Adolescence is hard enough when you do know what it’s all about. But imagine going through puberty with no knowledge of sex, no sexual outlet, and no reliable sources of information about sex. Spring Awakening, a pre-Expressionist masterpiece written in the 1890s by Frank Wedekind, is about just such a horror.
Spring Awakening is about a group of horny young German kids growing up in a total vacuum of sexual knowledge. They know their urges and dreams must mean something, but the adults won’t explain it to them—"common decency" prevents even mentioning it. The kids are left to fend for themselves, and as is often the case today, they come up with the wrong information -- or worse, none at all. Their natural curiosity is thwarted and turned against them, so that the frustration builds and they turn to violence, thinking themselves inherently perverse and evil for being so fixated. They explore beatings, masturbation, homosexuality, and rape with no real idea of what they’re doing or what the consequences might be. One, Moritz (Blake Hackler), is driven to commit suicide. Wendla (Bridget Flanery), a 14-year-old girl, is raped in a hayloft on the same day her mother tells her babies come from the stork. When she gets pregnant, her furious mother (who still has not explained where babies come from) brings in a midwife and the poor girl dies of a botched abortion. Melchior (Austin Jones), the unintentional rapist, is sent to a reformatory; he escapes and meets the ghost of his dead friend Moritz. Moritz tries to bring him over to the "other side," but relents and admits that death is a terrible void and that he bitterly regrets both his suicide and his incredible naivete.
The adults don’t fare any better; they are portrayed as pillars of stupidity and hypocrisy. Wedekind is blunt in his condemnation of bourgeois morality and of ignorance masquerading as piety. Much of the play is still shocking today, more than 100 years after it was written. It was translated by the incomparable Ted Hughes, known for his strong, sharp imagery, and his writing is a perfect fit for Wedekind’s unrelenting depiction of adolescent frustration and despair.
The production, by Prospect Theater Company, was equally stark and fittingly brilliant. The actors were exceptional, showing a flair for ensemble acting. The leads were especially talented, handling the language and the difficult subject matter with ease. The direction was inspired, keeping the play moving at a swift pace despite its length, and showed a deep dramaturgical understanding of the text. The set (by Erik Flatmo) was also quite striking. Old mattresses were set up around a bed of wood chips, with simple furniture pieces brought in as needed. Costumes (by Jenny Mannis) were simple but eloquent.
Altogether, it was an outstanding production of a thought-provoking play. What a shame it didn’t have a longer run.