Written in the spring of 2007 for a production of Lulu, directed by Mark Lamos, at Yale Rep. Reading it now, I am struck by the passage in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles in which he cites the influence on his own songs of Brechtian lieder, and, indirectly Wedekind’s cabaret. The production was a year before the Michael Mayer/Duncan Sheik “adaptation” of Spring’s Awakening, which reshapes the considerably more disturbing German original into a standard narrative of teenage angst. -DL
Often called the father of German Expressionist drama, Frank Wedekind in fact drew his inspiration from sources that were surprisingly international and non-expressionistic. His biography is similarly peripatetic. Born in Hanover, Germany, young Frank was in fact conceived in Oakland, California, where his parents lived in the year before his birth. Wedekind’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm, was a liberal doctor who had fled Germany after the failed socialist revolutions of 1848 along with his mother, Emilie, a German opera-singer who toured in America as a vaudevillian performing lieder and acting in risqué skits. The young Wedekind’s full name, Benjamin Franklin, is a bald allusion to the American founding father.
In 1871, when Frank was seven, the Wedekind clan moved to Switzerland, where young Frank was known as “the American” to his classmates in the Swiss Gymnasium. Wedekind’s first major play, Frühlings Erwachen (Spring’s Awakening) would be based on his turbulent Swiss adolescence in the Gymnasium. A tragedy of social repression that alternates beautiful lyric passages of youthful sexuality with grotesquely comic scenes, the play is widely considered to be the first play in the Western canon depicting homosexuality and teenage suicide. It would be published in Zurich in 1891 and almost immediately banned by strict Wilhelmine censors.
After graduating in 1884, Wedekind moved to Munich, where a subsequent conflict with his father led to his disinheritance. Cut off from his family, Wedekind began to live the life of the itinerant artist, drifting between Munich, Berlin, Zurich, Paris, and London. It was during his so-called “Paris Era” between 1892 and 1894, while living among prostitutes, criminals, and circus performers that Wedekind wrote his two Lulu plays: Erdgeist (Earth-Spirit) and Der Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). With Lulu and Spring’s Awakening, Wedekind had created an original form, combining naturalistic observations of human sexuality with elements of the popular forms he had come to cherish: satire, cabaret, circus, and the burlesque. Wedekind’s writing signaled a radical departure from the artistic landscape of his time. None of his German peers resemble him. His style instead finds its truest kinship in similarly peripatetic, formally experimental, and thematically shocking writers of the era such as Oscar Wilde and August Strindberg. Strindberg, in fact, was Wedekind’s drinking companion and romantic rival during the composition of Lulu. Wedekind would marry Strindberg’s second wife, Frida Uhl, during the Paris period, and raise Strindberg’s daughter Kerstin as his own.
In the later 1890s and early 1900s, Wedekind created a then-unique cult of persona, a combination of sexual and theatrical exhibitionism which in some ways anticipates the modern-day “rock star.” Wedekind could frequently be seen performing at Munich-area cabarets, or in the roles he wrote for himself in his plays (he appeared as The Masked Man at the end of Spring’s Awakening and as the Lion Tamer in Earth-Spirit). Perhaps most infamously, Wedekind would pose in sadomasochistic role-playing pictures in full costume with his wives. Were he not renowned in his own right, Wedekind might be remembered now as a profound influence on an impressionable, twenty-year-old Münich poet named Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s early-period fascination with cabaret, songs, and sex, as in his first play, the Dionysian Baal (1918), is unimaginable without Wedekind’s example. As Brecht scholar and translator Eric Bentley has noted, the Lulu plays anticipate Brechtian Epic Theater, jettisoning a traditional five-act structure in favor of a remorseless stream of action.
In 1918, Brecht eulogized Wedekind; he had died in the March of 1918, the same month as the drafting of the Weimar Constitution that would allow many of his plays to be performed for the first time. “He came before the curtain as a ringmaster in a red tail coat, carrying a whip and revolver, and no one could forget that cold, hard, dry, metallic voice, that brazen faun’s head with ‘eyes like a gloomy owl’ set in immobile features. … It was the man’s intense aliveness, the energy which allowed him to defy sniggering ridicule and proclaim his brazen hymn to humanity, that also gave him his personal magic.”
Wedekind’s plays, which feature both the comically grotesque and the tragically pathetic, have been frequently studied but rarely staged. As contemporary productions of his work multiply, his artistic legacy casts a long, surprisingly influential shadow.