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Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)


German dramatist, poet, and short story writer, a forerunner of expressionism and the theatre of the absurd. Wedekind's most famous works include the two-part drama, Der Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904), originally written as a whole. Its amoral central character, the archetypal femme fatale Lulu, inspired George Pabst's expressionist film Pandora's Box (1929), starring the Hollywood actress Louise Brooks, and Alban Berg's unfinished opera Lulu.

Was schiert mich das Theater! Unsere kühne
Tagtäglichkeit erreicht's bekanntlich nie.
Das menschliche Gehirn sei meine Bühne,
Mein Lieblingsregisseur die Phantasie.

(in Die Büchse der Pandora)

Benjamin Franklin Wedekind was born in Hanover, the second of the six children born to Friedrich Wilhelm Wedekind, a physician, and Emilie Kammerer, a German singer and actress. During the early period of his life, Wedekind's father had served as physician to the Sultan of Turkey. A fierce democrat, he participated in the 1848 Revolution, and next year escaped to America, where he made a fortune in land speculation. In San Francisco he married Emilie; she was twenty-three years his junior. Two years later he returned to Germany, but disgusted by Bismarck's nationalist policies, he eventually emigrated with his family to Switzerland.

Wedekind grew up in Lenzburg, where his father had purchased a castle. A disappointed veteran of the revolution at that time, he disagreed with his wife's more liberal views and had became isolated from the rest of the family.  After having a serious clash with his father and actually striking him, Wedekind left home, assuming wrongly, that he would never be forgiven. In 1884 Wedekind entered the University of Lausanne, and then moved to the University of Munich. He studied law and literature, but abandoned his studies and took a job as a publicity agent for the Swiss soup company Maggi. Gerhart Hauptmann, the leading dramatist of his generation, portrayed in Friedensfest (1890) the Wedekind family as full of hatred and mistrust, revealing some strictly confidental details. Wedekind replied with a short play, which satirized Hauptmann's naturalist school of drama.

In Zürich Wedekind befriended the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. With Strindberg's wife Frida Uhl (1872-1943) he had an affair and as the result an illegitimate child in 1897. Their son, Friedrich Strindberg, became a journalist. During WWII he helped a number of Jews, who lived underground in Berlin. Wedekind's father died in 1888, and left him a sizable inheritance. For a period Wedekind worked as a secretary to a circus, the Herzog, before settling in Munich, his home until his death. The influence of circus art is seen in Wedekind's dramatic vision.

In Munich, the artistic and cultural centre of Germany around the turn of the century, Wedekind led a bohemian life. He also visited Paris and London, and in 1895 he traveled in Switzerland, where he gave readings from Ibsen's plays under the pseudonym Cornelius Minehaha. Wedekind's first full-length drama of importance, Frühlings Erwachen (1891, Spring's Awakening) appeard in book form in Zürich before it was produced by Max Reinhardt fifteen years later. It dealt with the theme of adolescent sexuality and had the reputation of being far too obscene to be performed. Although this poetic tragedy did not completely break with naturalism, the last act in which one of the characters rises from grave carrying his head under his arm, inviting the hero to join him in death, demonstrated Wedekind's growing interest in grotesque and fantastic. This work, in which the fourteen-year-old girl is killed by abortion pills, created a scandal and marked the beginning of Wedekind's many struggles with censorship and accusations of pornography. The play had its first uncencored production in English in 1974.

Wedekind was a cofounder of the satirical journal Simplicissimus. Accused of lèse majesté for an article in which he had ridiculed Kaiser Wilhelm II's journey to Palestine, Wedekind fled abroad for a short period. Upon his return to Germany, Wedekind was imprisoned for six months in the fortress of Köningstein, where he wrote the story 'Minehaha'. König Nicolo, oder So ist das Leben (1911), was written in the aftermath of his prison sentence, but not produced until 1919. Oaha, die Satire der Satire (1908) was a comedy drawing on Wedekind's experiences with Simplicissimus.

During the carnival of 1901, Wedekind paraded with artists, students, actors, and writers through the streets, denouncing the censorship. Eleven of the demonstrators established a cabaret called Die 11 Scarfrichter (the Eleven Executioners), where Wedekind performed his own poems, accompanying himself on a lute. However, the star of the cabaret was Marya Delvard. One of her popular songs, written by Wedekind, was about a young girl, who concludes melancholically: "When I no longer rouse desire, / Well, then I might as well be dead." Cabaretistic elements became an integral part of his plays, which drew on pantomime, circus, funfair, vaudeville, grand-guignol. Wedekind's tragicomedies, in turn, had an influence on Expressionism, Dadaism, Brecht, and the theatre of absurd.

Wedekind's central themes are moral hypocrisy and sexual freedom. Like Freud, or later D.H. Lawrence in Britain, Wedekind saw that there is a profound conflict between human sexuality and the pressures and requirements of society. Thus he set out to liberate instincts from the constraints of rational Self. In his later dramas Wedekind dealt with suffering, religion, and ethical problems. These works have not enjoyed similar appreciation as his Lulu cycle and Der Marquis von Keith (1900), about a zestful opportunist, who pretends to be a a wealthy marquis, and his tutelage, a young idealist. Wedekind himself acted in his stage productions, and in this play he had the role of the swindler.

Wedekind reworked the so-called Lulu plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box), several times. Together they made up ein Monstretragödie (a monster tragedy). Erdgeist was first produced in Leipzig in 1898, with Leonie Taliansky as Lulu and Wedekind as Dr Schön, who rescued the young Lulu from street life. The last two acts of the original Lulu play plus one new act was produced in 1905 under the title Pandora's Box. On the stage Wedekind often collaborated with the actress Tilly Newes, whom he married in 1906.  She  met him when she was nineteen. They acted together in Pandora's Box in Vienna at a private performance - Tilly played Lulu, but this time Wedekind took the role of Jack the Ripper, and the writer Karl Kraus  played Kung Poti. Mostly due to Wedekind's jealousy, the  marriage was stormy and disturbed. He was twenty years her senior and reacted to her as if she were the real Lulu, though she submitted to his every demand.  Wedekind also forced Tilly to give up her independent acting contract.

Tilly's father once noted, "Frank can't be surprised about anything, he has married Lulu, after all." Moreover, Wedekind's son wrote a play in which a son falls in love with his father's young wife. In 1917 Tilly tried to commit suicide, just a few month's before her husband's death. "Clear, precise voice of the woman," wrote Franz Kafka on Tilly in his diary after seeing Der Erdgeist in 1912. "Narrow, crescent-shaped face. The lower part of the leg branching off to the lefet when she stood quietly." Wedekind died in Munich on March 9, 1918. A crowd of prostitutes, his fans, also attended the funeral. During the Nazi period, his works were forbidden. Wedekind's diary, Die Tagebücher: ein erotisches Leben, was published in 1986.

Wedekind's uncompromising plays, full of rebellious energy, have always fascinated new generations of directors and actors, amongst others in Finland, where Lulu was successfully staged in 2006 by the students of The Theatre Academy. Wedekind's stock of characters vary from pillars of society to prostitutes, outcasts, beggars, and criminals. The most famous creation, Lulu, falls from the heights of society into poverty and prostitution. She is a force of nature, a wild, beautiful beast, the embodiment of pure female sexuality, who destroys weak men around her until she meets her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. "She was created to stir up great disaster," said Wedekind of Lulu. At a lecture in May 1905, Karl Kraus remarked, that she became the destroyer of all, because she was destroyed by all.

The main reason why the Lulu plays were divided into two separate works was that the last two acts involved lesbianism and prostitution, which were at that time too touchy subjects for the stage. In Pabst's silent film Lulu has spirit and dignity, she is not mean. At the end her death suggest a salvation; basically she is the victim of weak men. The original running time of Pabst's film was 131 minutes. In Britain the scene between Lulu and the lesbian Countess Geschwitz at Lulu's wedding was cut.

Alban Berg began compressed Lulu plays into a single musical work in 1929, which portrays the rise and fall of its protagonist in a symmetrically mirrored arch. Noteworthy, Berg had been in 1905 present at a performance of the second part of the drama, introduced by a lecture by Karl Kraus. The definitive version of Berg's  Die Büchse der Pandora did not premiere until 1979, because the composer's widow Helene Berg, a spiritualist, prevented the completion of her husband's work. At the time of his death in 1935, Berg had not finished the orchestration of Act III - the three-act version was put together by the Austrian composer Friedrich Čerha. This version premiered in Paris under Pierre Boulez. Berg's opera, influenced by Nietzsche's theory of "eternal return", is not a moral tale; also Berg do not condemn Lulu, who cannot help being the target of desires. Erik Bentley's The Wedekind Cabaret, based on the author's poems and songs, was published in 1993. Music was composed by William Bolcom, Arnold Black, and Peter Winkler.

For further reading: Frank Wedekind: Sein Leben und seine Werke by A Kutscher (1922-31); Frank Wedekind und das Theater by G. Seehaus (1964); Frank Wedekind by S. Gittleman (1969); Frank Wedekind by A Best (1975); The Sexual Circus: Frank Wedekind's Theater of Subversion by E. Boa (1987); The Ironic Dissident: Frank Wedekind in the View of his Critics by Ward B. Lewis (1997); The Elusive Transcendent: The Role of Religion in the Plays of Frank Wedekind by Fred Whalley (2002)

Selected works:

  • Der Schnellmaler; oder, Kunst und Mammon, 1889 (play, prod. 1916)
  • Kinder und Narren, 1891 (play, repub. as Junge Welt, 1897, prod. 1908)
  • Frühlings Erwachen, 1891 (play, prod. 1906- The Awakening of Spring (translated by Francis J. Ziegler, 1909) / Spring's Awakening (translated by Samuel A. Eliot, in Tragedies of Sex, 1923; Frances Fawcett and Stephen Spender, in Five Tragedies of Sex, 1952; Eric Bentley, 1960; Kenneth Nowell, 2006) / Spring Awakening (translated by Edward Bond, 1979; John Lonie, 1982; Ted Hughes, 1995; Jonathan Franzen, 2007; Douglas Maxwell, 2010; Ella Wildridge, 2010) - Films: 1924, dir. Jacob Fleck and Luise Fleck, starring Hertha Müller, Charles Willy Kayser; 1929, dir.  Richard Oswald; 1970, Warm in the Bud, dir.  Rudolph Caringi
  • Fritz Schwigerling, 1892 (repub. as Der Liebestrank, 1899) 
  • Der Erdgeist, 1895 (play, prod. 1898, repub. as Lulu, 1903) - Earth Spirit (tr.  S.A. Eliot, 1914) / Lulu (translated by Peter Barnes, 1970; Stephen Spender, in The Lulu Plays & Other Sex Tragedies, 1972;  Carl Richard Mueller, 1976; Louis Nowra, 1981; Angela Carter, 1988; Nicholas Wright, 2001; Steve Gooch, 1990; Adam Gwon, 2004; Courtney Phelps, 2004; Anna Ledwich, 2010) - Films: 1917, Lulu, dir. Alexander Antalffy, starring Erna Morena; 1919, Erdgift, dir.  Paul Otto; 1923, Erdgeist, dir.  Leopold Jessner, starring Asta Nielsen
  • Die Fürstin Russalka, 1897
  • Der Kammersänger, 1899 (play, prod.) - Heart of a Tenor (tr. 1913) / The Tenor (translated by Sidney Landes, 2007)
  • Die Liebestrank, 1899 (play, prod. 1900)
  • Die junge Welt, 1900
  • Der Marquis von Keith, 1901 (play, prod.) - The Marquis of Keith (translated by Beatrice Gottlieb, in From the Modern Repertoire, 1952; Carl Richard, in The Modern Theatre, 1964; Steve Gooch, 1990)
  • Mine-Haha; oder, Über die körperliche Erziehung der jüngen Mädchen, 1901 - Mine-Haha: or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (translated by Philip Ward, 2010) - Films: 2004, Innocence, dir.  Lucile Hadzihalilovic; 2005, The Fine Art of Love: Mine Ha-Ha, dir.  John Irvin
  • So ist der Leben, 1902 (play, prod.) - Such is Life (translated by Francis J. Ziegler, 1912)
  • Die Kaiserin von Neufundland, 1902 (pantomime, prod.) - The Empress of Newfoundland (translated by Anthony Vivis, 1982)
  • Karl Hetmann der Zwergriese, 1903
  • Die Büchse der Pandora: Eine Monstretragödie, 1904 (play, prod. 1899) - Pandora's Box (tr. 1918; Frances Fawcett and Stephen Spender, in Five Tragedies of Sex, 1952) / Frank Wedekind's The First Lulu (translated by Eric Bentley, 1994) - Films: 1921, dir.  Arzén von Cserépy; 1929, dir.  G.W. Pabst, from Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, scenario by Ladislaus Vajda and Joseph R. Fliesner, starring Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Götz, Alice Roberts, Daisy d'Ora, Kraft Raschig, Michael von Newlinsky, Siegfried Arno, Gustav Diessl, photography by Gunther Krampf, editor Joseph R. Fliesler, art direction Andrei Andreiev and Gottlieb Hersch; 1962, Lulu, from Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, dir.  Rolf Thiele, starring Nadja Tiller; 1978, Lulu, from The Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, dir.  Ronald Chase; 1980, Lulu, from Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, dir.  Walerian Borowczyk, starring Anne Bennent; 1995, As Feras, dir.  Walter Hugo Khouri; opera by Alban Berg, world premiere in 1937
  • Hidalla; oder, Sein und Haben, 1904 (play, prod. 1905, as Karl Hetmann, der Zwergriese, in Gesammelte Werke, 1913)
  • Die vier Jahrzeiten, 1905
  • Totentanz, 1905 (play, prod. 1906, repub. as Tod und Teufel, 1909) - Dead and Devil (translated by Frances Fawcett and Stephen Spender, in Five Tragedies of Sex, 1952)
  • Feuerwerk, 1906
  • Die Zensur, 1908 (play, prod. 1909)
  • Musik, 1908 (play, prod. 1908)  - Musik (translated by Neil Fleming, 2005)
  • Oaha, die Satire der Satire, 1908 (play, prod. 1911, as Till Eulenspiegel, 1916)
  • Der Stein der Weisen, 1909 (play, prod. 1911)
  • Schloüß Wetterstein, 1910 (play, prod. 1917) - Castle Wetterstein (translated by Frances Fawcett and Stephen Spender, in Five Tragedies of Sex, 1952)
  • In allen Sätteln gerecht, 1910 (play)
  • In allen Wassern gewaschen, 1910 (play)
  • Mit allen Hunden gehetzt, 1910 (play)
  • Schauspielkunst: Eine Glossarium, 1910
  • König Nicolo; oder, So its das Lebe, 1911 - Such Is Life (translated by Francis J. Ziegler, 1912) - Film 1919, dir. Paul Legband, cast: Max Adalbert, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Henry Bender, Paul Biensfeldt, Julius Falkenstein, Fritz Jessner, Edgar Klitzsch
  • Franziska, 1912 (play, prod.) - Franzisca (translated by Philip Ward; Eleanor Brown, 1998)
  • Simson; oder, Scam und Eifersucht, 1914 (play, prod.)
  • Felix und Galathea, 1914 (prod.)
  • Bismarck, 1916 (play, prod. 1926)
  • Till Eulenspiegel, 1916 (prod., revision of Oaha, die Satire der Satire)
  • Herakles, 1917 (play, prod. 1919)
  • Überfürchtenichts, 1917 (play, prod. 1919)
  • Elins Erweckung, 1919 (prod.)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1919-20
  • Lautenlieder, 1920
  • Das Sonnen spektrum, 1922 (play) - The Solar Spectrum (translated by D. Faehl and E. Vaughn, 1959)
  • Ein Genussmensch, 1924 (play, edited by Fritz Strich)
  • Gesammelte Briefe, 1924 (2 vols., edited by Fritz Strich)
  • Ausgewählte Werke, 1924 (5 vols., edited by Fritz Strich)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1924 (9 vols.)
  • Five Tragedies of Sex, 1952 (translated by F. Fawcett and S. Spender)
  • Prosa, Dramen, Verse, 1954, 1964 (2 vols., edited by Hans-George Maier)
  • Selbstdarstellung, 1954 (edited by Willi Reich)
  • The Lulu Plays, 1967 (translated by C.R. Mueller)
  • Ich hab mein Tante geschlachtet: Lautenlieder und "Simplizissimus"-Gedichte, 1967 (edited by Manfred Hahn)
  • Werke, 1969 (3 vols., edited by Manfred Hahn)
  • Der vernummte Herr: Briefe 1881-1917, 1967 (edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch)
  • The Lulu Plays and Other Sex Tragedies, 1972 (translated by S. Spender)
  • Die Tagebücher: ein erotisches Leben, 1986 (edited by Gerhard Hay) - Diary of an Erotic Life (translated by W.E. Yuill, 1990)
  • Werke, 1990 (edited by Erhard Weidl)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 2003- (10 vols., edited byWalter Schmitz and Uwe Schneider)
  • Briefwechsel: 1903 bis 1917, 2007 (edited by Mirko Nottscheid)

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