By Joshua O’Brian, Production Dramaturg, Spring Awakening
We open any entertainment magazine to pages riddled with claims of sex and scandal from celebrities that we grow to love or hate; we turn on our streaming devices to images of nudity and simulated sex in big budget shows and films. Despite this media presence, this topic of the sexual body is one that has remained socially taboo. While we enjoy more freedom and tolerance in conversations today, Spring Awakening highlights unspoken narratives surrounding the human sexual experience and the consequences surrounding those who transgress.
In late 19th century Germany, Frank Wedekind wrote Frühlings Erwachen, which inspired the 21st century musical adaptation of the same name: Spring Awakening. Wedekind wrote the original play under the iron fist of societal rules surrounding all the play’s themes. In this time and place, topics of sex, queerness, and mental health were rarely discussed, and almost never talked about in a favorable light. As a 19th century German artist practicing what is later termed Expressionism, Wedekind faced scrutiny that he not only wrote a play that included society’s most frowned upon subjects, but also addressed these issues that specifically belonged to young adults. Within a majority Protestant community, Wedekind’s play was banned from commercial production until 1906, fifteen years after its completion. It did not receive its first English performance in the U.S. until 1917, when New York’s Commissioner of Licenses threatened it with closure as he claimed it was too “pornographic”: a play addressing societal fears was censored because of these same fears? Makes sense right? This example of societal accountability for and reckoning with consequences of regulation persists today; it is not only the story itself, but also the way that it is told that compels our attention today.
Inspired by Expressionist writing, librettist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik highlight the inner feelings of these characters under the strict rules to which they are subjected. Expressionists share the goal of effectively tunneling in on the emotional consequences and reactions from a subjective perspective, and to look for meaning in inner experience rather than through outer reality alone. Listen for some songs in this performance that emphasize this heightened sense of emotion, such as “And Then There Were None,” in which the songwriter and librettist highlight Moritz’s emotional reaction to an event rather than just objectively presenting it. The more modern medium of a pop-rock music video can be seen as a contemporary product of Expressionism, making some of the darker themes of the show more palatable. As a collective audience, we are still dealing with some of the same taboos that can be seen in our production, emphasizing how social stigmas still create fear that manifests in harmful rules that have been in place for centuries, and how Expressionistic art has given us a method of discussing them.
In terms of subject matter, both the play and the musical adaptation focus on growing up in harsh social conditions. More specifically, sexuality plays a huge role in Spring Awakening, serving as the basis of all these characters’ independent struggles. In 1890, masturbation was rumored to cause mental and physical diseases. Devices such as chastity belts were used to stop young adults from engaging in these so-called “sinful” activities. The vignettes in the song “My Junk” are a response to these rules as the characters sing about the pain of feeling morally wrong in their sexual urges. Homosexuality was actually recriminalized in Germany in 1871, 20 years before Wedekind’s play was written. Sater and Sheik emphasize the personal consequences of presented queerness at this time in the duet “Word of Your Body,” showing that such actions risked social obscurity and even imprisonment at this time. This song should be seen as an act of rebellion for the two characters, as well as a true awakening of their sexuality. Young people of the time were forced to come to terms with things within themselves about which they not only had never heard, but also were strictly forbidden to even talk.
In 1890s German life, young people were taught to respect and not challenge authority: each was expected to give adults final say on any subject, allowing for the generational heirloom of misinformation. This led to the rise of youth movements that called for social changes and changes in family dynamics which paved the way for today’s independent teenager. More specifically, groups like the Wandervogel protested against industrialization. This group of young people were focused on allowing children to be children and emphasized the importance of connection with nature. Looking at Spring Awakening, there are multiple references to nature as freedom, as an escape from the rules under which these characters are placed. You might notice the use of natural imagery in songs like “Song of Purple Summer” or in scenes in which our characters experience emotional freedom, such as “Word of Your Body”. While ultimately, the adult characters in this musical can be seen trying to protect the children from harsh realities of growing up, it is their children that are met with direct consequences.
The world reflected in Spring Awakening is one in which the characters face real societal dangers as consequences to behaviors that have become more normalized in today’s society here in the US, such as homosexuality or sex education. With a plethora of taboos and little to no access to truthful information, the characters in this musical must discover what these feelings that drive them are without guidance or access to a reliable truth. From its first production in 1906, to this production, to those that will follow, the story of Spring Awakening will continue to push the boundaries of society’s century-old insecurities. Keep in mind the dangers that our characters face with every decision they make, and how the stakes could not be higher. Let this production serve as a reminder of our present discomfort about the same subjects.
LIVE online performances of Spring Awakening take place between April 15 and April 18. More information and tickets are available at emersonstage.org/spring-awakening.