Monday, 28 September 2015

On Sexuality and Death in Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen (1891)

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play ‘Frühlings Erwachen: Eine Kindertragödie’ sets out to disrupt the social fabric of fin-de-siècle Germany. In three acts Wedekind explores themes and issues that were far beyond the usual requirements or expectations of the dramatist: rape, abortion, homosexuality, group masturbation, and suicide. Furthermore, these events all unfold in the context of a group of 14 and 15 year olds, and their parents are either hopelessly unaware of them, or hopelessly incapable of giving help.
There are two broad themes Wedekind explores in connection with adolescent angst: the onset of puberty and sexuality; and fear of failure in an unforgiving world.
From the off, discussing with her mother the length of her dress, Wendla wants more of her legs to be shown and protests that if it is too high, es sieht’s dann ja niemand mehr; similarly, Martha’s haircut is guided by a strict aunt. Melchior implies that sexual promiscuity arises out of boredom and curtailed freedom, going so far as to say that even brothers and sisters placed side by side would eventually feel, and consummate, their mutual attraction (but, in a well-judged turn of phrase, the childish innocence is betrayed in the use of the word Hängematte). Wendla is deliberately free-spirited and provocative, turning the language of the Beatitudes in on itself by saying wohl dem, der nicht wandelt im Rat der Gottlosen and advising a friend ich an deiner Stelle wäre ihnen längst in die Welt hinausgelaufen. These are strong revolutionary currents against the morality of the former generation and its so-called Sittlichkeit: against both its religiosity, but also its repression of sex. It is important not to overstate this all, of course; it can hardly be equated to a Sixties Revolution for the majority of children in 1890 (part of what makes Melchior attractive to Wendla is his godlessness – in other words, because he is different to all the other boys). Thus in one sense Wedekind works a major artifice, in that it is highly implausible that such a plethora of troubles would plague the same group of friends. But for his purposes it is highly effective.
As intelligent, aware yet also innocent teenagers, the boys find the passion of the ancient world impressive. Wedekind’s portrayal of the adolescent fascination with sexuality is sublime – ich verriegelte die Tür und durchflog die flimmernden Zeilen, wie eine aufgeschreckte Eule eine brennenden Wald durchfliegt, exalts Moriz; it is simultaneously beautiful and accurate. Similarly, Hänschen Rilow’s praise of that süßen Augenblick aufkeimender Glückseligkeit, geschmeidigen Glieder, diese sanfte Wölbung der Hüften, diese jugendlich straffen Brüste, etc., etc., reinforces the image of the sex-craved young man (although as we learn, his espousal of the beauty of the female form is something of an act). The same interest manifests itself, if less forcefully, in Wendla’s questioning her mother on the topic of Fortpflanzung – although she is an aunt already, she does not understand reproduction whatsoever. Much bizarre discourse on the Storch ensues, exposing the awkwardness of the mother-sister relationship and the nervousness of the lies: in other words, the generation gap.
Much of the pain of Wendla and Melchior’s story revolves around the uneasy combination of innocence and knowledge, which is indeed arguably a key summary of Wedekind’s themes. When they meet in the woods, their communication is stilted, affected, eager to impress, and over-polite. Masochism rears its ugly head – Opferfreudigkeit – as Wendla ponders what it would be like to be abused as Martha has been, but of course with little knowledge of the ramifications of what she is saying. Melchior’s desire to experience beyond what he has thus far experienced means he bypasses tenderness and respect; the two are at cross purposes. She has the childish belief in the need for love, and though he is still young, Melchior is world-weary enough to make the bleak pronouncement O glaub mir, es gibt keine Liebe! Alles Eigennutz, alles Egoismus! Ich liebe dich so wenig, wie du mich liebst. Perhaps this is a wider, more fundamental point on the different expectations brought by males and females, at least when young, to romantic and sexual relationships. Her innocence seems only to fuel his zeal (as Rilow puts it, ahnst du denn nicht, daß nur deine Keuschheit meine Ausschweifungen gebiert?). Both this scene and a later point, at which the rape occurs, render far more powerful her quote from an earlier scene, es muß doch tausendmal erhebender sein, von einem Manne geliebt zu werden, als von einem Mädchen. Where she retreats in desperation into her innocence of picking violets (the Ophelia symbolism quite clear), he flees in guilt at what he has done; but she has unwittingly opened the door and led him to it.
Moritz’s slightly surreal identification with the headless queen, as well as being a sickening premonition of his own fate (much like that of Lennie and Curley’s dog in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’), showcases repressed femininity – which arguably also appears to go with his more poetic, idealistic temperament. Female beauty, evidently, is not to be found in the intellect (the head) but in the body; this is the code of the society in which Moritz is growing up. His sensitive femininity (as exemplified in his poetic description of female orgasm, to which in his eyes male Befriedigung can only ever be schal and abgestanden) irritates Melchior, who, though he possesses an appetite for prettifying words, has no time for emasculation.
A key aspect of the story is the efforts of authority figures to repress their children and cover up knowledge of sexual matters. The key word here, as perhaps with ‘Liebelei’, is unanständig. It all depends on what society thinks and sees. The children discuss what their parents will or will not think appropriate – Frau Gabor condemning their reading of passionate classical texts as nachteilig, for example, and using words like Pflicht and Unrecht in her letter to Moritz. Wedekind brilliantly satirises the pompous, prudish professors with their insane collection of names; but there is an anger beneath it. Moritz is dead, yet they are far more concerned with the propriety of sexual morality than they are with student welfare – witness Sonnenstich’s disgusted depiction of the essay (although as Melchior points out, it contains mere fact). What is important to them, and presumably to the majority of establishment figures in Wedekind’s world, is sittliche Weltordnung. Skewering the principles of parenthood, priesthood and the education system with remarkable economy, Wedekind also turns his attention to the legal profession, to whose austere ranks Herr Gabor belongs. His moralizing (wir sind alle keine Heiligen; jeder von uns irrt vom schnurgeraden Pfad ab) may not be incorrect but comes across as pompous, particularly the differentiation between the “Good” and the “Interesting”. The scene between Herr Gabor and his wife is one of the more interesting in the play, since it again highlights a gender difference in attitude: where he is stiff and proper about the whole matter, she passionately defends her son’s behaviour and sees Melchior’s actions only as evidence of his Harmlosigkeit, Dummheit, etc. Eventually, of course, Herr Gabor’s argument proves victorious, perhaps once more a comment about gender relations in 1890s Germany.
Similarly, Wendla’s shame over her pregnancy is kept under wraps, because it is thoroughly unanständig. Caged by her illness, Wendla is still given no answers to her questions, but is rather subject to efforts by her mother to cover up what has occurred. Abortions being low, shameful, dangerous operations at the time, the abortionist is kept out of sight until the end of the scene and the operation is left off-stage (presumably even Wedekind felt that barriers to what was theatrically acceptable still existed).
Ripe for dramatic development though sexual relations are, they are arguably neither the most important nor the most satisfying of the themes Wedekind explores; or they slot into a matrix of themes in which they only play a part. Grander and broader is the general malaise of the teenage characters as they start to learn more about the world in which they live in. The poet Edward Thomas’ words ‘must I be content/with discontent?’ strike one as apt here.
This existential angst permeates them all. Wendla says, jokily but rather joltingly as though it were a thought she had long been harbouring, vielleicht werde ich nicht mehr sein [wenn ich älter bin]. She asks a piercing question in Act III scene IV, uncovering her mother’s soothing truths as lies: if I am not going to die, mother, why are you crying? We know, equally, that when Frau Gabor suggests Melchior’s is a frühlingsfrohe Herz, she is very far from the truth. Particularly following the rape scene, Melchior is imbued with a certain disconnection from the other children; he perceives symbolism of decadence, of unravelling (der Verputz bröckeln ab), of a tattered skirt and of frozen flowers.
However, the key character in this context is the thoughtful, indeed seelenvoll, Moritz, and even Melchior’s dissatisfaction cannot be understood without some mention of the former’s internal struggle. From the opening, it is clear Moritz is uncertain wozu wir eigentlich auf der Welt sind; his first question is searingly ontological as well as practical (wohin gehst du?). Two crucial terms that arise out of this first discussion with Moritz are Gewissensbisse and Todesangst – crises of conscience and fear of death. He is a thoughtful, reflective young man, preoccupied as many young men with thoughts of life’s end (although he is sensitive and intelligent enough to recognise that it is a phenomenon that affects people of every age – dieser Phantome keine bestimmte Altersstufe). His quiet desperation comes under the aegis of fear of failure and of disappointing his parents – fear of ruining his one chance at life. This becomes evident when he sighs, meine lieben Eltern hätten hundert bessere Kinder haben können: he feels, already at the tender age of 14, that he is a complete disappointment.
Written 100 years later, Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Der Vorleser’ summarises brilliantly the kind of self-esteem issues Moritz struggles with: Ich fühlte mich, als ich jung war, immer entweder zu sicher oder zu unsicher. Entweder kam ich mir völlig unfähig, unansehnlich und nichtswürdig vor, oder ich meinte, ich sei alles in allem gelungen und mir müsse auch alles gelingen. Fühlte ich mich sicher, dann bewältigte ich die größten Schwierigkeiten. Aber das kleinste Scheitern genügte, mich von meiner Nichtswürdigkeit zu überzeugen. This is most painfully evident in the scene in which we find out he has been promoviert. Clearly, Moritz’s is an academically demanding household, and that is another aspect of 19th century German moral society which Wedekind aims to criticise. Even amid the celebration of this academic achievement, Moritz’s despairing sense that he must not fail at any cost grips him, as he himself says wenn ich nicht promoviert worden wäre, hätte ich mich erschossen. In the very next scene, seemingly having recovered his gusto, Moritz displays Schlink’s state of being zu sicher; here he tells of his swottishness and feels the birds are lebensfroh, full of the zest of life.
What seems to be the problem with Moritz is his veering between naïveté and idealism on the one hand and despairing nihilism on the other. He displays a semireligious faith in nobleness, deploying words like stimmungsvoll and traumhaft, and seems unable to accept the finality of death, referring to das Unendliche. At the same time, he seems to be plunged into despair over his own worthlessness, weeping ich schluchze vor Wehmut über mein Los. Unable to appreciate the facts of life (das Menschliche), which he feels is beschämend, Moritz decides on a grey and lonely day that, ultimately, das Leben hat mir die kalte Schulter gezeigt. This dangerous indifference leads to his conclusion that life is a Geschmackssache, or a matter of taste; unable to reconcile the beautiful and the terrible in the world he observes, Moritz’s vision of his own future and his problems collapses before his eyes. Wedekind’s portrayal of the crumbling teenage boy is particularly heartfelt; the imagery is vivid, taking place as the scene does with Stromschnellen and Röcheln. There had been einen Streifen am Horizont – perhaps a last glimmer of hope, as manifested in the letter from Frau Gabor – but by the end of the scene all is dark, and the uncertainties of young adulthood pressurise Moritz into declaring jetzt gehe ich nie mir nach Hause.
Throughout the play, but most notably in the final scene, Moritz’s existentialism affects his contemporary Melchior. To Moritz’s idealism, Melchior arguably plays the role of the one ‘in the know’, declaring das Leben ist von einer ungeahnten Gemeinheit. Although Moritz ultimately perceives this, he cannot reconcile it with his own existence and ends his life. Melchior’s character arc is possibly yet more interesting, because it is not quite so bleak. Burdened by the pain of an explosive transition into adulthood, as channelled through two traumatic events ((i) the rape of Wendla, (ii) the suicide of Moritz), it is little wonder that Melchior feels isolated from die Meute, as he calls his former friends. Although he makes an early attempt to exonerate himself – ich war nicht schlecht – he is overwhelmed by negative nihilism, such that he declares alles versunken, verschwunden, that his life makes little sense (unfaßbare Vorsehung), and he believes himself to be die verabscheuungswürdigste Kreatur des Weltalls.
It is here in the final scene, with Moritz’s supernatural, post-decapitation reappearance, that Wedekind’s musings on mortality are addressed. The world is godless; both God and the Devil are drunk, so forces of good and evil make little difference. Those who have died (i.e. in practical terms, those who have perceived what Wedekind sees as the truth of life and death) spend their days perceiving and mocking the follies of humanity in their Unterlassungssünde, their ‘sins of omission’, their failure to do things. The final thematic “battleground”, between Moritz und der vermummte Herr, addresses the fundamental question posed by Hamlet in the world’s most famous soliloquy: ‘[to] bear those ills we have, or fly to others we know not of?’ Moritz attempts to persuade Melchior to join him in the futility of death, but the sincerity of his motives is brought into question. This angel/devil scenario, with all its ominous import, is almost like a retelling of the Garden of Eden and, though it deals only with the mental health of one German teenager, therein achieves incredible significance.
For all Wedekind’s bleakness, he ensures that Melchior chooses the certain pain of living over the terrifying uncertainty of death. Life, he says, is den enerverienden Zweifel an allem. And I would argue that though a resignation to nihilism permeates this work, it is also suffused by a certain rejoicing in the fact that one is alive. Melchior ultimately decides to persevere. Still more movingly, the play’s most tender scene sees the gay young men Hänschen and Ernst sitting in a meadow together, declaring utter contentment with the world. There is no doubt about one’s existence, no self-analysis, no introspection. Rather, one boy says to another, denke dir die Zukunft als Milchsette mit Zucker und Zimt and declares ich liebe dich…wie ich nie eine Seele geliebt hatte. There may be adversities in life; but there are also moments, Wedekind seems to be saying – and youth is replete with many such moments – when one can genuinely say laß uns nicht traurig sein!

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