Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening

[This page by Michael Navratil]

Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening (first published in 1891; first performed in 1906)

Frühlings Erwachen; Spring Awakening is Frank Wedekind’s most popular play and one of seminal dramatic works of late 19th century literature. It depicts the struggles of a group of pubertal adolescents trying to come to terms with their burgeoning sexual desires. The subtitle of the play reads ‘Eine Kindertragödie’ (‘A children’s tragedy’). The tragedy of the adolescents depicted in the play lies in the fact that they are left alone with their questions, their doubts, their longings and their feelings of guilt by their parents and teachers, in some cases with fatal consequences. Wedekind attacks the disciplinarian and prudish society of his day, which is depicted as doing considerable harm with its attempts to cover up and suppress sexual desires.

Although Frühlings Erwachen does not have a strictly coherent plot or a fixed set of characters, one central storyline can be discerned, centering on the three teenagers Melchior Gabor, Moritz Stiefel and Wendla Bergmann. Melchior and Moritz are close friends from school. Lacking any formal sexual education from their parents, Melchior agrees to write and illustrate a small educational pamphlet on the topic of sexual reproduction for Moritz, who is woefully ignorant on the matter.

Melchior and Wendla – who is fascinated by sadomasochist mistreatment but at the same time completely lacking in knowledge of the process of reproduction and sexual intercourse – sleep together. Wendla gets pregnant and dies as a result of a coerced abortion.

Because of his continuous failures at school Moritz commits suicide. Melchior, who is blamed for having spoilt his friend’s mind with his supposedly dirty-minded pamphlet, is sent to a reformatory from which he ultimately escapes. The last scene of the play is set at a cemetery where Melchior encounters both the ghost of his dead friend Moritz and a mysterious Masked Man. Both characters try to lure Melchior. Ultimately, Melchior choses the Masked Man over Melchior – and thereby life over death – and is guided away by the cryptic figure.

Wedekind’s play touches on a whole range of topics related to sexuality: sadomasochism, homosexuality, fetishism, (group-)masturbation and wet dreams, child abuse and abortion. These delicate topics and the critique of Wilhelmine bourgeois society led to censorings and bans during the early reception of the play.

Today, Frühlings Erwachen is widely read in schools throughout the German speaking world. Frequent theatre performances as well as a recent musical production (which won eight Tony Awards in 2007) and an adaptation for television (2009, directed by Nuran David Calis) give proof of the continuing appeal of Wedekind’s work.

Further Reading in English

Gordon Birrel, ‘The Wollen-Sollen Equation in Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen’, Germanic Review 57:3 (1982), 115-22

Elizabeth Boa, The Sexual Circus: Wedekind’s Theatre of Subversion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), Chapter 2

J. L. Hibberd, ‘Imaginary Numbers and ‘Humor’: on Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen’, Modern Language Review 74 (1977), 633−47

Further Reading in German

Johannes G. Pankau, Sexualität und Modernität; Studien zum deutschen Drama des Fin de Siècle (Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 2005), Chapter 3

Hartmut Vinçon, Frank Wedekind (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1987), pp. 174-185

Web Link

Frühlings Erwachen in German; click on a word for the English translation