Sunday, 20 March 2016

On the Ending of Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen (1891)

Act 3 Scene 7 of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Frühlings Erwachen can be read as a stylistic, thematic, and philosophical culmination of the preceding scenes. What has until now been a rather loose, disorientating sequence of paintings and images, forming a backdrop against which characters’ lives play out (as opposed to a progressive, classically recognised narrative structure), emerges into sharper focus within his play’s denouement, such that though it would be a stretch to say that ambiguity is dispensed with, we are left with a much more coherent, satisfying sense of his play’s moral and thematic drive.
Stylistically there is much that is notable about the scene given how it differs from what has gone before. Earlier parts of the play have been notable for their springtime connotations, an aspect intrinsically bound up with romanticism. The title with its apparent youthful optimism, coupled with the 1890 Titelblatt of the book celebrating the innocence of youth “mit Blumen, Bäumen und Schwalben, symbolische Verführung zum Leben” (Hemsel), appear to set the play’s tone; certainly, the dialogue abounds in lyrical, romantic imagery that at times borders on the 18th century – examples including Moritz’s ‘stimmungsvoll’ and ‘traumhaft’, and particularly in the natural context, ‘das Unendliche’. The overwhelming, almost infinite romanticism of nature looms large in the earlier acts, as the characters celebrate their budding phase of life in an artistic choice reflective of the wider movement of ‘Jugendstil’. Even as the play darkens in tone, and we move inexorably towards the final moments, the adolescent protagonists remain associated with nature’s joys – witness Wendla’s ‘Süße Veilchen’ in the prettified excitement of her garden in the morning sun, or the tranquillity between the lovers Hänschen and Ernst – as exemplified by the “wundervoller lyrischer Duft” (Diebold) of their dialogues and monologues.
Throughout the play, this romanticism has run parallel to a certain Symbolism, the poetic movement associated with despair, decadence and the fin-de-siècle malaise, and personified in Charles Baudelaire. The final scene is almost pure Symbolism, overset with darkness, a “Gothick chiaroscuro” (Boa). Where the play has up till now – with intermittent moments of gloom – taken place in spring and summer, there is little doubt here that winter, in the eternal associations of the seasons the period of death and decay, is encroaching. ‘Der Rock in Fetzen’, ‘zerrissene Wolken’, ‘die Blümchen wären heute noch erfroren’, ‘Totenreich’, ‘die morschen Kränze’ – Wedekind constructs a sequence of vivid images which contribute to the overall ‘Stimmung’ of the scene, thoroughly in keeping with the progression from youthful innocence to adult awareness with which the play is intimately concerned. This is the world as they now see it – ‘kahl’, to select another apt word choice; the transition to adulthood involves recognition of existence’s bleakness and the realistic ways in which one has to cope with that. (It could also be argued that the stylistic progression of the play toward this end point is reflective of ‘die Deutsche Gesellschaft’ in that the romanticism of the 18th century gives way to a more uncertain, existential, troubled age at the end of the 19th century as the ossification and enfeeblement of the seemingly immutable Austro-Hungarian Empire set in).
More significant than manipulation of style, of course, are the purposes to which Wedekind turns his writing. In this light the final scene is more interesting for the way it forms a thematic, or indeed a philosophical, conclusion, drawing together the disparate, dissonant theories and debates of the preceding scenes.
Throughout the play Wedekind has concerned himself with the immense pressures exerted on young people by an oppressive, overtly patriarchal society. ‘Ich war nicht schlecht’ wails Melchior as he stumbles through the graveyard, trying to convince himself that he has done the right thing and performed adequately. Concerns over whether one was ‘bad’ or ‘good’ in the eyes of others (of parents, teachers, and wider society) must have driven these figures to distraction. The importance of ‘sittliche Weltordnung’, as stressed in the sonorous tones of the professors, is at odds with the natural, one might even say primeval, urges of the hormonal boys and girls. Wendla, Moritz and Melchior have been tossed and turned between the two, unsure of their direction – which continues into the final scene, as Melchior uses the expressive word ‘Morast’ to convey how deeply enmeshed he feels within this quagmire, this morass that is adolescent urges, duties and responsibilities. Wedekind explicitly addresses this dichotomy, the struggle between duty and will, in the words of ‘der vermummte Herr’: ‘Unter Moral verstehe ich das reelle Produkt zweier imaginärer Größen: Sollen und Wollen’. The concept here, then, is that the moralistic duty of the repressive, inhibited society is in direct opposition to the natural appetite of youth; what one should do clashes with the will of the individual.
In keeping with the fin-de-siècle development of theatre having reached a lack of faith in ‘agency’, such that events happen to characters rather than characters shaping events, Wedekind’s protagonists have been by and large cluelessly, unwittingly, innocently acted upon rather than acting themselves. ‘Sollen’ and ‘Wollen’ are both exerting equal force and pressure on the protagonists, and the final scene does at times have echoes of the Garden of Eden, with Moritz arguing on the one hand and ‘der vermummte Herr’ on the other, leaving Melchior torn between them. The fact that it can be compared to a scene so important in human history means that, though it deals only with the mental health of one German teenager, it therein achieves incredible significance.
However, Act 3 Scene 7 does not see a moral debate take place as such, and this is why it forms a smooth ending to Wedekind’s near-impressionist collection of themes. Sex and death have plagued the minds of these young characters, and here we get the synthesis of both aspects in the questions with which Melchior is faced, making it rather a question of how one is to live with these two constants. The debate of the final scene is not ‘Sollen’ or ‘Wollen’. In fact, the play is in some ways a complete rejection of this debate; as Boa discusses at length, morality is here portrayed merely as something one does because one wants to, like a hobby or a whim, for some and not for others (or, as Moritz describes life, ‘eine Geschmackssache’). In other words, morality is not in opposition to the Will, the driving primordial force categorised by Schopenhauer – but it is in fact a manifestation of this will. It is “will that wills its own denial… the desire for the death of desire” (Boa). This is also expressed as ‘Gott und der Teufel [sind] beide betrunken’: since both forces of good and evil are equally unreliable and ineffective, we are left in a godless world devoid of morality and clear-cut divisions. ‘Sittlichkeit’ is therefore a sham, illusory and contradictory and even a little absurd; and if this is so, it is little wonder the pompously moralising professors are given childishly laughable nicknames. ‘Wir wissen, dass alles Dummheit ist’ is thus a perfect line of dialogue from this scene to illustrate the crucial knowledge that, in Wedekind’s philosophy at least, one attains with the transition to adulthood: that morality is fundamentally a lie; that Wendla’s altruism and concern for the poor stem from her own self-satisfaction (‘es gibt keine Aufopferung! Es gibt keine Selbstlosigkeit!... es gibt keine Liebe! Alles Eigennutz, alles Egoismus!’); and that parental concern for their children’s innocence stems from their own egotism and sexual gratification.
Therefore Wedekind’s play is not – and perhaps at no point has it ever been – a question of ‘Sollen’ or ‘Wollen’. It is rather a question of why German society has made ‘Sollen’ vs ‘Wollen’ into such a strict, hotly contested debate. The play is not, like some literature, about a moral choice between “the curse of not being able to let go – and… the curse of letting go” (Swales), since the significance of the difference between them is viewed here is an illusion. Although characters are portrayed who have difficulties with this choice between two ‘curses’, these only form part of a wider set of questions which, latent throughout the play, are sprung upon us at the very end. The final scene draws together these adolescent tribulations, of struggling with sex and mortality and one’s place in the world, and presents them to its audience, and asks: what then is one to do? That is the choice; that is the debate – less moral so much as practical.
This dilemma is couched in specific terms and given specific parameters, and those terms and parameters are life and death. Reaching adulthood means acquiring a certain kind of knowledge about the way lives are lived; Act 3 Scene 7 sees Melchior – and to an extent the audience, in that the play forces us towards self-reflection – confronted with the question: what do I do with this knowledge I have attained? The supernatural figure of Moritz espouses the view that life stops being worth living because one has perceived its falsehood and futility, while ‘der vermummte Herr’ suggests that life continues being worth living in spite of this perception that comes with adulthood. If combat always provides drama, it is this conflict which animates the final scene.
After death, Moritz comes to perceive the amorality of this stifling society in which they have grown up (and, it is suggested, of the entire world). He can no longer believe the childish innocence of the play’s earlier springtime (‘und jetzt ist es mir unfaßbar, wie man so naiv sein kann’) and is scornful of any suggestions that the fundamentally egotistic Will of human nature will improve in the future – ‘und [wir] sehen die Kinder hingehn und desgleichen tun’. Those who have given in to death understand the falseness and hypocrisy of any human civilization: ‘wir ignorieren die Maske des Komödianten und sehen den Dichter im Dunkeln die Maske vornehmen’ – they can see past the masks and jollities of those who perform, actors and poets (this, too, is in keeping with the Symbolist tradition, especially Baudelaire’s cry of “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère!”). Faced with a world so ‘kahl’, they crumple and surrender.
In contrast, ‘der vermummte Herr’ is an apologist for the ‘values’ of adult society. He is elegantly dressed in evening clothes, as far as Wedekind’s portrayal in the original production shows; he is masked; in other words, he is a stylish artifice. We know nothing about him. He is deception for the purpose of manipulating others, but he is also self-deception. That ‘adult life’, if one accepts it, involves artifice, deception, and disguise, is one of the key points of the play which only reaches thematic fruition here. The adults have all been fully aware of what has happened, but they cover it up and lie for fear of losing face – it is claimed Wendla died of anaemia, while the truth is her abortion was “aus Furcht von der Schande arrangiert” (Hemsel). This side of the divide, therefore, involves understanding the bleak facts of life but choosing to ignore them and live on accordingly.
The play reaches a satisfying conclusion in that Melchior makes a choice which reflects the kind of character he is. It is hinted at earlier in the play (‘wenn [Melchi Gabor] nicht hätte schwimmen können, wäre er wohl sicher ertrunken!’) through imagery connected with the river (a strong symbolic element, representing the inchoate nature of their urges) that he is capable of adapting to the tribulations, of dealing with them, and of “swimming” out of danger where less secure figures like Moritz are submerged. For all Wedekind’s bleakness, he ensures that Melchior chooses the certain pain of persevering with life over the terrifying uncertainty of finality and death. Life may be den enervierenden Zweifel an allem but Melchior ultimately decides to persevere. (Still more tellingly, Moritz expresses regret that the option of ‘der vermummte Herr’ (false though it may be) was not made available to him before his suicide: ‘Hätten Sie mir das doch vorher gesagt!’)
Thus, in a stylistic and in a thematic sense, the final scene completes the transition of these characters from the ignorance of childhood to the knowing state of adulthood, and sees them suffer different fates for the ways in which they grapple with this transition. In this sense it illuminates and animates the rather loose and meandering collection of previous scenes, and lends them a bitterer poignancy which certainly makes it worthy of being called ‘a convincing ending’.

Baudelaire, Charles, Les Fleurs du Mal, Basil Blackwell, 1978.
Boa, Elizabeth, The Sexual Circus: Wedekind’s Theory of Subversion, Oxford, 1987.
Swales, Martin, A Student’s Guide to Thomas Mann, Heinemann, 1980.
Wedekind, Frank, Frühlings Erwachen, Reclam, 2012.


  1. You are actually a godsend for undergrads (essay titles never change...)

    1. Let me guess: German at Queen's? ;P

    2. In any case you're very welcome! Just don't quote me as a scholar...