The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening,” which ran in the Loeb Ex from Nov. 14 to Nov. 22 and was translated and directed by kat baus ’15, was a piece that inspired mixed emotions. On the one hand, it was well staged and delicately acted; the text itself is a significant milestone in theater history, marking a strong effort to depart from the strictures that 19th-century Protestant propriety placed on art. On the other hand, set against those not insignificant virtues was the impression that the actual text of “Spring Awakening” is not a very good play qua play.
A group of schoolchildren undergo the trials of late childhood and early adolescence; Moritz (Colin A. Mark ’17) is struggling with school, his nascent sexuality, and his place in the universe. His friend Melchior (Samuel A. Hagen ’18) thinks that he has the answers: he is an atheist and is already aware of the mechanics of reproduction, and so he helpfully writes his friend a 20-page essay titled “Coitus.” Nevertheless, Moritz’s inner distress continues to mount. In the meantime, Melchior cedes control to his baser instincts, raping and impregnating the innocent Wendla (Elana P. Simon ’18). Bad things continue to happen without interruption for the rest of the play.
The acting was generally superb and without a doubt the highlight of the production. Hagen played Melchior with a subtlety that made one almost forget the tortured, implausible melodrama that permeated the play. The character’s absurdity (it cannot be denied that a 13-year-old nihilist is absurd) was rendered with understatement: it would be easy (and a mistake) to treat Melchior’s existential statements as unmixed high tragedy. Instead, Hagen spoke them with childlike sincerity, and this was why the audience could still love Melchior more than any other character. Although he is a philosophical pessimist, an amoral agent, and a rapist, he is still naïve. We cannot hate Melchior any more than we can hate a lion or a bull elephant: he does terrible things, but he does them without moral knowledge. When he tells Moritz that there is no god, we cannot take him more seriously than we take a child who tells us about the squirrels in the park.
Mark’s Moritz was also worthy of note. His simple angst played well against the uncomplicated self-confidence of Melchior, and his emergence in the final scene was effective and unsettling. The only false note in his performance was his extended monologue before the end of the play’s first half, which, though overwrought, also managed to be very dull. This cannot be laid solely at his feet, however: it is difficult to see how this monologue could have been played another way.
Indeed, most of the flaws of this production were attributable to flaws in Wedekind’s vision, which was beyond the control of any member of the cast or staff. The story is one damned thing after another. Scenes that are devoid of narrative or symbolic significance are interspersed throughout the general arc of Melchior’s decline in fortunes, notably an extended masturbation scene featuring a character who is wholly irrelevant to any of the major action, Hansy (Leonie A. Oostrom ’15). It is silly to insist on the classical unities, but there is something to be said for avoiding scenes that add nothing, even tangentially, to the plot. Indeed, an uncharitable critic might say that Wedekind often seems to be seeking nothing more sophisticated that puerile shock.
If baus had decided to adapt more freely, to make it a more stylized work like that of the German Expressionists who in many respects followed Wedekind’s footsteps, perhaps this incoherence would be more forgivable. Unfortunately, the original text of “Spring Awakening” never seemed to leave the uncomfortable no-man’s land between stylization, with its unlikely and even ridiculous dramatic development and climax, and realism, with its reliance on the subtlety of character performance for its emotional effect. A more interventionist interpretation on baus’s part would have been compelled to depart significantly, and perhaps fundamentally, from the original work.
Artistic freedom is a generally accepted good, and few would advocate a return to archaic obscenity laws. However, it is an unhappy state of affairs when “free” art is as bad or worse than “unfree” art, a state of affairs that raises the question of whether or not an art piece is worthy of praise and celebration solely because it champions freedom. In the case of “Spring Awakening,” which fell flat in spite of a deft treatment, one must be inclined to say that it is not.
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