Table of Contents
II. Sexual Oppression in Spring Awakening
1. The Term
2. The Role of the Mothers
3. The Role of the Fathers
As a student of theatre and media studies I have come across numerous plays and pieces of literature. In the Introduction to Queer Theory I studied the correlation of sex, gender and identity to scientific theories, history - and art.
Since Frank Wedekind´s play Spring Awakening has had a deep impact on the understanding of sex morals and upbringings and has been staged in major theatres throughout the world, I consider it as a significant piece of art which is worth being analyzed. In fact Spring Awakening hit the Zeitgeist of the late 19th and beginning 20th century: “He [Frank Wedekind] had done his situation analysis, was informed about the newest in theatre and art. The intellectuals must have been very pleased by his play.” (Schlör 14, Translation A.L.). However, the Wilhelmian Bourgeoisie was shocked and provoked by his ruthless illustration and description of pubescent sexuality. Schlör reckons that “unfortunately he [Frank Wedekind] underestimated the reactionists´ power. The broad mass was not that progressive to tolerate all the provocative themes. Even the high moral demand to criticize the education system was insufficient to legitimate some sexually explicit scenes” (ibd.). With its main themes sexual suppression and the contrasting pubertal desire for sex education, Spring Awakening is highly suitable for an analysis in terms of “queer”.
This essay will concentrate on the play´s important characters Melchior and Wendla. Both are young pupils who start to think about life and the origin of their birth. The focus will be the youths´ way of dealing with the parental effort to suppress sexuality and the effects which this process has on the development of their personalities.
II. Sexual Oppression in Spring Awakening
1. The Term
Sexuality, the capability of being sexually active and dealing with erotic experiences and feelings (cf. Oxford Dictionary), has a long history of suppression. Religions and its churches have been known for thousands of years of linking sex to morality and thus automatically being oppressive to forms of sex other than what occurs in marriage for the purpose of conception. Philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault was however, the first to realize that the history of sexual oppression has actually placed sexuality in the focus of social discourse. In his Repressive Hypothesis which he established in his History of Sexuality VI, he claims that the prohibition of sexuality made people actually talk about it and deal with its dimensions. He states that “we have not only witnessed a visible explosion of unorthodox sexualities; but - and this is the important point - a deployment quite different from the law, even if it is locally dependent on procedures of prohibition” (Foucault 38). People started elaborating on sexuality and showing profound interest for it, although from the perspective of prohibition. Generally speaking: Only if certain knowledge is available, ways will be found to hide it and to punish people for having it. This paradoxical construct of suppression and the resulting discourse is exactly what Foucault is talking about.1
Having that in mind it seems only logical that the pubertal youth in Spring Awakening starts to pose questions and demands answers on sexuality as a result of their parents and teachers forbidding them to do so. This time it is not mainly the church which acts oppressive; it is rather the educators who oppress the youth in the sense of the church.
In this context it seems significant to have a closer look on the parents´ role and as follows, on the mothers´.
2. The Role of the Mothers
Wedekind characterizes the mothers and their effort to protect their children from sexuality and its effects quite carefully. The play´s first scene sets the atmosphere for the subsequent scenes and illustrates an adequate example.
Wendla is with her mother in their living room, getting dressed. She is forced to put on a long dress because of her mother´s fears: “Even by the first sentences the mother is illustrated as a hypocrite, the daughter as an untamable foal, that lusts for freedom.” (Schlör 20, A.L.).
Frau Bergmann: I don´t want you to catch a chill, Wendla. That little dress used to be long enough but -
Wendla: Mother, it ´s nearly summer. You don´t catch diphtheria in your knees. You ´ re such a worrier. Girls my age don´t get frostbite - least of all in the legs. Would you prefer me too hot? [ … ] When I wear that prison gown, believe me, my underwear will be something else. Next to my skin I ´ ll be Queen of the Fairies. Oh, please don ´ t be silly, Mummy, nobody will ever see it.
Wendla is obviously confused by her mother´s behavior. She explains quite elaborately why she considers putting on the long dress as ridiculous and makes her mother look even more helpless than before. All answers pushed forward by the mother seem not to satisfy Wendla. It is her mother´s deeply rooted feeling of shame and the connected feeling of guilt that keeps her quiet. Later on she tells Wendla that she “brought [her] up exactly as [she] was brought up by [her] own mother.” (Hughes 71) and that they “have to trust in the dear Lord” (ibd.).
That is the crucial point: As Schlör states, “mistaken behavior is passed on unreflectedly over generations. Resulting catastrophes are not traced back to their causes.” (Schlör 23, A.L.). What does that tell the reader about Frau Bergmann´s character?
Her sense of sexuality has not developed in the course of time. Although her daughter represents the second generation after Frau Bergmann´s mother, she still educates her “the old way”, meaning, by the urge of distracting her from sexuality by all means. The origination of shame seems to lie in Frau Bergmann’s socialization with a strictly religious mother. By imposing those educational principles on Wendla, she brings up a naïve and sexually insecure daughter.
However, Frau Bergmann is not to be seen as a victim of the society in which she grew up. She is confronted with a curious and very self-reflective daughter that eagerly tries to understand life - attributes which Frau Bergmann might not have had in her pubertal age. Germanist Elizabeth Boa describes quite adequately that:
Human beings are shown in Spring Awakening to be self-reflective. Their self-image is deeply affected, if not wholly determined, by the culture and social relations they inhabit. Self-reflection goes along with role-playing as the characters produce themselves, acting out roles they create or assume in accordance with the rules of the social game. The adult world is pervaded by hypocritical moral posturing and sentimental self-deception. (Boa 29)
Frau Bergmann for instance could use Wendla´s sexual curiosity as the basis for further explanations. Wendla after all does know something about sexuality, as she does not believe anymore in the stork-stories. She must have gained a certain sexual knowledge which she still cannot put in order. Consequently she turns to her mother in confidence, wanting to finally be educated and find peace with this subject. However, Wendla is treated like a little child.
Frau Bergmann: Oh, Wendla, just think. Last night she was visited by the stork. It brought her a baby boy. [ … ]
Wendla: Were you there when the stork brought him?
Frau Bergmann: It had just flown away. How about pinning a rose on your dress? [ … ]
Wendla: [ … ] Oh the growing-up front, my prospects seem quite bleak. Here ´ s my sister married two years, she ´ s already made me an aunt three times over - and I still haven ´ t the faintest idea how it happens. Oh, don ´ t get across, Mummy, please don ´ t get across. Who else can I ask if I can ´ t ask you? Tell me, Mummy, tell me. How does it all happen? I ´ m fourteen. I ´ m too old to believe in storks coming down chimneys.
Frau Bergmann: Dear God, what a strange willful daughter I have. The things you come out with. I could not possibly do that, Wendla. (Hughes 31-33).
Through this passage Boa´s description of self-deception is highlighted. Stating that she could not possibly answer Wendla´s question for the purpose of protection she obviously deceives herself. In the end Wendla is pregnant and ultimately dead due to her sexual ignorance. Frau Bergmann´s “protection” turned out to be bane, not boon. She even refuses to tell Wendla about her pregnancy in her most desperate state and instead puts forward that she has anaemia. Her hypocrisy becomes more apparent as she is prepared to arrange a dangerous abortion of Wendla´s baby while not admitting that her moral overprotection is the cause of the tragedy. Wendla dies during the abortion process.
Melchior who raped Wendla and made her pregnant was already sexually educated. But where did he get his knowledge from while living in a sexually repressive environment?
Melchior: I will tell you everything. I have gotten it partly from books, partly from illustrations, partly from observations of nature. You will be surprised; it made me an atheist. (Hughes 13).
Interestingly Foucault´s theory comes into play: Melchior grows up in a deeply ashamed and sexually repressive society. Still he gets his knowledge about sex from different sources. Apparently there must have been sources that deal with sexuality, or better: with the question why sexuality is an object of suppression. Melchior´s reference to religion by saying he turned to atheism, gives a hint that those sources must have been of religious nature.
1 A very interesting analogy to that subject can be seen in the NS-time. In 1937 the art exhibition “Entartete Kunst” was shown in 12 cities throughout Germany. Visitors could have a look at paintings, sculptures etc. that were declared as not suitable with the ideas of Nazi-Germany. The paradox is obvious: People who liked the as “entartet” declared art and were still interested in it, simply could visit the museums and exhibition places without anyone noticing their secret.