In 1891, German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote his best know work Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy, a play which was considered so shocking that it was not performed until 1906 and even then the production was condemned as “pornographic.” Wedekind can claim to have invented the teen drama we recognize today. All of it’s elements, young love, parents who do not understand, comically strict teachers, characters dealing with burgeoning adulthood and sexuality, and plenty of angst, feature in Spring Awakening. The play also deals with subject matter which is sensitive even today let alone in 1890s Germany, such as youthful rebellion, child abuse, censorship, suicide, teen pregnancy, and abortion.
Frank Wedekind touched a nerve in an era characterized by tight corsets, high collars, long skirts, and sexual repression. The clothing worn by the Victorian/Edwardian lady is used to symbolize the subjugation of her mind and body. It is an eye rolling cliché of period fiction to have the “spirited young lady” heroine complain about having to wear a corset. But corsets may not have been as bad we have been lead to believe. The medical diagrams often used to show the dangerous effects of corsets were intended to show that lacing your corset very tightly is harmful but wearing a corset in itself is not. A lot of these were put out by men who never had and never would have to wear on of the things. Clothing which survives shows that most women did not have the tiny waists you see in the fashion plates even with a corset. Like today, women with the ideal body type were hired to model clothing. It would be like people a hundred plus years from now looking at our fashion magazines and believing all women today had a thigh gap.
Clothing throughout the Victorian era accentuated the hips and bust and made the waist seem smaller by comparison. The Edwardian lady sought to tease rather than please. She covered herself in layers of clothing which gave a tantalizing hint of the shape of her body. Men particularly found the “froufrou” sound of a lady’s petticoats particularly sexy. To say that our forebears were prudish is problematic: women dressed to tempt men and men were tempted.
Clothing plays a part in Spring Awakening. The play opens with the fourteen year old heroine, Wendla, being given her first long dress for her birthday. Her mother, Frau Bergmann, feels that since her daughter is blossoming into womanhood, she must no longer wear her childish dresses because they have become indecently short. Wendla is confused as to why she can no longer wear her favorite dress and complains that this new dress is too long and baggy. Frau Bergmann is not too eager to have her daughter grow up, so she allows Wendla to continue wearing her old dress. Wendla then makes the unintentionally racy comment “Would you rather I was too hot? Be thankful that your precious doesn’t cut off the sleeves and walk around without shoes and stockings! When it’s time for me to wear the sackcloth, I’m going to dress like a fairy queen underneath…” By dressing “like a fairy queen underneath”, Wendla means going without underwear which has implications which the sexually innocent fourteen year old does not understand. Similarly, Wendla’s friend Martha is punished by her strict parents for sprucing up her nightgown with ribbons, the implication, in their minds, being that she would like someone to see her in it.
While most interpretations of Spring Awakening tend to focus on the male characters Melchior and Moritz, Wendla is more interesting than she may appear at first. At the surface her story shows the importance of sex education for girls but there is more to it than that.
Wendla is more sassy and irreverent than your typical ingenue and shows signs of a social conscience, often making charitable visits to the poor. Her love interest, Melchior, cynically asks whether these act of charity really make a difference and does not understand how she could enjoy doing it when it is unpleasant and the people sometimes resent her for being more privileged than them.
“Melchior: So you visit the poor because it gives you pleasure?
“Wendla: I visit them because they’re poor.”
Wendla’s response is that enjoyment is not the point. In 2007 musical adaptation of the play, Melchior is impressed by her plucky defense of her views and says “Wendla Bergmann, I’ve known you all these years and we’ve never really talked.”
Wendla’s charitable visits reflect the large roles which women played in the reform movements of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century such as the temperance movement and labor unions. The campaign for women to have the right to vote began in earnest in the early twentieth century with a new generation of more radical suffragettes. Many of these women such as Christabel Pankhurst and Alice Paul were college educated, something which would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. Some of the more radical female reformers even went as far as to demand access to birth control and the right to decide when and if they wanted to have children. Reform minded women often supported the war effort during the first world war by becoming things such as nurses and munitions workers.
With women talking a more active role in the world, fashions changed to reflect this. Hemlines went up and corsets loosened and then disappeared all together, and silhouettes became straighter and looser until we got the boyish look of the 1920s.
In act two, scene one of Spring Awakening, Moritz tells Melchior a fairy tale about a headless queen and a king with two heads which argue all the time during a conversation about how he’s overwhelmed by school work and expectations to succeed academically. Perhaps a bit too emphasise is put on the education of boys like Moritz, while the educations of girls like Wendla is almost neglected. Interestingly, the story of the headless queen and the two headed king ends with the queen being given the king’s entra head and the two living happily ever after in peace and harmony.
Spring Awakening‘s subtitle is not “a children’s tragedy” for nothing. The naive curiosity of its main characters has serious consequences. Moritz is unable to deal with society’s expectations and is driven to suicide while Melchior and Wendla are separated when he is sent away to a reformatory. A brief hope spot appears for the young lovers when it is revealed that Wendla is pregnant with Melchior’s child and he escapes from the reformatory to return to her. The final tragedy is when he returns to find that she has died from the effects of an abortion she was unwittingly taken to have.
The play leaves the heartbroken Melchior, and the audience/reader, with the hope that there is a world outside of his stuffy little German town and that more enlightened times are coming. Indeed, the fin de siècle saw a shift from the conservative, middle class values of the nineteenth century towards the more liberal and populist values of the twentieth century. When the nineteenth century came to a close, real life Wendlas perhaps dared to dream that they would enjoy more freedom than their mamas ever had.