Spring Awakening was Frank Wedekind's first play. He had it published at his own expense in 1891, but it was not performed until Wedekind started his own repertory company in 1906. The first production in the United States took place in 1912, but since the play was in German it failed to attract widespread interest. The play was finally performed in English in 1917. The debut performance almost didn't take place because the New York City Commissioner of Licenses tried to shut it down, claiming that the play was pornographic in nature. Almost immediately, Wedekind was able to secure an injunction from the Supreme Court that allowed the play to go on. Unfortunately, the audience seemed to agree with the Commissioner, and the play closed after a single show. During the Nazi era, Wedekind's work was not actually banned, but since he did not advocate the views espoused by the Nazis, his plays were rarely produced. After Wedekind's death and the end of WWII, the play was frequently produced in Germany. The play finally returned to America in 1958, where a new translation was performed by the University of Chicago Theatre.
Even today the play is considered controversial, though it is widely respected, and many feel a need to defend Wedekind's choices with a variety of strategies. Many supporters claim that the play is fundamentally autobiographical in nature. Some evidence supports this view, for Wedekind said of Spring Awakening: "I started to write without any sort of plan, merely aiming to set down whatever appealed to me. The plan emerged after the third scene and was compiled from my own personal experiences or the experiences of my class-mates." However, Wedekind's diaries contain no information about Spring Awakening besides an infrequent note that someone had read it or suggested that he send it to such-and-such publisher...and in truth, not everything Wedekind wrote about his life proved to be reliable.
Whether or not the events of Spring Awakening were personally experienced by Wedekind, many of the most startling implications of the play are supported by the historical record. Around the time that Wedekind was beginning to write, there was a "marked increase of suicide among schoolchildren" (Boa, 6-7). During the late nineteenth century Germany also saw an explosion of the population, which, coupled with migration from the countryside, lead to a vast increase in the number and size of cities. Repeated economic crises in 1873, the 1880s and the 1890s led to a period of obsession with imperial control embodied in the Kaiser, the symbolic father of the nation who stood for the "authoritarian ideology of law, order and conservative morality" (Boa, 6). In Spring Awakening Wedekind not only dramatizes one such suicide, but also critiques the damaging effects of authoritarian, paternalistic culture.
Spring Awakening addresses a large number of loosely related themes primarily through a series of dialogues. The plot lacks a clear structure, and many of the characters are indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore, Wedekind seems to undermine and satirize a number of ideas without providing positive counterparts to replace them. This confusion seems rooted in Wedekind's tendency to undermine ideas without actually pointing any fingers. In many ways Spring Awakening is a satire with a strong political message; however, Wedekind never directly or implicitly blames "the government," "German society," or even specific characters. Wedekind seems to be shooting arrows in all directions, lacking a single, clear target.
A fuller understanding of Spring Awakening can be achieved if the work is viewed as a chronicle of the damages done rather than as a polemic meant to inspire action. Wendla, Moritz, and Melchior are best viewed as a triangle. The three characters both interact with and act in parallel to each other as each struggles to make the transition to adulthood. The title of the play, Spring (or Spring's) Awakening, refers to both the incipient adulthood and the incipient sexuality of the children who form its center. Both meanings suggest beginnings, the promise of the future, and a period of warmth and peace. However, by the play's end two characters are dead - one by suicide, one by a botched abortion. Wedekind's play forces the reader and the audience to see that children cannot be sheltered from life's hardships and dangers. What may seem like a peaceful development is actually difficult, frightening, and fraught with danger. Only Melchior survives, aided by the mysterious man in a mask. The hidden identity of the man in the mask hinders a complete understanding of Melchior's survival, but suggests that there is no formula to ensure the smooth passage from childhood to adulthood.