Erdgeist; Earth Spirit

[This page by Michael Navratil]

Erdgeist; Earth Spirit (first published in 1895; first performed in 1898)

Erdgeist; Earth Spirit is the first of the two Lulu-plays by Frank Wedekind, the second being Die Büchse der Pandora; Pandora’s Box. In 1913, Wedekind combined these two works in his play Lulu (on which, all in all, he worked for 21 years). Its eponymous heroine is the most popular character in Wedekind’s œuvre.

Erdgeist centres on Lulu, a beautiful young woman of equivocal moral conduct, and the various people who fall under her spell. Lulu is picked up from the streets by Dr Schön, a rich publishing agent, who takes her as his mistress but also arranges for her to get married to Dr Goll. The first act shows Lulu and Dr Goll in the studio of the painter Schwarz, who is supposed to paint a portrait of Lulu. Goll leaves the room for a moment and Lulu promptly seduces the painter. When Goll catches the two of them red-handed he suffers a fatal stroke. In the second act, Lulu is married to Schwarz. When Schön reveals to him that Lulu has been his mistress, Schwarz cuts his own throat. The third act shows Lulu as a dancer, with Schön still being emotionally tied to her, even against his own will. In the last act, Lulu and Schön are finally married. Yet, Lulu cheats on Schön with a number of people (or at least that is what Schön believes). When Schön tries to force Lulu to commit suicide, Lulu shoots him and is subsequently arrested.

As with many of Wedekind’s works, the plot seems to be only of secondary importance for the interpretation of the play. From its first publication till this day most commentators have focused on the complex and mysterious protagonist in their interpretations of Erdgeist. The play’s title relates to Goethe’s Faust I, where the Earth Spirit embodies the infinitely productive forces of nature. Thus, Lulu could be interpreted as representing the most basic drives of life, which in Wedekind’s play clearly have a sexual dimension. One line of scholarship (Arthur Moeller-Bruck, J. Spier, Fritz Strich) has argued that Lulu is the paradigmatic figure of female sexuality, a woman driven by her sexual urges and dominating the surrounding world by her powers of seduction. Another, more recent line of scholarship (Silvia Bovenschen, Ulrike Prokop, Elizabeth Boa) has laid emphasis on the fact that Lulu remains curiously undefined as a character, showing little individuality, and constantly adapts – to a certain degree – to the expectations of people around her. Thus, she seems to be not so much a real person, let alone the omnipotent representative of raw sexual urges, but rather the screen on which the surrounding characters project their fantasies. Yet another prominent reading of the play is the socio-critical one (Karl Kraus, Elizabeth Boa, Hartmut Vinçon, Peter Unger), in which Lulu, who is at ease with her own sexuality, exposes the hypocritical morality of society.

A number of films draw on the Lulu-plays, with Leopold Jessner, Georg Wilhelm Papst, Paul Auster and Jonathan Demme among the directors. Alban Berg based his second, unfinished opera Lulu on Wedekind’s plays.

Further Reading in English

Elizabeth Boa, The Sexual Circus: Wedekind’s Theatre of Subversion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), Chapters 3 and 5

Naomi Ritter, ‘The Portrait of Lulu as Pierrot’, in Rolf Kieser and Reinhold Grimm (eds.), Frank Wedekind Yearbook 1991, 127-40

Karin Littau, ‘Refractions of the Feminine: The Monstrous Transformations of Lulu’, Modern Language Notes 110:4 (1995), 888-912

Further Reading in German

Johannes G. Pankau, Sexualität und Modernität; Studien zum deutschen Drama des Fin de Siècle (Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 2005), Chapter 4

Hartmut Vinçon, Frank Wedekind (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1987), pp. 188-204

Erhard Weidl, ‘Philologische Spurensicherung zur Erschließung der “Lulu”-Tragödie Frank Wedekinds’, Wirkendes Wort 35 (1985), 99-119