The Awakening of Spring: A Tragedy of Childhood

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The Awakening of Spring


Translated from the German by Francis J. Ziegler



Copyright, 1910


That it is a fatal error to bring up children, either boys or girls, in ignorance of their sexual nature is the thesis of Frank Wedekind’s drama “Frühlings Erwachen.” From its title one might suppose it a peaceful little idyl of the youth of the year. No idea a could be more mistaken. It is a tragedy of frightful import, and its action is concerned with the development of natural instincts in the adolescent of both sexes.

The playwright has attacked his theme with European frankness; but of plot, in the usual acceptance of the term, there is little. Instead of the coherent drama of conventional type, Wedekind has given us a series of loosely connected scenes illuminative of character—scenes which surely have profound significance for all occupied in the training of the young. He sets before us a group of school children, lads and lassies just past the age of puberty, and shows logically that death and degradation may be their lot as the outcome of parental reticence. They are not vicious children, but little ones such as we meet every day, imaginative beings living in a world of youthful ideals and speculating about the mysteries which surround them. Wendla, sent to her grave by the abortive administered with the connivance of her affectionate but mistaken mother, is a most lovable creature, while Melchior, the father of her unborn child, is a high type of boy whose downfall is due to a philosophic temperament, which leads him to inquire into the nature of life and to impart his knowledge to others; a temperament which, under proper guidance, would make him a useful, intelligent man. It is Melchior’s very excellence of character which proves his undoing. That he should be imprisoned as a moral degenerate only serves to illustrate the stupidity of his parents and teachers. As for the suicide of Moritz, the imaginative youth who kills himself because he has failed in his examinations, that is another crime for which the dramatist makes false educational methods responsible.

A grim vein of humor is exhibited now and then, as when we are introduced to the conference room in which the members of a gymnasium faculty, met to consider the regulation of their pupils’ morals, sit beneath the portraits of Pestalozzi and J. J. Rousseau disputing with considerable acrimony about the opening and shutting of a window. The exchange of unpleasant personalities is interrupted only by the entrance of the accused student, to whose defense the faculty refuses to listen, having marked the boy for expulsion prior to the formal farce of his trial.

Wedekind has been accused of depicting his adults as too ignorant and too indifferent to the needs of the younger generation. But most of us will have to admit that the majority of his scenes and characters seem very true to life.

“Frühlings Erwachen” may not be pleasant reading exactly, but there is no forgetting it after one has perused it; there is an elemental strength about it which grips the intellect. As a play it stands unique in the annals of dramatic art. That it has succeeded in attracting much attention abroad is shown by the fact that this drama in book form has gone through twenty-six editions in its original version and has been translated into several European tongues, Russian included, while stage performances of the work have been given in France as well as in Germany.

The Teutonic grimness of the work puzzled the Parisians, who are not used to having philosophy thrust at them over the footlights; but in Germany “Frühlings Erwachen” proved much more successful. In Berlin, indeed, it has become part of the regular stock of plays acted at “Das Neue Theater,” where it is said to be certain of drawing a crowded audience. That the play is radically different from anything given on the American stage is undoubtedly true. It must be remembered, however, that the Continental European playwright regards the stage as a medium of instruction, as well as a place of amusement. The dictum of the Swedish dramatist, August Strindberg, that the playwright should be a lay priest preaching on vital topics of the day in a way to make them intelligible to mediocre intellects, is not appreciated in this country as it should be; but once admit the kinship of dramatist and priest, and the position taken by Wedekind in writing “Frühlings Erwachen” becomes self-evident. There should be no question concerning the importance of his topic, nor should it be forgotten that the evident lesson he seeks to inculcate is one now preached by numerous ethical teachers. In order to estimate the relationship of this play toward modern thought in Germany, it must be understood that Wedekind’s tragedy is merely one of the documents in a paper war which has resulted at last in having the physiology of sex taught in many German schools. The fact that Wedekind’s dialogue is frank to a remarkable degree only makes his preachment more effective: “One does not cure the pest with attar of roses,” as St. Augustine remarked.

Conditions in this country are not so very different from those depicted in this play, and evidence is not lacking that gradually, very gradually, we are beginning to realize that ignorance and innocence are not synonymous; that an evil is not palliated by ignoring its existence; the Podsnappian wave of the hand has not disappeared entirely, but it is not quite as fashionable as of yore. All things considered, the moment seems appropriate for the publication, of “Frühlings Erwachen” in an English version. The translation given in this volume follows the German original as closely as the translator can reconcile the nature of the two languages.

Considered as a work of literature, “Frühlings Erwachen” is remarkable as one of the few realistic studies of adolescence. Its deceptive simplicity is the hall mark of that supreme literary ability which knows how to conceal art by art. Dealing with adolescence, an unformed period of human life, it is necessarily without the climaxes we expect in dramas in which the characters are adult, and the gruesome scene in the churchyard with which the play closes—a scene with such peculiar symbolism could spring only from a Teutonic imagination—leaves much unended.

It is interesting to note, by the way, that Wedekind himself appears as the Masked Man when “Frühlings Erwachen” is given in Berlin, a fact which gives this scene somewhat the nature of a parabasis.

Frank Wedekind’s name is just beginning to be heard in America. In Germany he has been recognized for some time as one of the leaders in the new art of the theatre. Naturally enough, his plays are too outspoken in their realism to appeal to all his fellow-countrymen. But, if certain Germans reject this mental pabulum, others become intoxicated by it, and, waxing enthusiastic with a flow of language almost bacchic, hail Wedekind as the forerunner of a new drama—as a power destined to infuse fresh strength into the German stage. “With this drink in its body,” writes one admirer, “the public will never more endure lyrical lemonade, nor the dregs of dramatic penury.”

Again, these enthusiasts compare Wedekind’s work to that of the pre-Shakesperian dramatists, or even to that of the Bard of Avon himself, both of which comparisons are difficult to grasp by an English-speaking student of the British drama.

Wedekind, it is true, has a habit of using the news of the day as material for plays, just as the old English dramatists did when they wrote “domestic tragedies.” He has a fondness, moreover, for gruesome situations such as we can imagine appealing to the melancholy genius of Webster; but of the childlike simplicity which marks much of the Elizabethan drama there is not a particle.

Certainly there is no trace of the gentle romanticism which one finds in some of the other modern German realists. Gerhart Hauptmann can turn from the grim task of dramatizing starvation, as he does in “Die Weber,” to indulge in the naïve Christian symbolism of “Hannele,” or the mythological poetry of “Die Versunkene Glocke.” Even the iconoclast Strindberg writes romantically at times, and gives us something resembling Maeterlinck; but when Wedekind departs from pure realism his fancy creates a Gothic nightmare of horrors, peopled with such terrifying creatures as the headless suicide wandering amid the graves.

Wedekind’s kinship to the dramatists of the “domestic tragedies” is shown clearly in the tragedy “Musik,” which deals with a phase of music study only too common in Germany. It is asserted that of the thousands of students of music in that country not one in a hundred amounts to anything artistically, while of those who master their art not one in a thousand is capable of profiting financially by it. It is this condition of affairs which gives additional importance to this recent work of Wedekind.

“Musik” is described by the author as a depiction of morals in four pictures (“Sittengemälde in vier Bildern”), to each of which he has given a separate title, a method which enables him to indulge in his trick of applying a pretty, inoffensive name to a tragic subject, as he does in picture two of this series, which he calls “Behind Swedish Curtains,” and which represents the interior of a jail. The curtains to which the playwright refers are the iron bars of the prison.

The central character in “Musik,” Klara Huhnerwadel, is a neurotic girl, whose mad love for her singing teacher has entangled her in the meshes of the legal net drawn to catch Madame Fischer, a notorious character in real life, who actively engaged the attention of the German police authorities not long ago. At the instigation of her lover, Josef Reissner, and with money supplied by Else Reissner, Josef’s wife, Klara flees to Antwerp, only to find existence insupportable there, and to return to a life in jail which drives her to the edge of insanity. Released from imprisonment, she continues her relationship with her teacher until their association becomes public scandal, and then takes refuge in the country, intending to devote her life to her illegitimate child. The child dies, however, and there descends upon Klara what Wedekind describes as “the curse of the ridiculous.” In an outburst of frightful anguish she is filled with “a nameless loathing of the horrible fate of being racked to death by bursts of sneering laughter,” and raves in hysteria by the bedside of her dead baby.

Upon this final picture Wedekind has expended his full power of biting irony. Josef Reissner, the cause of Klara’s misfortune, is thanked by her mother for all he has done for her, while Franz Lindekuh, a literary man, whose rôle in the play has been that of a good Samaritan, is accused as the author of her disgrace. During previous tribulations Reissner has assured Klara repeatedly that her suffering would develop her artistic temperament and result in bringing her fame as a singer. At the end, when Klara, after undergoing imprisonment, exile, poverty, public disgrace and the loss of her beloved child, finds herself bereft of even Reissner’s regard, she is led away in a stupor from her miserable attic. It is then, in reply to a wish of the physician that she will suffer from no lasting mental disturbance, that Lindekuh preludes the fall of the curtain by the caustic remark: “She’ll be able to sing a song.”

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