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After a Saturday matinee during the Off Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater in July, the audience was "talking back" about the sexual politics of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening. The play--now at the Eugene O'Neill Theater on West 49th Street--concerns the calamitous consequences of adult-enforced silence and shame on a group of provincial German teenagers first discovering their sexual desires. Wendla dies during an abortion. Moritz shoots himself when he fails his final exams. And Melchior--the sort of boy who excels in the classroom while gleaning the glamour of rebelling against all he's being taught--survives, but only after punishment and grief have taken their toll.

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The audience was congratulating itself on its sophistication. "You couldn't stage this in Dubuque," one gentleman sniffed. He wasn't far off. As recently as 1991, Boise's Idaho Shakespeare Festival canceled Spring Awakening over a nude scene the director refused to excise. No gratuitous nudity here, but Michael Mayer's straight-ahead direction of masturbation, sadomasochism and homosexuality, Steven Sater's sometimes profane poetry to Duncan Sheik's punkish--and loud--music and the angular, moshlike choreography of Bill T. Jones recharge the discomfort, even shock, the piece evoked at its first performances.

Such anxiety isn't exclusive to the boonies or the bad old days, though. That afternoon, a woman asked of the guests onstage, "Do you think this play is appropriate for minors?" On the website broadwaybox.com viewers raved, but all but one recommended the play for Adults Only. A curious attitude, given that Wedekind's protagonists are 14 years old.

Spring Awakening is like adolescent sex itself: It mirrors each era's terrors and hopes, its ideas of childhood and maturity, innocence and evil. Instantly banned from the stage on publication in 1891, it was not performed until 1906. Then, Max Reinhardt's striking production received a lengthy run and attracted, along with geshreis from the predictably scandalized, the adulation of critics from Thomas Mann to Leon Trotsky, who otherwise had no use for Wedekind's "social nihilism" and "erotic aestheticism." But the text was always served up sliced and diced.

The first American English-language production, in 1917, was smuggled onstage under cover of health promotion. The sponsor was the Medical Review of Reviews, a publication of an organization of progressive New York doctors and reformers. But the censors shut it down anyway, on the grounds that some minors might sneak past the ticket-takers, depriving parents of the opportunity to introduce them to sex through a "less turgid channel of education." In 1964 the British National Theatre's literary manager, drama critic Kenneth Tynan, battled the Lord Chamberlain over two scenes the censor wanted excised. Tynan and the censor reached some compromises, but the theater's own board nevertheless banned the play. "Board censorship intolerable," director John Dexter telegrammed, and offered his resignation. As late as 1973, a British scholar complained that "current editions still...rather prudishly only give the initial letters of 'Penis' and 'Vagina.'"

Spring Awakening was finally staged uncut in English in 1974. History had prepared the ground--this was the height of the sexual revolution--but it muffled the play's landing. London's critics generally admired Edward Bond's faithful, elegant translation. But they met the play's sexual shenanigans with a general ho-hum. One reviewer suggested that Wedekind, "a powerful ironist [and] acute psychologist," employed "the sexual taboo as a symbol for other forms of repression," such as paternalistic religion. Writing in the Soho Weekly News in 1978, of a Public Theater staging, Gerald Rabkin made a similar observation. He credited Wedekind with no less than creating "the model of a youth culture, adolescence as a distinctly defined, victimized class," then wondered if it "was almost too influential": The play suffered "the inevitable fate of innovation: it seems old hat."

This hat wasn't quite ready for mothballs, though. A misreading of the same production foreshadowed the culture wars that would reawaken Spring Awakening to controversy. "As much as the play reflects on its own time," wrote the New York Voice's Marjorie Gunner, "it also points to its opposite, today's total freedom, exchanging loss of innocence for loss of values." (To Wedekind, sexual freedom was a positive value, almost synonymous with utopian innocence. "The body," he wrote, "has its own morality.")

Soon, silence would again equal death. AIDS, a Guardian reviewer declared in 1986, invested Spring Awakening "with a new potency." Six years later, the Evening Standard warned that the Christian right was promoting the same program as the benighted parents and teachers in the play, making it "essential viewing."

But the same politics that perennially revive Spring Awakening can also bury it. Back in Boise, the members of the Shakespeare Festival board were not simply prudes. A city statute prohibited public nudity in a venue that sold alcoholic beverages, which the festival did. The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center's costly, bruising fight over its Mapplethorpe exhibition had ended only a year earlier. Arts administrators nationwide feared that risky work could put them under.

Through it all, Spring Awakening has never failed to inspire a passionate cheerleading section of sex-ed advocates. Emma Goldman condemned detractors who "could see naught in Wedekind except a base, perverted, almost diabolical nature." Rather, the anarchist feminist discerned "a sensitive soul, deeply stirred by the...misery and torture of the child...sacrificed on the altar of stupidity and convention which taboo [his] enlightenment...on questions of such elemental importance to health and well-being." The Berlin judge who rescinded the ban did so on the basis of similar reasoning, minus the "stupidity and convention": He deemed the work respectable not because of artistic merit but because "it deals with serious educational issues." That verdict, "not guilty by virtue of edification," has buoyed--or cumbered--Spring Awakening to this day. In a recent interview for Planned Parenthood's Choice magazine, a reporter commented to producer Tom Hulce, "In a lot of ways, the teens in the play could have used Planned Parenthood, particularly the education [it] provides around sexual decision-making and prevention."

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