As Spring Awakening gets closer and Tech Week starts soon, I've been wrapping up my brief stint as dramaturg. (If you don't know what that is, that's okay. Wikipedia is helpful.) The final thing I needed to do was create a brief historical introduction to the show.
Spring Awakening was adapted from a play by the same name written by the German playwright Frank Wedekind in 1891. Wedekind (1864-1918) led a storied life, having an affair and an illegitimate child and also working in the circus. He eventually entered the theater and became known for his satirical writings and performances. He served a nine-month prison term for “assaulting the dignity of the monarch.” The play wasn’t performed until 1906 and was banned or censored for indecent and subversive subject matter. It was first staged in English in New York City in 1917, but the Commissioner of Licenses claimed that the play was pornographic. It was only allowed one performance. The musical adaptation appeared off-Broadway in 2006 and subsequently moved to Broadway where is won 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It was adapted for television in 2008 and there is currently a movie adaptation being produced. Spring Awakening has been immensely popular since it’s premiere, especially among teenagers and college students.
Taking place in a rural town in Imperial Germany during the early 1890’s, Spring Awakening is grounded in the culture of its time. School dominated the life of middle class boys during this period. The Gymnasium, a secondary school focused on the study of classical languages, was designed to prepare pupils for university entrance exams. Upon graduation they have the opportunity to apply for spaces at universities. Instruction was heavily dependent on memorization and public recitation and teachers were fully empowered to use corporal punishment in their classrooms. Secondary schools were exclusively for boys until the end of the century, when girls were granted some limited access to it. However, schools were strictly sex-segregated after elementary school.
Any discussion of sexuality was strictly forbidden by the moral code of the day. Sex outside marriage was taboo, especially for women. The religious values of the day stressed prudence and temperance and the value of family honor. Premarital sex was considered a smear on that honor. However, it was far more common than the literature of the day let on. Because parents did not discuss such matters with their children, it was quite common for them to have to deal with a pregnancy on their own. Abortion was still illegal across Europe, so any procedures would have been performed by someone without formal medical training. The mortality rate for such procedures was very high.
At the same time that religion was more strictly enforcing standards of morality, people were falling away from organized religion. Church attendance fell sharply and many younger people felt increasingly distant from the faith of their parents. There was a feeling that the spiritual emptiness was a new phenomenon, and as such was vilified by traditionalists and conservatives. Friedrich Nietzsche, a publically avowed atheist, wrote of this time, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”