Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thoughts on Wedekind

In my last post, I mentioned that Carl Sternheim married Frank Wedekind's daughter Pamela. Literally, he was the older playwright's son-in-law. Spiritually, Sternheim also saw himself as the artistic son of Wedekind.

Well, Frank Wedekind, it so happens, ran off with August Strindberg's second wife, Frida Uhl. Literally, he slept with Strindberg's wife. By extension, we might say that Wedekind took Strindberg's artistic legacy, grabbed it, ran off with it to the nearest hotel room, and....

Okay, it's not a perfect metaphor, but Strindberg's ideas do seem to come back in the plays of Wedekind in a new and rougher form. Strindberg's frank discussion of sexuality, his problematic view of male-female relations, his testing of the limits of patriarchal authority, all these return in Spring Awakening, Earth Spirit, and Pandora's Box. With Wedekind, however, caution is thrown to the wind, and the drama is more raw, exciting, and for many people (perhaps even most), downright offensive. (Or does the average theatre-goer think it's perfectly acceptable to portray a circle-jerk onstage?)

After deciding to drop out of law school, Wedekind had an argument with his father in which he physically struck the old man, an act of rebellion against the older generation that the playwright never quite left. Still, when Spring Awakening premiered in Berlin in 1906, Wedekind literally put himself onstage as a representative of the older generation, playing the Masked Man.

Who was that Masked Man? Well, when Melchior, the protagonist in Spring Awakening, asks that very question, the man responds, "That will become clear." He makes it clear he is not Melchior's father, but that he wants the boy to get out of the graveyard, escaping a potential death. If Melchior is a semi-autobiographical character, the Masked Man, played by the author himself, might be seen as an adult version of Melchior, warning his younger self away from a possible suicide.

The stranger's warning, that suicide will seem ridiculous to Melchior once he has a warm dinner under his belt, is the advice of an adult. It is an instruction given by someone no longer subject to the vast and violent emotions of adolescence. It works, however, and it works perhaps because it does not come from the father. Like Christian in Sternheim's The Snob, Melchior can become a truly self-made man. His salvation comes not from his society, but from the moral courage he finds within himself.