(Photo: Greg Martin)
Fairly or not, Jonathan Franzenauthor of The Corrections and famous spurner of Oprahhas developed a reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon. It might not help matters that the former German- lit major has just published a new translation of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s century-old play about dangerously repressed adolescentsand that his foreword lambastes the insipid and instantly overpraised Broadway musical adaptation. Franzen spoke with Boris Kachka.
So what’s your beef, exactly?
I care a lot about American theater, and I’m loath to criticize any spark of excitement anywhere. But what happened to the play is, I think, it became dishonest on the road to being that musical. The real way to any theatergoer’s heart is to tell some kind of truth about their experience, not flatter them with some kind of pleasant lie they’d like to tell themselves. It turns it into a kind of self-righteous Avril Sévigné [A follow-up e-mail confirmed that, in fact, he meant pop star Avril Lavigne.]
So this is why you decided to try your own translation?
No. Fifty dollars made me do it in 1986 for the Swarthmore College theater department. It was a memorable production. It sat in a drawer for twenty years, and when the musical came along I remembered it. I knew it was a good translation, better than anything else out there.
One of the essays in your memoir, The Discomfort Zone, connects your love of German lit with your own sexual awakening. Is that why you love this play so much?
The play appealed to me primarily because it’s just rocking good. It’s funny and the characters are amazingly vivid. That’s why I’m so cruelly hard on a basically sunny Broadway musical. This stuff does matter to methe German-literature stuff and the teen-sex part, it all matters.
Do you expect critics to whip out the elitist label again after they read this foreword?
Except for Harper’s, for whom I’m too populist. Having been through it once, I’m less afraid to go through it again. The fact is, I position myself in the middle. I am a theatergoer who has a brain, who knows the difference between good and bad, who wants to enjoy himself but also doesn’t want to have to put his brain to sleep.
Surely there was something redeeming about Spring Awakening?
There are four good musical numbers in there. What was unsatisfying was the disconnect between the excitement of those rocking numbers and the ostensible themes of the play.
Is there anything you really loved recently in the theater?
I actually saw The Drowsy Chaperone twice. I love it. Twice I came out just bursting from laughter, really in physical pain.
Anything you’ve hated?
If you want an example of what I think theater should not be, Embedded is a good example. I practically came out of Embedded ready to join the Republican Party.
Were you pained by the oddly personal takedowns of The Discomfort Zone in two reviews in the Times?
I have a theory about that. That book is my effort to acknowledge my complicity and my guiltfor instance in global warming. It didn’t seem entirely accidental to me that the newspaper which has had a hard time acknowledging its own complicity, say, in the Iraq debacle and the reelection of George Bush, might find any sort of confession of guilt unwelcome. You know it’s mostly nonsense what I’m saying, but I’m irritated enough to actually say it to somebody clattering away on his keyboard.
Has it been harder to write now that you’re a big success?
It’s certainly not something I would complain about. My first twenty years were one long slog of delayed gratification. [The Discomfort Zone] was a book written by a happier person.
Did you feel vindicated recently when Nan Talese, James Frey’s publisher, lashed out at Oprah for the way she wields her power?
I don’t really comment on that stuff anymore. I try to resist the megalomania that would make me think anyone cares.
Spring Awakening: A Play
Faber & Faber.
The following essay on Spring Awakening was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 118-28.
FRANK WEDEKIND became widely known through his great drama Spring Awakening [or The Awakening of Spring], which he called a tragedy of childhood, dedicating the work to parents and teachers. Verily an appropriate introduction, because parents and teachers are, in relation to the child's needs, the most ignorant and mentally indolent class. Needless to say, this element entirely failed to grasp the social significance of Wedekind's work. On the contrary, they saw in it an invasion of their tradition authority and an outrage on the sacred rights of parenthood.
The critics also could see naught in Wedekind, except a base, perverted, almost diabolic nature bereft of all finer feeling. But professional critics seldom see below the surface; else they would discover beneath the grin and satire of Frank Wedekind a sensitive soul, deeply stirred by the heart-rending tragedies about him. Stirred and grieved especially by the misery and torture of the child -- the helpless victim unable to explain the forces germinating in its nature, often crushed and destroyed by mock modesty, sham decencies, and the complacent morality that greet its blind gropings.
Never was a more powerful indictment hurled against society, which out of sheer hypocrisy and cowardice persists that boys and girls must grow up in ignorance of their sex functions, that they must be sacrificed on the altar of stupidity and convention which taboo the enlightenment of the child in questions of such elmental importance to health and well-being.
The most criminal phase of the indictment, however, is that it is generally the most promising children who are sacrificed to sex ignorance and to the total lack of appreciation on the part of teachers of the latent qualities and tendencies in the child: the one slaying the body and soul, the other paralyzing the function of the brain; and both conspiring to give to the world mental and physical mediocrities.
Spring Awakening is laid in three acts and fourteen scenes, consisting almost entirely of dialogues among the children. So close is Wedekind to the soul of the child that he succeeds in unveiling before our eyes, with a most gripping touch, its joys and sorrows, its hopes and despair, its struggles and tragedies.
The play deals with a group of school children just entering the age of puberty -- imaginative beings speculating about the mysteries of life. Wendla, sent to her grave by her loving but prudish mother, is an exquisite, lovable child; Melchior, the innocent father of Wendla's unborn baby, is a gifted boy whose thirst for knowledge leads him to inquire into the riddle of life, and to share his observations with his school chums -- a youth who, in a free and intelligent atmosphere, might have developed into an original thinker. That such a boy should be punished as a moral pervert, only goes to prove the utter unfitness of our educators and parents. Moritz, Melchior's playfellow, is driven to suicide because he cannot pass his examinations, thanks to our stupid and criminal system of education which consists in cramming the mind to the bursting point.
Wedekind has been accused of exaggerating his types, but any one familiar with child life knows that every word in Spring Awakening is vividly true. The conversation between Melchior and Moritz, for instance, is typical of all boys not mentally inert.
- MELCHIOR: I'd like to know why we really are on earth!
- MORITZ: I'd rather be a cab-horse than go to school! Why do we go to school? We go to school so that somebody can examine us! And why do they examine us? In order that we may fail. Seven must fail, because the upper classroom will hold only sixty. I feel so queer since Christmas. The devil take me, if it were not for Papa, I'd pack my bundle and go to Altoona, today!
- MORITZ: Do you believe, Melchior, that the feeling of shame in man is only a product of his education?
- MELCHIOR: I was thinking over that for the first time the day before yesterday. It seems to me deeply rooted in human nature. Only think, you must appear entirely clothed before your best friend. You wouldn't do so if he didn't do the same thing. Therefore, it's more or less of a fashion.
- MORITZ: Have you experienced it yet?
- MELCHIOR: What?
- MORITZ: How do you say it?
- MELCHIOR: Manhood's emotion?
- MORITZ: M--'hm.
- MELCHIOR: Certainly.
- MORITZ: I also ...
- MELCHIOR: I've known that for a long while! Almost for a year.
- MORITZ: I was startled as if by lightning.
- MELCHIOR: Did you dream?
- MORITZ: Only for a little while -- of legs in light blue tights, that strode over the cathedral -- to be correct, I thought they wanted to go over it. I only saw them for an instant.
- MELCHIOR: George Zirschnitz dreamed of his mother.
- MORITZ: Did he tell you that?... I thought I was incurable. I believed I was suffering from an inward hurt. Finally I became calm enough to begin to jot down the recollections of my life. Yes, yes, dear Melchior, the last three weeks have been a Gethsemane for me.... Truly they play a remarkable game with us. And we're expected to give thanks for it. I don't remember to have had any longing for this kind of excitement. Why didn't they let me sleep peacefully until all was still again. My dear parents might have had a hundred better children. I came here, I don't know how, and must be responsible myself for not staying away. Haven't you often wondered, Melchior, by what means we were brought into this whirl?
- MELCHIOR: Don't you know that yet either, Moritz?
- MORITZ: How should I know it? I see how the hens lay eggs, and hear that Mamma had to carry me under her heart. But is that enough?... I have gone through Meyer's Little Encyclopedia from A to Z. Words -- nothing but words and words! Not a single plain explanation. Oh, this feeling of shame! -- What good to me is an encyclopedia that won't answer me concerning the most important question in life?
Yes, of what good is an encyclopedia or the other wise books to the quivering, restless spirit of the child? No answer anywhere, least of all from your own mother, as Wendla and many another like her have found out.
The girl, learning that her sister has a new baby, rushes to her mother to find out how it came into the world.
- WENDLA: I have a sister who has been married for two and a half years, I myself have been made an aunt for the third time, and I haven't the least idea how it all comes about-- Don't be cross, Mother dear, don't be cross! Whom in the world should I ask but you! Please tell me, dear Mother! Tell me, dear Mother! I am ashamed for myself. Please, Mother, speak! Don't scold me for asking you about it. Give me an answer -- How does it happen? How does it all come about? You cannot really deceive yourself that I, who am fourteen years old, still believe in the stork.
- FRAU BERGMANN: Good Lord, child, but you are peculiar! What ideas you have! I really can't do that!
- WENDLA: But why not, Mother? Why not? It can't be anything ugly if everybody is delighted over it!
- FRAU BERGMANN: O -- O God, protect me! -- I deserve -- Go get dressed, child, go get dressed.
- WENDLA: I'll go -- And suppose your child went out and asked the chimney sweep?
- FRAU BERGMANN: But that would be madness!-- Come here, child, come here, I'll tell you! I'll tell you everything--... In order to have a child -- one must love -- the man -- to whom one is married -- love him, I tell you -- as one can only love a man! One must love him so much with one's whole heart, so -- so that one can't describe it! One must love him, Wendla, as you at your age are still unable to love -- Now you know it!
How much Wendla knew, her mother found out when too late.
Wendla and Melchior, overtaken by a storm, seek shelter in a haystack, and are drawn by what Melchior calls the "first emotion of manhood" and curiosity into each other's arms. Six months later Wendla's mother discovers that her child is to become a mother. To save the family honor, the girl is promptly placed in the hands of a quack who treats her for chlorosis.
- WENDLA: No, Mother, no! I know it. I feel it. I haven't chlorosis. I have dropsy-- I won't get better. I have the dropsy, I must die, Mother-- O, Mother, I must die!
- FRAU BERGMANN: You must not die, child! You must not die -- Great heavens, you must not die!
- WENDLA: But why do you weep so frightfully, then?
- FRAU BERGMANN: You must not die, child! You haven't the dropsy, you have a child, girl! You have a child! Oh, why did you do that to me?
- WENDLA: I haven't done anything to you.
- FRAU BERGMANN: Oh, don't deny it any more, Wendla! I know everything. See, I didn't want to say a word to you. Wendla, my Wendla--!
- WENDLA: But it's not possible, Mother.... I have loved nobody in the world as I do you, Mother.
The pathos of it, that such a loving mother should be responsible for the death of her own child! Yet Frau Bergmann is but one of the many good, pious mothers who lay their children to "rest in God," with the inscription on the tombstone: "Wendla Bergmann, born May 5th, 1878, died from chlorosis, Oct. 27, 1892. Blessed are the pure of heart."
Melchior, like Wendla, was also "pure of heart"; yet how was he "blessed"? Surely not by his teachers who, discovering his essay on the mystery of life, expel the boy from school. Only Wedekind could inject such grim humor into the farce of education -- the smug importance of the faculty of the High School sitting under the portraits of Rousseau and Pestalozzi, and pronouncing judgment on their "immoral" pupil Melchior.
- RECTOR SONNENSTICH: Gentlemen: We cannot help moving the expulsion of our guilty pupil before the National Board of Education; there are the strongest reasons why we cannot: we cannot, because we must expiate the misfortune which has fallen upon us already; we cannot, because of our need to protect ourselves from similar blows in the future; we cannot, because we must chastise our guilty pupil for the demoralizing influence he exerted upon his classmates; we cannot, above all, because we must hinder him from exerting the same influence upon his remaining classmates. We cannot ignore the charge -- and this, gentlemen, is possibly the weightiest of all -- on any pretext concerning a ruined career, because it is our duty to protect ourselves from an epidemic of suicide similar to that which has broken out recently in various grammar schools, and which until today has mocked all attempts of the teachers to shackle it by any means known to advanced education.... We see ourselves under the necessity of judging the guilt-laden that we may not be judged guilty ourselves.... Are you the author of the obscene manuscript?
- MELCHIOR: Yes -- I request you, sir, to show me anything obscene in it.
- SONNENSTICH: You have as little respect for the dignity of your assembled teachers as you have a proper appreciation of mankind's innate sense of shame which belongs to a moral world.
Melchior's mother, a modern type, has greater faith in her child than in school education. But even she cannot hold out against the pressure of public opinion; still less against the father of Melchior, a firm believer in authority and discipline.
HERR GABOR: Anyone who can write what Melchior wrote must be rotten to the core of his being. The mark is plain. A half-healthy nature wouldn't do such a thing. None of us are saints. Each of us wanders from the straight path. His writing, on the contrary, tramples on principles. His writing is no evidence of a chance slip in the usual way; it sets forth with dreadful plainness and a frankly definite purpose that natural longing, that propensity for immorality, because it is immorality. His writing manifests that exceptional state of spiritual corruption which we jurists classify under the term "moral imbecility."
Between the parents and the educators, Melchior is martyred even as Wendla. He is sent to the House of Correction; but being of sturdier stock than the girl, he survives.
Not so his chum Moritz. Harassed by the impelling forces of his awakened nature, and unable to grapple with the torturous tasks demanded by his "educators" at the most critical period of his life, Moritz fails in the examinations. He cannot face his parents: they have placed all their hope in him, and have lashed him, by the subtle cruelty of gratitude, to the grindstone till his brain reeled. Moritz is the third victim in the tragedy, the most convenient explanation of which is given by Pastor Kahlbauch in the funeral sermon.
PASTOR KAHLBAUCH: He who rejects the grace with which the Everlasting Father has blessed those born in sin, he shall die a spiritual death!-- He, however, who in willful carnal abnegation of God's proper honor, lives for and serves evil, shall die the death of the body!-- Who, however, wickedly throws away from him the cross which the All Merciful has laid upon him for his sins, verily, verily, I say unto you, he shall die the everlasting death! Let us, however, praise the All Gracious Lord and thank Him for His inscrutable grace in order that we may travel the thorny path more and more surely. For as truly as this one died a triple death, as truly will the Lord God conduct the righteous unto happiness and everlasting life....
It is hardly necessary to point out the revolutionary significance of this extraordinary play. It speaks powerfully for itself. One need only add that Spring Awakening [has] done much to dispel the mist enveloping the paramount issue of sex in the education of the child. Today it is conceded even by conservative elements that the conspiracy of silence has been a fatal mistake. And while sponsors of the Church and of the moral fixity still clamor for the good old methods, the message of Wedekind is making itself felt throughout the world, breaking down barriers.
The child is the unit of the race, and only through its unhampered unfoldment can humanity come into its heritage. Spring Awakening is one of the great forces ... paving the way for the birth of a free race.
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