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.

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 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.”

Benjamin Franklin Wedekind was neither pornographer nor polemicist. He was a dramatic revolutionary who threw over bathetic Neo-Romanticism and plodding Realism, which he disdained as glorified stenography; its writers, one of his characters notes, would in the future “earn their living as members of the secret police.” His fragmented narratives and caroming subjectivities presaged Expressionism and the Theater of the Absurd. Brecht worshiped, and imitated, him.

Like his work, and his era–martial, imperialist Germany, where a radical artistic and sexual counterculture flourished–Wedekind was a man of prodigious political and sexual contradiction.

Born in 1864 to erstwhile expatriates who never firmly established their son’s citizenship, he was a naturalized cosmopolitan. Yet this lifelong leftist and pacifist, once jailed for lèse-majesté, later mystified and enraged his friends by delivering a widely circulated speech glorifying the Fatherland.

He embraced the margins, befriending circus acrobats, clowns and strongmen, who throughout his oeuvre symbolize daring, eccentricity and wild humor, as well as “elasticity,” a joyfully free balance of spirit and body that described his ideal of sexuality. In Paris, Zurich and Munich, he delighted the bohemian with art forms from bird imitation to lute songs and appalled the bourgeois with performances featuring onstage urination and masturbation. Censorship demoralized and impoverished him, but it also secured his reputation for innovation and integrity. Spring Awakening and, later, the Lulu plays (from whence came the Berg opera and Pabst film) made him famous–but acclaim seemed to dull him. Trotsky sarcastically sympathized. “That is the tragedy of success,” he wrote. “It shows the author that people are no longer afraid of him.” As if to re-establish his street cred, in 1910 Wedekind wrote Schloss Wetterstein, a theatrical precursor of the snuff film, which disgusted supporters and foes alike. Finally accepted by the bourgeoisie, he needed to remain the épateur.

Sex was Wedekind’s subject, his cause and his vexation, and the vexation of his interpreters. An acute critic of the economic and sexual exploitation of women, he nonetheless scorned the feminist movement, and his diaries are a compendium of assignations with prostitutes. He fancied himself a satyr, yet he was plagued by impotence. One striking exception was a three-day one-man orgy involving a vision inspired by Kraftt-Ebbing, of prepubescent girls walking on their hands, catching bills between their legs, taking “kindly encouragement” from “a slender switch,” then bedding down with the family dogs. He mused about a similar regime to “educate” his own future daughters. Yet Spring Awakening is as sensitive a cry for children’s sexual rights as any in history.

He detested conventional marriage, as modeled by an authoritarian father who married a beautiful, free-spirited singer half his age, then made her relinquish her career and moved the family to a remote Swiss hillside. Yet Wedekind married the beautiful, free-spirited actress Tilly Newes, also half his age, then forbade her to take the stage with anyone but him. He fathered a baby with Strindberg’s wife, and according to Tilly was uninterested in marital sex, yet he tormented her with unwarranted jealousy.

In his work, women are masochistic and cruel, victims and femmes fatales–sometimes, like Lulu, all of the above. His “elasticity,” though an androgynous utopian ideal, was a feminine attribute, incompatible with the single-minded aggression of masculine sexuality, argues Gerald Izenberg in Modernism and Masculinity. This created a problem not only for the intimate Wedekind but for his characters as well. In Spring Awakening, writes German drama scholar Elizabeth Boa, “Moritz, a ‘feminine’ type weighed down by his father’s demands, likes to imagine the greater pleasure girls must feel in their passivity during sexual intercourse as they are forced to submit to what is wrong, and finally punishes himself in a grim coalescence of masculine sadism and feminine masochism.”

Wedekind was ahead of his time and of it, a sex radical but never a gender radical.

Today, the notion that children are harmed by sex, and even images of sex, is virtually unchallenged in American culture. Sex law obliterates the meaning of the word “child”: The definition includes everyone from infants to college freshmen, and penalties for breaching the boundary are draconian. Michael Mayer labored for six years to find Spring Awakening a home. One of his producers worried that young actors simulating sex onstage might get them all arrested on child-porn charges. And an educated theatergoer wondered whether a rock musical about teen sex was OK for minors to see.

Without introducing anachronism, Sater and Mayer excise some of Spring Awakening‘s hoarier gender formulations. In the original, only the boys are horny. Most disturbing, Melchior rapes Wendla. Now that interaction is more ambiguous. Melchior caresses Wendla, and while struggling and crying “No” she has an orgasm. As the pivotal character, Mayer told me, Melchior had to be sympathetic. So, where Wedekind wrote him as dogmatically opposed to love, here he is smitten. “You have to honor the period,” Mayer said, “but we wanted to show it’s possible for kids to have an intimate experience together that isn’t just hurtful. And girls can have desire, as inchoate as it may be.”

These collaborators have considerably brightened the mood of Wedekind’s play. Yet, as in the original, the humor is sardonic, and sadomasochism threads the narrative. The courtship of Melchior and Wendla begins with singing: “O, I’m gonna be wounded; O, I’m gonna be your wound./O, I’m gonna bruise you; O, you’re gonna be my bruise.” Later, the lyric becomes literal. Revealing, with a kind of eroticized horror, that their friend Martha is beaten by her father, Wendla begs Melchior to cane her with a switch: “I’ve never felt…anything!” she implores, eliciting in him an unexpected violence. The wound song is reprised by a gay boy warning, while moving in on, his prey. And the writers add a new scene of sexualized humiliation.

The source of the characters’ pain, though, is not only Victorian repression. Indeed, among the greatest virtue of this Spring Awakening is its rendering of the perversity at the heart of teen sexuality. After all, the unhappy ending defines teen romance. No less than the desire for a transporting pleasure, Wedekind’s adolescents are compelled by the voluptuous anticipation of sadness.

Although Wedekind had written that Spring Awakening was meant to indict sexual hypocrisy, by 1911 its reception as a “problem play” irked him. Never mind the subtitle, “A Tragedy of Childhood”; the play, he declared, was a comedy. Playwright and drama critic Eric Bentley observed that audiences looking for the “message” miss both the comedy, stemming from “Wedekind’s lively sense of Eros,” and the tragedy, from his “equally powerful sense of the ubiquity and inevitability of (premature) death.” Mayer and Sater preserve both. And for all its exuberant humor, even sweetness, Spring Awakening never suggests that sex education or good parenting would render sex wholesome, easy or free of the gnarled pleasures of pain. The war between and simultaneous collusion of Eros and Thanatos endure.

As if by contagion, Broadway tends to banalize almost anything challenging that makes it above 42nd Street. But I don’t think that will happen to Spring Awakening. Sater, Mayer, Sheik and Jones have given us the play not just exhilaratingly new. They have given us Wedekind true: tough, brave, enduringly radical.