Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening 19th Century German Drama

Though a significant and provocative dramatist in his own right, Frank Wedekind is not considered one of the most influential dramatists of the German theater in the 19th century. This discrepancy results at least partially from the fact that Frank Wedekind rebelled against the prevailing styles of the day: Realism and Naturalism. An examination of mainstream German theater at the end of the 19th century provides the reader with a better understanding of how Wedekind's plays departed from the majority of works at the time.

Europe as a whole experienced a flourishing of the dramatic arts during the second half of the 19th century. A large part of this development involved a rise in the number of independent (rather than state-supported) theaters. The rise of these small theaters led to greater interchanges between countries, as the leading dramatists of the time were not restricted to performances within their native countries. The Theatre Libre of Paris, the Independent Theater of London, and Miss Horniman's Theater in Manchester all saw performances by playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, William Butler Yeats, Bernard Shaw, and Gerhart Hauptmann. In Germany, the two artists who both enjoyed extensive national success and went on to win international fame were Gerhart Hauptmann and Hermann Sudermann.

Hermann Sudermann was a key figure in the development of the realistic movement in Germany. Realism's roots were in France, and it had already been established as an art form that depicted reality with as little interpretation or artistic exaggeration as possible. Sudermann's first play, Die Ehre (Honor), published in 1889, transformed him from a tutor and sometime journalist into one of Germany's most successful playwrights. Though the play went from being embraced to being censured after just a few years, Sudermann achieved tremendous financial success as a result of this work. This financial success eventually tarnished his position in intellectual circles, as people accused him of "writing for the box office."

Gerhart Hauptmann was another active force in the revitalization of German theater. Hauptmann's first play, Before Sunrise, also first appeared in 1889. His popularity was established more slowly than Sudermann's and, perhaps as a result, he enjoyed a longer period of success. By 1910, German Realism was firmly established as the predominant genre of the day, challenged primarily by the previously popular Romanticism, which began in England and Germany at the end of the 18th century. Hauptmann's later plays were responsible for a revival of Romanticism. In 1912, Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Such international recognition for the defender of Realism and Romanticism played a tremendous role in establishing these genres as the most successful and most popular forms of dramatic expression in 19th century Germany.

To fully understand Wedekind's exclusion from mainstream theater, one must consider the work of yet another playwright, who, though he was not German, had a tremendous and long-lasting impact on German theater. Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright who spent most of his life in Italy and Germany and had a tremendous influence over the development of Realism. Today, Ibsen is seen by many as the "Father of Modern Drama."

Ibsen's plays were scathing critiques of Victorian morals. Although the wealthy considered Ibsen's work scandalous and he did not receive a great deal of recognition in his lifetime, many people identified with Ibsen's view of reality. One primary message of his plays was that the individual is right more often than the general populace. Ibsen challenged the idea of the community as a protective and trustworthy institution and suggested that following the morals of your community does not always prevent that community from turning against you.

One can see many thematic similarities between Ibsen and Wedekind's works. Wedekind too explored the idea of the community as the enforcer of hypocritical morals, the struggle for survival faced by the individualist, and the hypocrisy of traditional sexuality. However, Wedekind's plays were far more outrageous than Ibsen's social critiques. Those who thought Ibsen's works scandalous often viewed Wedekind's plays as worse than obscene. Ibsen believed that it was possible to use realism to critique reality, while Wedekind believed that the only way to shake up the social order was to shock people into looking at the world in a different way. Indeed, Wedekind's plays were so transgressive that some people still argue that their sexual content diminishes their artistic value. Wedekind's plays were simply too divergent from mainstream taste to be acceptable to the majority of 19th century Germans.