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.