Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening, a study of emergent adolescent sexuality and a critique of sexual repression and ignorance, was the first play to be written by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864-1918).


He described it as a kinderstragödie (tragedy of children), so let’s not have any illusions about its tone. The character who most interests us, Wendla Bergmann, is eventually raped by her boyfriend Melchior and becomes pregnant. This comes as a great surprise to her because, although she no longer believes that babies are brought by the stork, her mother has recently explained to her that conception is only biologically possible within marriage and when the woman truly loves her husband. She later dies after a botched attempt at an abortion, and Melchior ends up in prison. But before all that, Wendla has a little sexual experimentation of her own, and of an unconventional kind that will interest us.

Before we think about this, there’s one thing we need to establish straight away. The German language doesn’t have the same clear distinction that English does between ‘spanking’ and ‘beating’: the words available to German authors comprehend both senses within their lexical range. So, faced with Wedekind’s use of the word schlägen, the play’s translators have to decide between two English words with slightly different connotations. Generally they opt for ‘beating’, but I’m going to refer to ‘spanking’ where appropriate: I’d argue that it’s just as relevant, if not more so, because the play’s interest lies on the boundary between childhood and sexual maturity.

It is established in the first scene that Wendla is exactly on this borderline: she has just reached the age where she needs to start wearing long skirts, though she succeeds in persuading her mother to let her continue with the short skirt for a few months more. In her next scene, however, we see definite signs of her sexual awakening as she chats with her school friends. She is especially interested in the fact that Martha is regularly spanked at home, and there’s a peculiar persistence with one rather specific question: she wants to know what implement Martha’s parents spank her with. We leave the scene with the strong impression that Wendla is a teenager who is uncommonly interested in spanking in all its details.

And we’re right, of course: Wendla later acknowledges it during a meeting with Melchior in the woods. She maneuvers the conversation round to the fact that Martha gets spanked almost every day, often very severely. This fascinates her, because she herself has never been spanked in her life. She really wants to know what it feels like, and has even tried spanking herself by way of experiment. So, she asks, would Melchior be able to oblige? She even pulls a switch from one of the trees for him to use…

As with Le Médecin Malgré Lui, much depends on precisely how the scene is staged from production to production: sometimes Wendla gets an indiscriminate beating, sometimes one more precisely targeted on her bottom; sometimes she is standing erect, sometimes lying prone on the stage, sometimes kneeling down or bending over. In general, as we’ll see from the selection of performances below, it is a scene that is more likely to appeal to those who like caning…

02 Spring Awakening 2014

… but I believe that the sexual psychology would come across most clearly to a modern audience if it were done as a proper spanking across Melchior’s knee.

I hope that’s not just me imposing my own preferences on the play. What the scene has to do is take Wendla all the way through the different shades of meaning in the word schlägen, from nursery punishment to sex play to brutal thrashing. But to most modern eyes a caning already looks brutal, and the challenge to the actors is to make the connection with the less extreme end of the spectrum. But the scene is going in the opposite direction: it’s about how Wendla’s fascination with the way other children are punished has turned sexual, so in English-language terms, it starts with spanking and graduates to beating at the end when Melchior loses control of himself.

It begins with a very gentle swipe from Melchior, whose lack of enthusiasm often draws a laugh from the audience. She complains she can’t feel it, and he’s not surprised because her dress is in the way, absorbing the impact. In Wedekind’s script, she suggests that he should whack her on the legs instead – for she is still wearing the child’s short skirt she was allowed to keep in the first scene. But some productions have her lift her skirt out of the way to take the next strokes across the seat of her bloomers:

03 Spring Awakening 2014 musical U of Maryland 2014

(University of Maryland, 2014)

04 Spring Awakening 2013 musical Olney Theater Center

(Olney Theatre Center, Maryland, 2013, with Alyse Alan Louis and Matthew Kacergis)

05 Pasadena 2013 musical 106 Pasadena 2013 musical 2

(Theatre 360, Pasadena, 2013, with Cristian Guerrero and Sarah Colt)

Also see here for a video (not on Youtube) of a 2009-10 Czech production which takes a similar approach.

She says she still can’t feel it, and pleads with him to hit harder. But pleading makes him lose his temper, and she gets more than she bargained for…

Wedekind wrote the play in the six months between October 1890 and Easter 1891. He later explained,

‘I began writing without any plan, intending to write what gave me pleasure. The plan came into being after the third scene and consisted of my own experiences or those of my school fellows. Almost every scene corresponds to an actual incident.’

Which means that there must have been a real girl who got a whacking in the woods!

The play was published by a Swiss vanity press at the author’s own expense, and for nearly ten years, says Wedekind, it ‘was generally regarded as unheard-of filth’. It was eventually staged in 1906, in a production directed by Max Reinhardt at his Berlin studio theater, the Kammerspiele, with Wedekind himself in the cast as the masked man who reveals cryptic truths to the characters at the end. It was a phenomenal success, running for a total of 321 performances before it was banned in 1908, but the actress who first played the role of Wendla, the sailor-suited Camilla Eibenschutz…

07 Spring Awakening Camilla Eibenschuetz

… had only her virtue to worry about, not her bottom: the ‘beating’ was one of the many episodes that were cut to satisfy the censor.

Further productions followed, in St Petersburg in 1907 and, in 1917, in New York, where the play was banned by the Supreme Court after just a single matinee. There were a couple of private performances at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1963, but Kenneth Tynan’s efforts to get it staged by the National Theatre, which involved much negotiation with the Lord Chamberlain (including over the ‘beating’ scene), came to nothing when the company’s own board intervened to ban it. After Britain abolished theater censorship in 1968, however, the play made its way back to the short-list, and in 1974 it was finally produced by the National in a version by Edward Bond, starring Peter Firth as Melchior and 18-year-old Irish actress Veronica Quilligan as Wendla. Here they are:

07a Spring Awakening Quilligan and Firth

Veronica was the first Wendla who is known to have actually got the ‘beating’, at least in the English-speaking world, though we don’t know whether Peter targeted his stick anywhere interesting.

Since then, the play has gone on to be acknowledged as a classic. Britain’s other national subsidized theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company, produced it in 1995 with a teenage cast, and it is now staged by universities and even high schools across Europe and America. Now we’re going to look at some recent examples, including one by a director who seems to agree with me about what sort of schlägen it should be.

In Pforzheim, 2010:

A  2013 student production by the Black Tie Theatre Company, with Tim Wagner as Melchior and Allison Andreas as Wendla:

Another 2013 student production in Bournemouth, England:

Spring Awakening 2013

A production at Stuttgart in 2014:

And a student production at Sarajevo, played as an OTK spanking. The camera movement is a bit slow, but thankfully it gets there before it’s too late:

More like this, please!

In 2006, the play was made into a rock musical, which won a Tony Award the following year. In some respects, Stephen Sater’s book sanitizes the play: in particular, Wendla is not raped, a change that was perhaps not made primarily for the benefit of the small minority of morons in America who believe that rape cannot result in pregnancy. But the ‘beating scene’ is extended with pertinent dialogue in which Wendla tells how she dreams of being a naughty little girl, how she envies Martha her beatings and describes more specifically how it happens to Martha: with a strap. Here are some examples of this version.

The original 2006 off-Broadway production with Lea Michele as Wendla:

The musical’s first US tour, in 2008, with Christy Altomare as Wendla:

A pretty extended whacking in this 2010 production from Argentina:

And a nice ad for an unknown Latin American production, also from 2010:

Spring Awakening 2010

The 2011 production by Cultural Arts Playhouse with Ashley Nicastro as Wendla:

A 2012 performance with Avigail Tlalim as Wendla:

A 2012 production at Orlando, Florida, with Eliza Solomon as an especially cute Wendla:

At the Otterbein University Theatre in Westerville, Ohio, with Preston Pounds as Melchior and Molly Wetzel as Wendla:

Spring Awakening 2012 Otterbein University Theatre

A 2014 production in which McKenna Poe plays Wendla with what sounds like a great deal of padding in the seat of her bloomers:

A 2014 showreel performance by Nina Attinello:

Also from 2014, Erica Smith plays Wendla in this production in Midvale, Utah:

A brief flash in the trailer for an Italian version:

And a Mexican production with Melissa Barrera as Wendla:

In 2007, quite separately from the musical, Spring Awakening was also adapted as an opera by the Belgian composer Benoit Mernier. Here’s the relevant scene:

It won’t appeal to all tastes, not least because the beating is staged in a wholly stylized manner, with Melchior and Wendla on different sides of the stage. But what’s noteworthy about it is the fact that, when she wants Melchior to hit harder, Wendla pulls down her own pantyhose. Yes, she’s wearing pantyhose, not bloomers and stockings. Check it out from around 9 minutes 20 seconds: she  winds up with them shackling her ankles together. As you may already have noticed, European stagings are often not very interested in period authenticity!

The ‘beating scene’ is  now one of the things Spring Awakening  is famous for. In June 2014, Cornelia Bernoulli and Bruno Hertzendorfer staged a two-handed show, Frank Wedekind und die Frauen (… and the Women), that was publicized in the press using this image:

08 Cornelia Bernoulli

But Bernoulli’s show should remind us that there is more to Wedekind than just Spring Awakening. So we mustn’t leave him before noting that he went on to write two more famous and controversial plays, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), both about a promiscuous dancer named Lulu. Neither of them includes a spanking scene. They inspired the 1929 silent film, Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks. It does not include a spanking scene. They also inspired Alban Berg’s 1937 opera Lulu. It too does not include a spanking scene. But when it was produced by the English National Opera in 2002… guess what? The title role is taken by the diminutive soprano Lisa Saffer…

09 lisa SafferLisa Saffer as Lulu, in 'Lulu', with the English National Opera directed by Richard Jones, conducted by Paul Daniel. Coliseum, London, 18 April 2005.

Lulu - Opera by Alban Berg, with Lisa Saffer. English National Opera at the Coliseum, London.

… and though the period setting was updated to the 1960s, the first scene saw the stage mysteriously covered with stuffed jungle animals. Lulu tempts a painter (Richard Coxon) away from his easel for a quickie on a crocodile…

Lulu - scene from opera by Alban Berg, with Lisa Saffer and Richard Coxon by English National Opera, at the Coliseum, London. Opened 18 April 2005.Lulu - Opera by Alban Berg, with Lisa Saffer and Richard Coxon, English National Opera at the Coliseum, London.13 Lulu ENO 2002

… and she also finds herself face down over a tiger getting her bottom smacked:

14 Lulu (Berg) English National Opera 2002 Lisa Saffer as Lulu

And what’s more, Kenneth Tynan also has a little something for us. He was obsessed with Louise Brooks in the role of Lulu, which led him to pay the ageing actress a visit when he was in New York in 1978. The meeting was later dramatized in the play Smoking with Lulu … and, since it is well known that Tynan was also obsessed with spanking, it may not be altogether a surprise to learn that this is a play we shall encounter properly in a future installment of this series.

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