SPRING AWAKENING

based on the play by Frank Wedekind
music by Duncan Sheik
book and lyrics by Steven Sater
Novello Theatre, London, 2009

In March 1918 a funeral took place at the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Munich. A large crowd of people attended, jostling with one another to be the first to reach the graveside. The poet Heinrich Lautensack was in the thick of things, trying to film the proceedings and shouting directions at everyone. He eventually forced his way through the crowd, broke down in tears and leapt into the grave. The playwright Bertolt Brecht was also there and later wrote in his diary:

'They stood perplexed in top hats
As if around the carcass of a vulture. Bewildered crows.
And though they (sweating tears) tried hard,
They couldn't bury this juggler.'

The man they were trying to bury was Benjamin Franklin Wedekind, known as Frank. Born in Hanover in 1864 but conceived in America, where his parents had been living in San Francisco, he spent his childhood in Switzerland and much of the rest of his life on the move between Munich and Berlin, Zurich, London (which he found provincial and boring) and Paris. A man who started his professional career by advertising Maggi soup mix and who went on to be an actor, a cabaret singer and a writer - a writer who shocked and confused and thrilled from the start, and whose first play, Spring Awakening, was banned by the official censors before it was even published, so that he had to wait fifteen years before seeing it reach the stage. Even then, the censors insisted on cuts that distorted the play almost beyond recognition.

Wedekind was educated within the German educational system, which he depicts so vividly in Spring Awakening (subtitled A Children's Tragedy), and which he saw as rigidly divisive and oppressive. There were two types of school: technical schools which trained candidates for an educated work force to bolster Germany's industrial and scientific power; and Gymnasen, which nurtured an intellectual elite for the bureaucratic professions. The emphasis in the latter was on Latin, Greek and mathematics, the system was highly competitive and children were subjected to ferocious discipline, their teachers insisting on total obedience and unquestioning respect for authority. Towards the end of the 19th century there was a marked increase of suicide among schoolchildren and two of Wedekind's fellow pupils killed themselves. He remained acutely aware of the frustrations and heightened passions of childhood and of the difficulties faced by children in adapting to the adult world.

Shaking himself free of all this was essential to Wedekind. His father wanted him to study law and he did, for a while, in Munich. Most of his time however, when he wasn't at the theatre or his great passion, the circus, he was writing - a constant stream of poems, prose, song lyrics, sketches and plays. It was what he wanted to do, but it brought him into serious conflict with his father, who was still supporting him financially. They had fierce arguments, culminating in a row during which Wedekind lashed out, an act of violence he regretted bitterly. It was almost a year before they managed to make their peace and it wasn't until 1888, when his father died unexpectedly, that Wedekind was able, with the money he inherited, to give up studying altogether and follow his own inclinations.

It must have been like a cork popping out of a bottle. There was no stopping him and the first thing to emerge was Spring Awakening, the only one of his plays which he didn't draft and re-draft numerous times, and which gets hardly a single mention in his letters, diaries and notebooks at the time. It was as if the writing of it ran as a steady current underneath everything else he was doing, a constant in his life between autumn 1890 and spring 1891 that didn't need to be remarked upon. He knew that there would be no chance of getting it performed and paid to have it printed himself.

And once done he was off, on the razzle in Paris where his countless amorous encounters began to give him the idea for the iconic figure of Lulu, the endlessly adored and elusive creature he was later to conjure up in The Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. His diaries reveal his voracious sexual appetite and a real relish in the company of women, noting physical details; their hair, their complexions, their clothes, both on and off. The girl in a 'tight-fitting black dress, buttoned up to the neck', 'as wholesome as a peeled apple'; the dancer with a scar on her thigh from a broken morphine needle; the prostitute who gives him a hand job while reading a newspaper; the 'plump little blond piglet' in a blue silk bodice he spots at the Moulin Rouge; the Alexandrian trapeze artist who belly-dances for him as he plays the mandolin.

Playing the mandolin, the lute and the guitar, was to prove a Wedekind speciality. Back in Munich he started writing for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus and published political poems, under a pseudonym, criticizing the German Emperor. Warned that he was about to be arrested he fled the country but a year later, in 1899, he discovered that the artist who had drawn a caricature to accompany his poems had been imprisoned. Wedekind handed himself in to the German authorities and spent the turn of the century behind bars, a period he put to good use by writing his novel Mine-Haha or The Education of Young Girls, in what he described as 'considerable comfort'. On his release he joined the newly formed Munich cabaret, Die elf Scharfrichter or The Eleven Executioners. Physically he was heavy and thickset but he clearly had a powerful presence. Heinrich Mann described him on stage with a 'ribboned lute in his clumsy hands ... strumming as if perturbed; the performance nasal, sharp, shrilling but in pauses full of meaning, the singer twisted and hunched behind his mental barrier'. And Bertolt Brecht said that although his voice was 'brittle, slightly monotonous and quite untrained', 'no singer ever gave me such a shock, such a thrill'.

The efforts to get his plays published and performed was exhausting and deeply dispiriting for Wedekind, battling constantly against prejudice and suspicion, but in 1905 the tide began to turn his way. He performed in a cycle of his own plays in Nuremberg and at a one-off performance of Pandora's Box in Vienna he took the role of Jack the Ripper, with the nineteen year-old actress Tilly Newes as Lulu. They married the following year. Finally, in 1906, the director Max Reinhardt staged the first production of Spring Awakening, at the Deutches Theater in Berlin. The censors did their worst, insisting on massive, almost paralysing cuts. In addition, child actors were not permitted and so mature men had to simulate unbroken voices and women strap down their breasts so as to appear younger than they were. Despite all this, the play was an enormous success, and ran for over 600 performances. Wedekind played the Masked Man but was not convinced that people understood his work. He believed that 'the play is more gripping the more harmless, sunny, laughing the performance' and told the actor Fritz Basil: 'Until Reinhardt's production the play was looked on as pure pornography. Now they've plucked up courage to see it as the driest school pedantry, but still no-one's able to see humour in it.'

Wedekind abominated theatrical cliché, he deplored the abuse of innocence, he had a roaring lust for life and would have adored the grotesque chaos of his own funeral.