Comiromantitragedy

As I’ve mentioned previously, I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Spring Awakening, the musical interpretation of a nineteenth century play by German writer Frank Wedekind. It won the Tony for Best Musical in 2007, and for good reason–it’s an amazing show. But I have to admit that it left me feeling a little bit off for some reason; it was hard to shake off the, for lack of a better word, dark and melancholy feeling that sort of settled over me throughout the entire performance. Another word I’ve used to describe the show is “creepy”, which is hardly illuminating. I think I might have isolated in part what makes the show so damn creepy, and while it rankles even after you leave the theater. (This discussion will probably be of no use to anyone who hasn’t seen but plans on seeing the play and doesn’t want to be spoiled. Just a warning.)

The show starts out like your typical adolescent coming-of-age comedy, for the most part, sort of like American Pie but everybody’s a bit younger. Sure, it’s taking place in 1891 in Germany, but whatevs, same diff. There’s masturbation humor and homoerotic subtext a la History Boys and Stiffler’s mom-type jokes and girl/boy meet-cutes, everything you could want in an adolescent Apotovian comedy, basically. The show opens with a funny scene between main female protagonist, fourteen-year-old Wendla Bergmann, and her mother, as Wendla begs to be informed finally where babies come from and her extremely agitated mother simply tells her that when a woman loves her husband, she becomes pregnant. Now, the contemporary feel of the play distracts you from the blatant irresponsibility of this act on the part of Wendla’s mother; my parents never explained sex to me, but I had sexual education in school and I watched television, so I got the message pretty quickly and way before I turned fourteen. But Wendla is a young woman in 1891 and all her girlfriends are just as clueless as she is–they literally have no other way to learn about sex but from the adult women in their lives, who refuse to teach them and thus leave them unprepared for real-life sexual situations that, I’m sorry, have existed since the beginning of human history, namely: TEENS ARE GOING TO HAVE SEX. Ignorance is not an obstacle to that fundamental condition.

This is problematic for several reasons, the biggest being that Wendla has sex without connecting it with the act of procreation; if she had known that was how babies were made, she probably wouldn’t have submitted to Malchior in the hayloft. Once she finds out she is pregnant, she reminds her mother that as far as she knew you could only get pregnant by loving your husband, and since Malchior is not her husband she figured she was pretty good on the contraception front. DUH. But I’m getting off topic. Here, an originally comic situation–parental discomfort with teen sexual curiosity and avoidance of the issue, which we see in a hundred sitcoms every year in some form or another–becomes a devastatingly tragic one when Wendla, completely clueless, has sex and gets pregnant and then ultimately (SPOILER! SERIOUSLY) dies from a botched abortion.

Another example of this is the relationship between Wendla and Malchior. Here, we have another typical teen comedy set-up: the smart, secretly sensitive radical falls in love with the sweet, mousy virgin, and vice versa, but forces–parents, teachers, various other teen dramas–conspire to keep them apart. Except that, almost from the beginning, the relationship is tinged with–and then drowned by–darkness, because Malchior and especially Wendla misinterpret sexual and romantic longing and the desire to feel something translates into a violent encounter where Wendla begs Malchior to beat her and Malchior becomes exceedingly aggressive. Though Wendla and Malchior eventually have what appears to be relatively tender (though awkward) sex later, the fact that Malchior knows about sex and its physical consequences (although he, like Wendla, must be ignorant of the social and emotional ramifications of having sex at such a young age) and Wendla so obviously does not makes the scene seem, if you think about it, a little bit like rape. At least, a sort of taking advantage, since if Wendla knew she could get pregnant from having sex with Malchior she probably wouldn’t have done it. And, indeed, in the original Wedekind play Malchior does explicitly rape Wendla, but of course they dialed it down a bit for Broadway audiences. So, what is first a romance fit for a teen chick flick becomes much darker and more tragic, especially after Wendla dies.

What I meant to point out about all this is that Spring Awakening is able to effect an emotional resonance by taking the audience’s expectations based on reasonable indicators of tone and content presented early in the show and completely subverting them. Light comedy and sweet romance are transformed into haunting, angry tragedy when the characters start connecting sex with violence and never look back. It’s an interesting–and effective–narrative strategy that, I think, comes from a narrowing of perspective, like, it’s all masturbation jokes and hot for teacher fantasies until you start examining individual relationships and the dark underbelly of sexual exploitation. I don’t have much to say about it other than I think it’s cool that they’re able to so flawlessly cause that effect, and that they manage to say something really meaningful in the process.

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