Sexuality and Authority in Wedekind’s ‘Spring Awakening’
In the foreword to an early translation of the play ‘Spring Awakening’ by Frank Wedekind, his translator Francis J. Ziegler stated that Wedekind’s thesis for the play was “that it is a fatal error to bring up children, either boys or girls, in ignorance of their sexual nature.” (The Awakening of Spring. Foreword.) From the outset of this play, an audience can begin to understand exactly what inspired this belief. Wedekind wrote the play as an attack on the societal pretense, repression, and hypocrisy around which he had been raised, especially in terms of attitudes towards sexuality and morality. His work was often regarded as pornographic and, as a result, was censored. Through complex characters and extremely frank and unabashed scenes, Wedekind depicts an unmistakable link between sexuality and authority, and the corruption of youth that this link brings about.
On the dedication Wedekind gave the play to parents and teachers, Emma Goldman wrote that “parents and teachers are, in relation to the child’s needs, the most ignorant and mentally indolent class”. (Goldman 64) When discussing the role of authority in the sexual development of children, one would do well to look first at the sexuality of the authority itself, how this sexuality has a significant impact on the identity of the authority, and how it manifests in relation to teaching, disciplining, and raising a child. Another integral aspect of the play, which provides the most shock and provocation, is the sexuality of the children themselves, without which there would be no story.
The sexuality of the authoritarian roles in the play is not extensively explored, but is notable nonetheless and integral to the exploration of the relationship between authority and sexuality. Frau Bergmann perfectly demonstrates the power of authority over sexuality when speaking with her daughter, “I haven’t acted any differently towards you than my dear, good mother did toward me.” The issue of holding on to childhood ignorance is revealed as being an inherited habit; sexuality has become an unmentionable as a result of generations teaching their children that it is not to be discussed. Frau Bergmann is not willing to abandon her morality for the sake of informing her child of the facts of life, and as an audience, we cannot fairly condemn her. Her reluctance to educate her daughter sexually is not necessarily negligent. In the context of the time and place in which she has found herself raising a child, she is only acting in a way she believes to be most beneficial, as her mother did before her; despite modern opinion, she has Wendla’s best interest at heart. In a society that believed that the truth of human reproduction would corrupt a child or even an adolescent, Bergmann is actually an example of sound parenting. Furthermore, as a member of the 19th century middle class, Frau Bergmann herself would have been sexually repressed, despite being in a committed marriage. It was believed that sex was an indulgent excess, and that sex for the purpose of pleasure, rather than solely for conception, was improper.
Authoritarian sexuality can also be examined by looking at the attitudes of the characters towards the opposite sex. Martha’s father expresses a particularly unhealthy image of women by suggesting to her that she is a whore because she has put a ribbon in her petticoat and attempted to express some femininity. This harsh treatment of his daughter is only an example for the audience of what would now be considered an almost far-fetched exaggeration of the situation at hand; it is not surprising, after watching this scene. that the children in the play feel repressed, with characters like Martha’s father in a position of authority. The irony of the scene lies in the fact that Martha is completely oblivious to his accusatory suggestion, as she is sexually ignorant and could not possibly understand what he means. Martha’s father and other men of his time and background have been guided by a somewhat detrimental idea of women; it is almost reminiscent of the Freudian Madonna-Whore complex. Women were expected to be one of two unattainable ideals. On one hand, a woman could be the wholesome and pure mother, a perfect wife, virginal and untainted, prudish and never sexually indulgent or even sexually curious, which of course is impossible if she also was to be a conceiving mother. Already, the female is forced to be ‘the fallen’. On the other hand, a woman could be deemed a hedonistic, decadent whore, selfish and powerful, the cause of and blame for all manly sin. It was never considered that there could be a bridge between these two female representations: a woman could only be categorized as one or the other. Either way, by this logic, it was impossible for a woman to be satisfied with herself, since a woman was either the fallen or the falling.
These ideas and opinions of the parents in the play, as taught to them by their parents, are subsequently passed on to the children of the play, to disastrous results, shown first to us in Martha’s father’s dramatic dismissal of her as being a whore. She can not be the pure, wholesome female because she has behaved ‘self-indulgently’, so the only other option is to work on the streets, in his opinion. The most dominant theme in the play is the causal force of the children’s sexual ignorance. Each child experiences changes and normal pubescent occurrences, but because of the lack of information they are given by their teachers and parents, often assume the worse. For instance, Moritz expresses that he ‘thought [he] was incurable’ and believed that ‘[he] was suffering from an internal defect.’ When Wendla first learns of her pregnancy, her first reaction is one of confusion, ‘But it’s just not possible, Mother. I’m not even married.’ It becomes apparent throughout the play that Wendla’s ignorance and naivety have a deep impact on her sexuality, and she begins to form an almost fetishized view of violence, however subconscious it may be. These issues can be traced back to the general problem of female self esteem in the play; Wendla comes from a society which teaches her that self-love is arrogant and unattractive, does not have faith in her own thoughts and or opinions, and has been taught to believe that it is right to doubt oneself. Martha asks Wendla, ‘Aren’t you proud of yourself Wendla?’ and she responds, ‘That would be silly’. The adolescent stirrings she is experiencing have no factual grounding, the sexual desire she feels (or what little she understands of it) is completely repressed, and so the confusion and emotional turmoil of puberty is only aggravating her already fragile self-confidence.
As a result of this tumultuous state, Wendla begins to understand her sexuality as an extension of violence. She does not know any other way to manifest her sexuality, and so she becomes fascinated by the idea of fierce or cruel interactions. Wendla does not immediately give Martha her sympathy when she tells Wendla that her parents have been beating her, but instead asks questions about how the beating is performed. She begs Melchior to beat her, just to know what it might feel like, after telling him about her conversation with Martha about her physically abusive parents: “It makes me hot when she tells us about it.” This is a clear example of her strong need for physical interaction or attention; violence is the only experience she has (albeit second hand) of someone giving in to their natural human instincts and desires, and it is a much more accessible concept for her than the concept of the fulfillment of sexual desire, especially considering the fact that she is not even informed on the basic process of reproduction. It is the authority in the play that is entirely to blame for the issues Wendla and her peers develop; the sado-masochism trait is a learned behavior and the children have been taught that sexual pleasure is to be associated with pain, guilt, and punishment.
In the first scene of the second act, Moritz tells Melchior of a fairy tale called ‘The Queen with No Head, which his Grandmother used to tell him. He then explains that he keeps thinking about the headless girl, and when he sees a beautiful girl, he can not help but imagine her with no head. This story may seem harmless and anecdotal in the context of the play, but it speaks volumes about the state of Moritz’s coping mechanisms. Essentially, he seems to be subconsciously removing the ‘face’ of the girl (in other words, the emotional aspect of sexually driven thoughts) and focusing solely on the physical, because it’s the only part that he can understand. A figure of authority, albeit unbeknownst to that figure herself, instilled even this silly fairy tale in him, and influenced by a figure of authority, he does not doubt the tale, but uses it to cope because he is given no other information or options. This fairy tale also reveals information about the social context and how it affects the children’s sexuality; the head of the body can represent ‘polite’ society, often a pretense or guise of civility and decorum. The lower body, which Moritz sees headless, can represent a body controlled by the genitals, ignored and stifled by the society he lives in. His fairy tale has been described as an attempt to remove the emotions from sex and return to the simplistic nature of human sexual inclination, governed solely by physical desire.
Spring Awakening is a deeply complex web of characters and their psychological journeys through life and especially puberty. It is a powerful comment on the ‘adult machine’ in terms of the corruption of youth, yet it is also deeply somber and melancholy; Wedekind must have known the profound emotional impact his play would have on audiences, regardless of era. Despite vast differences in the context of culture and history, the play remains shocking and relevant even today; so long as adolescents begin the journey to adulthood and endure the process involved, this play will be intimate and provocative.
Works Cited -Wedekind, Frank. Trans. Ziegler, Francis J. The Awakening of Spring. Philadelphia: Brown Brothers, 1910. Print. -Goldman, Emma. The Social Significance of Modern Drama. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2005. Print.