Thursday, November 3, 2016

A horror play no theatre will produce - Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays

More than Henry James’s ghost stories, my Halloween reading was the Lulu plays of Frank Wedekind – The Earth Spirit (1895), Pandora’s Box (1904), and the odd coda Death and the Devil (1905) – which at this distance are still lust-crazed nightmares, climaxing in the murder of much of the cast by Jack the Ripper.  Spring Awakening (1891) is a children’s play by comparison.

That last act of Pandora’s Box must be deeply uncomfortable to see performed.  Merely reading it was unpleasant.  I have not seen the 1929 G. W. Pabst film adaptation, nor have I seen a stage performance, but I assume that anything goes, and the more Expressionist and crazy the production the better, to distract the poor audience from the horror at the heart of the plays.

RODRIGO:  You’ve written a horror play with my fiancee’s calves as the two leading characters and that no theatre will produce.  You crazy fool!  You miserable worm!...  I’ll pollute the whole auditorium with my stink.  (Pandora’s Box, Act One)

That’s about right.  The great struggle in the play is between Lulu, who is a human woman of ordinary intelligence, depth, and character cursed with such strong sex appeal that she becomes a kind of living embodiment of sex to everyone who meets her.  Men compete for her, cheat each other, kill themselves, etc. to possess her.  They all rename her as a primary act of possession – “As you know, I christened her Nelly in our marriage contract” (Erdgeist, Act One).  Three of the four acts of Earth Spirit end with the death of one of her husbands, which is comic but increasingly disturbing.  Pandora’s Box starts high and ends at the end, fulfilling Lulu’s dream of escape:

LULU (as though telling a fairy tale):  Every other night I used to dream I’d fallen into the hands of a sex-murderer.  Come on, give me a kiss.  (Pandora’s Box, Act One)

It’s a George Grosz illustration brought to a simulation of life.

For all of the creeping horror, Wedekind’s humor is pervasive.  Here Rodrigo the trapeze artist is making his escape from Lulu, or at least trying:

RODRIGO:  Besides that, she loves me for myself.  She’s interested in more than just obscenities, unlike you.  She has three children by an American bishop; and all of them show the greatest promise.  The day after tomorrow we’ll be married by the registrar.

LULU:  You have my blessings.  (Pandora’s Box, Act Two)

The irony is that in the previous scene Lulu barely evaded being sold to an Egyptian brothel.  She may be shallow, but it is everyone else who keeps returning to obscenity.

Earth Spirit begins with an animal trainer in front of a circus tent.  Lulu, “dressed in a Pierrot costume,” is silent, carried around like a beast, exhorted not to “dislocate our views.”  But the trainer, armed with a whip and pistol, does not use his weapons on her.  No, he fires into the audience.

I read the Carl Richard Mueller translations, which did their job.


  1. This was being shown on Austrian TV at some point (perhaps it was a stage adaptation being filmed) when I was in my early teens and my parents absolutely forbade me to watch. It does sound gruesome, yet very engergetic.

  2. Coincidentally just finished Mine-Haha, which seems very tame in comparison (though still rather strange).

  3. As a teen, I would have been baffled. It is amusing, though, to think of these century-old plays as still having that kind of effect. Some line had been crossed.

    Mine-Haha! I hope you write about it. I don't know anything about Wedekind's fiction.