter Ausgabe, ed. by Elke Austermühl, Hartmut Vinçon and Rolf Kieser, 8 volumes in 15 part-volumes (Darmstadt: Häusser, 1994-2011)). While Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening and the two Lulu plays (Erdgeist; Earth Spirit and Die Büchse der Pandora; Pandora’s Box) figure as central works of the German dramatic canon to this day, the rest of Wedekind’s extensive œuvre remains mostly forgotten.

Plays include:

Frühlings Erwachen (1891); Spring Awakening

Der Erdgeist (1895); Earth Spirit

Der Kammersänger (1899); The Court-Singer

Der Marquis von Keith (1901); The Marquis of Keith

Die Büchse der Pandora (1902); Pandora’s Box

Die Zensur (1908); The Censorship

Schloss Wetterstein (1910); Castle Wetterstein

Franziska (1912)

Lulu (1913) [see Erdgeist; Earth Spirit and Die Büchse der Pandora; Pandora’s Box]

Bismarck (1916)

Herakles (1917); Heracles

Other important works:

Mine-Haha oder Über die körperliche Erziehung der jungen Mädchen (1903); Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls

Die vier Jahreszeiten: Gedichte (1905); The Four Seasons: Poems

Further Reading in English

Alan Best, Frank Wedekind (London: Wolff, 1975)

Elizabeth Boa, The Sexual Circus: Wedekind’s Theatre of Subversion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987)

Carol Diethe, Aspects of Distorted Sexual Attitudes in German Expressionist Drama (New York et al.: Peter Lang, 1988)

Sol Gittleman, Wedekind (New York: Twayne, 1969)

Jennifer Ham, Elastizität: The Poetics of Space, Movement and Character in Frank Wedekind’s Theater (New York et al.: Peter Lang, 2012)

Rüdiger H. Mueller, Sex, Love and Prostitution in Turn-of-the-Century German-Language Drama (Frankfurt am Main et al.: Peter Lang, 2006)

Peter Skrine, Hauptmann, Wedekind and Schnitzler (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989)

Further Reading in German

Hans-Jochen Irmer, Der Theaterdichter Frank Wedekind; Werk und Wirkung (Ost-Berlin: Herschelverlag, 1975)

Artur Kutscher, Frank Wedekind: sein Leben und seine Werke (Munich: Müller, 1922-1931)

Johannes G. Pankau, Sexualität und Modernität; Studien zum deutschen Drama des Fin de Siècle (Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 2005)

Anatol Regnier, Frank Wedekind: Eine Männertragödie (Munich: Knaus, 2008)

Hartmut Vinçon, Frank Wedekind (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1987)

Frank Wedekind. Text + Kritik, 131/132 (Göttingen: Text + Kritik, 1996)