Once upon a time, perhaps earlier this year, when I was reading Alfred Jarry’s Ubu nightmares, I wondered, amidst the adolescent violence and adolescent scatology, why there was no adolescent sex. It turns out that the topic had already been covered in Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy (published 1891, performed 1906), along with other pressing subjects like over-competitive schools and test anxiety, as if the theatrical avant-gardists of the 1890s had planned out an efficient division of labor. To be clear, they did not, and Jarry could hardly have known Wedekind’s work, but the plays are kin, in subject, in audacity, and in their destruction of the clichés of the theater.
Melchior and Moritz (not Max and Moritz) cram for exams and ponder the mysteries of their pubescence, while innocent but curious Wendla is protected from sex by her timid mother. The children are all fourteen years old, but they are all played by adult actors.* The result is pregnancy due to inadequate sex education, teen suicide, pornography (prints of famous paintings!), a botched abortion, homosexual exploration, nude modeling, and headless ghosts. Much of this actually takes place off-stage.
Strangely, this hormonally over-heated tragedy is actually a black comedy, or could be. In Act III, Scene One, Melchior is interrogated by his professors, accused of the crime of disseminating accurate information about sex. His professors are Thickstick, Flyswatter, Sunstroke, and so on, and they spend much of their time debating whether and which window should be opened. Conclusion:
FLYSWATTER: Should it appear to our respected colleague that our room is not sufficiently ventilated, might I propose that he has a ventilator bored in the top of his head?
And then Harpo pulls a hand drill from one of his enormous pockets and Chico says “Atsa no good!” The Ubu-like madness of the play comes from this lurch from Naturalistic “social issues” to surrealist nonsense to almost abstract pure theater, aided by the play’s short, fragmented scenes. In the climax, Melchior escapes from prison to confront his ghosts, or something like that, but is rescued, or damned, by the intervention of The Masked Man (“In the end everyone has his part – you the comforting knowledge of having nothing – you the tormenting doubt of everything”).
To reduce this play to an attack on the complacent German bourgeoisie or poor sex ed does it an injustice. Wedekind’s real concerns are existential.
Here’s the end, which is as likely as anything to spark curiosity about the beginning – the first line is meant literally:
MORITZ (alone): I sit here with my head in my arm. The moon covers its face, the veil falls away, and it doesn’t look any wiser. So I go back to my place. I straighten my cross after that clumsy idiot’s kicked it over, and when everything’s in order I lie down on my back again, warm myself in my rotting decay and smile.
* I am reading the Edward Bond translation, performed in 1974 – Moritz was played by a young Michael Kitchen, Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle himself.