Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Frank Wedekind: Spring Awakening

I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen's translation of Spring Awakening, the nineteenth century German play by Frank Wedekind. It is quite good actually, exactly the kind of dark and mysterious tale of sexual awakening that I love. I would love to see it on stage if I get a chance sometime. Incidentally in much of his introduction (low on information and high on polemic, alas!) Franzen rails against a recent Broadway musical adaptation of the play.

"One example of the ongoing danger and vitality of Spring Awakening was the insipid rock-musical version of it that opened on Broadway in 2006, a hundred years after the play's world premiere, and was instantly overpraised. The script that Wedekind had finished in 1891 was far too frank sexually to be producible on any late-Victorian stage... And yet even the cruelest bowdlerizations of a century ago [i.e., the early censored versions] were milder than the maiming a dangerous play now undergoes in becoming a contemporary hit. [....]The result is funny in the same way that bad sitcoms are 'funny' - viewers emit nervous laughter at every mention of sex and then, hearing themselves laugh, conclude that what they're watching must be hilarious."

Even though I haven't seen the Broadway version I can understand what must have happened. It is not hard to fit the play into a standard teenage sexual confusion and frustration genre that the Hollywood loves so much, without realizing that Wedekind's view of human sexuality if far from the standard sexual-liberationist view of "if we only we could get laid as often as we want, everything would be alright." Wedekind saw sexuality as a chaotic and destructive force which is only made worse by our unwillingness to acknowledge and confront it. The play contains some really fierce and merciless caricatures of authority figures, the parents, the representatives of the church and the teachers who all collude in the collective denial of the presence of sexuality in the lives of children leading to some really tragic consequences. (There is some really strong stuff in it - suicide, physical and sexual abuse, rape, botched abortion leading to death etc.)

On the surface the central idea of the play may seem to be anachronistic. Indeed nobody can say that in this age sexuality is something hidden and its presence is not acknowledged enough. Sexualisation of children and the way pornography has become mainstream, it all seems so harmless and normal to us now. But one has to only look closer to realize that this sexuality is a normalized and homogenized version manufactured and foisted on us from outside by the commercial culture. It has no basis in the authentic inner experience. A real authentic sexuality will still be too subversive to handle.

Complete text of the play in an older translation is available here. Complete Review has more information and links. May be Franzen had this review in NYT in his mind when he called the musical version "instantly overpraised."

The same accusations can't be levelled against the movie versions of other plays by Wedekind - the silent German classic Pandora's Box by G.W. Pabst and the French film Innocence which came a couple of years back, both of which are masterpieces. In fact I saw Pandora's Box only recently. I will try to write in more detail about it later. Probably I should look for his Lulu plays on which the film is actually based.


Antonia said...

I really do like Wedekind for he is so unfussy about everything. It seems to be quite a naive & hazardous undertaking to translate this very play again in the US with all the education to abstinence stuff. It's only natural that it has been adapted in a less dangerous, fancy way, so as to calm everyone's liberated consciousness.
There is a very good essay (Deesses entretenues) by Roberto Calasso in his '49 steps' book. Have you read any Horvath? he was into that kind of thematics too, but he had not the strength of Wedekind who just didn't falter being outright and not caring about what everyone thinks.

Alok said...

I haven't read Horvath but have read Schnitzler who is less confrontational comparatively but equally frank and anti-sentimental about these things.

I also saw the wonderful silent film from 1928 Pandora's Box which is based on his Lulu plays. It is very different from the play in tone (much humane and more tragic, even sentimental) but a great classic nevertheless.