The play upon which the musical adaptation of Spring Awakening is based was written by Frank Wedekind in 1891. The first performance of the play was in 1906 and the first English performance of the play was in 1917. Since then, the play has been translated many times – my favourite being one of the most recent translations, by Ted Hughes. This blog will attempt to explore some of the forces at play in the musical adaptation of the play by looking at some of the influences that must have played some part in the creation of the show.
The original play anticipated the Expressionist theatre movement that would reach the height of its popularity during the First World War. A basic knowledge of Expressionism in the theatre is useful to understand the play and really helps in understanding the musical as a piece of theatre too – otherwise one might expect things that won’t be there. Going to Spring Awakening (the musical) and expecting fully-rounded characters, in depth engagement with the issues raised in the play and a neatly finished narrative structure is going to result in disappointment: it was not dramaturgically made in that way. A basic grasp of the principles of Expressionism also offers a “way in” to understanding the use of the microphones and the mention of contemporary objects in the play.
The basic principle upon which Expressionism operates is that the representation of reality is distorted in order to communicate inner feelings. It’s less about a realistic narrative journey than it is about states of being. This is why certain moments, primarily the songs in the musical version, offer insight into a particular character’s experience of a situation rather than developing a character fully throughout the course of a show as musicals conventionally do. Furthermore, Expressionist drama uses an episodic structuring of events, with the relationship between events remaining casual. This is fairly obvious in Spring Awakening. The combined effect of these elements is collage-like rather than linear, which accounts the fact that the book carries us through from song to song.
In Expressionist drama, the dramatic action is seen through the eyes of the protagonist(s) and, therefore, seems distorted or even dreamlike. This is clearly evident in Spring Awakening because the narrative is presented through the experiences of the teenagers. Combined with a bit of Freudian theory, we can then begin to understand the use of the microphones and the mention of contemporary objects.
Freud’s theory states that our psychological makeup includes the “id” (the fully unconscious part of our mind that contains the drives related to things like sex and aggression and other things repressed by consciousness), the “ego” (the mostly conscious part of our mind that allows us to deal with the world in which we exist), and the “super ego” (the partly conscious part of our mind that informs our moral judgments). In Spring Awakening, we see certain songs delving into the “id” of the characters and it is these moments that are separated with the use of the microphones and where the contemporary objects are mentioned. It’s not just about making the issues of “then” seem relevant “now”. There is a central and binding metaphor at work here, in which the teenagers view themselves (in their “id”) as rock stars – free, with the ability to perform, with agency. That the show draws on the principles of Expressionism accounts for the fact that this is incongruent with the reality of the historical period – it is distorted and dreamlike, a fantastical imagining of a world that can never be, that this group of teenagers will never fully attain. Again, in line with Expressionism, one element of human psychology is highlighted in the characters rather than exploring the complete psyche of each character in detail. It’s simply the nature of the beast.
The content of Expressionist plays is highly subjective and is often opposed to society and the family. This is why, in Spring Awakening, the adult characters remain undeveloped. The are subjectively seen through the eyes of the teenagers and, as such, are meant to come off as ‘punitive or clueless’. Furthermore, the fact that they are all played by same two actors and are not distinguished to any great extent with costumes and props adds to the “us and them” opposition that informs the action of the play – “we, the teenagers are individuals; they, the adults, are all the same”.
I would never say that Spring Awakening is strictly a work of Expressionism, although it certainly derives a great deal of its efficacy from that influence. Expressionism clearly informs creative impulses of the show and an understanding of its principles provides us a language to begin interpreting the play in a more balanced context than, say, merely comparing it to RENT or to other musicals in general.