19th Century Problems in a 21st Century World: My Take on "Spring Awakening"

Image via SMU Daily Campus


On Thursday, September 27, I dashed from Hughes Trigg through the “autumn” dusk - let’s be real, it’s not fall yet; this is Texas - to Meadows. Breathlessly I had entered the foyer of Greer Garson Theatre, noticed that my bold red-and-gold Chiefs sweatshirt clashed with the decidedly more dressed-up masses, went up to the counter and purchased a ticket. Eventually I found my seat and eagerly waited for the lights to dim, signaling the start of our theater program’s latest feature - “Spring Awakening.”

Going into the experience, I was not sure what to expect. I knew that the Tony-winning musical was known for explicit content concerning teenage sexuality, but to what extent this was displayed on stage remained unknown. I quickly found out that it was, in fact, all quite fully portrayed for the viewer to see. As a person who errs to more conservative habits and ideologies, it was at times shocking to see what acts were portrayed on stage. Subjects such as sex and sexuality, physical and sexual abuse, suicide and questioning of religious thought were abound within the play. It was some pretty contentious stuff. However, the best part of it all was knowing that the musical was based off an earlier work written by Frank Wedekind in the latter part of the 19th century.

Although the overarching theme can be interpreted as the disastrous aftermath of when teens lack the knowledge of sex education, there is a certain irony in realizing that many of today’s hot topics are specifically parallel to the issues brought up by a man living in a sexually repressed and barely post-Industrialist era Germany. And, as I watched the plot unfold - performed by the absolutely amazing SMU theatre program - I started making connections between the characters and the present-day movements they symbolized. The situations of Ilse and and Martha, for instance, were reflective of the #MeToo movement and the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse that is, unfortunately, very present in modern society. What’s more is that the two characters show the two narrow paths that survivors are often forced to choose between: speak out and face what happens next, as is portrayed by Ilse, or try to hide it and deal with the possibility of future abuse, as Martha does.

The suicide of Mortiz is a powerful reminder of how bullying, neglect and the external pressures of societal expectations can utterly destroy a person and their mental health when they lack a strong support system of both peers and adults. Similarly, Wendla’s extramarital pregnancy, forced illegal abortion and death - caused by her mother’s desire to keep her ignorant to the causes and results of her reproductive abilities - are similar to arguments today concerning the advocacy of Planned Parenthood, bodily autonomy and the importance of being able to have an open conversation concerning sex and sex education.

The idea of acceptance in general was a major element of the musical, and in this aspect I thought there were some slight differences. In the arena of sexual identity there has been some progress in terms of acceptance of genders and orientations that are outside of the historical norm. With the legalization of gay marriage under the Obama administration coupled with gradually increasing support for the entirety of the LGBTQ community, there is now a greater degree of sexual freedom to the point that relationships such as Ernst and Han’s need not be as forbidden or obscured. As a Christian, Melchior’s atheism was another interesting segue into current events. Religious beliefs, specifically prejudice towards Islam and the Catholic church in today’s world, are likely to be contested indefinitely. However from an objective standpoint overall acceptance of a variety of faith systems has increased within the past century. That’s not to say that there is not still judgment in the world - these are still topics of contention; but compared to 19th century Germany there has been a definite change in the perception of varying orientations and beliefs.

With a rock soundtrack, bits of humor and the significance of love and friendship woven between the more macabre focal points, SMU’s performance of “Spring Awakening” was entertaining to say the least. The fact that anyone who watches this show can see how a writer in the 19th century embodies essentially all of the topics that continue to be in the forefront of people’s minds today reveals that now more than ever we need to find ways to change, not reinforce, the cycles of the past. No matter your opinion of the subject matter and its portrayal, the show is a definite must-see either at SMU, on Broadway, or in community theatre - if only to serve as an inspiration for change.