Monday, June 1, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "An Audience of the Deaf and Blind" (on Frank Wedekind's play, adapted by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik)

an audience of the deaf and blind

by Douglas Messerli

Steven Sater (Book and lyrics, based on a play by Frank Wedekind), Duncan Sheik (music) Spring Awakening / the performance I attended was on May 30, 2015 at the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California

Just a six years before Marsden Hartley’s visit to Berlin, another American-born artist, Benjamin Franklin Wedekind (better known to his German audiences as Frank Wedekind) was attending the first performance in Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater of the drama he had wrritten between 1890 and 1891, Frühlings Erwachen (best translated as Spring Awakening). A few years later, in 1917, this “children’s tragedy” was performed, although threatened by closure for immorality, in New York; finally, after a court trial, it was permitted to be performed before a limited audience for a single performance.

      Indeed throughout most of its existence through the rest of the 20th century, Wedekind’s homily to bourgeois society was threatened with censorship and closings. As late as 1962 the play, performed in England, was threatened with closure, and was allowed a run of only two nights in censored form. It was not until Joseph Papp’s 1978 production that the play actually became available on stage to the American public. And it was not until the early 21st century production of a musical version in 2006, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, that the play actually received the attention it might have over 100 years earlier—if only the sexually terrified parents it hectored had been able to remember their own youths.

     Yet even the other day, so The New York Times reported a high school teacher in Connecticut was fired for attempting to explain to a student the sexual meanings of a sexually explicit poem by Allen Ginsberg. Is it any wonder that this parent’s throughout modern history have been terrified by a story, involving young teenagers, that portrays the inability of the older generation to talk about sexuality and the younger generations’ encounters with detailed sexual explications, physical and sexual abuse (emanating from both parents and peers), incest, masturbation, rape, homosexuality, sadomasochist behavior, suicide, and abortion? The play may be, as the august The New York Times argued in 1955, an “old-fashioned sermon,” but it certainly did not feel like an out-dated play of ideas in the Deaf West Theatre production Howard Fox and I attended the other day at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. If anything the work seemed as relevant to today’s hormone-charged teenagers that ever before, particularly given the fact that we all now recognize that the angst of young high-schoolers includes not only the age-old issues described above, but difficulties with gender identification and terrifying diseases such as AIDS, as well as drugs of every imaginable kind.

     Wedekind, who’d had personal experience, so his journals have since revealed, with nearly all of these “unspoken” dilemmas of youth, might also have introduced the subject of syphilis, prostitution, and pathological jealousy—all of with which he’d been involved beside the subjects he brought up in his play—but that is not truly the issue here. Our children, whether we want to believe it or not, are daily faced with conundrums which they cannot fully comprehend and with which many adults are completely uncomfortable speaking about. If there was ever a full definition of the “generational gap,” Spring Awakening speaks it and underlines it in bold strokes.

      Certainly there are problems with this play, both the original—which is often fussy and fustian both in parent’s and teacher’s Calvinist and Lutheran pronunciamentos against anything to do with the body in word and thought—but also with the more spirited musical, which presents songs of the three-tone variety, jingles that, at times, seem more comfortable at a high-pitched commercial simplicity than in exploring either tonally or lyrically the more profound implications of the play’s and character’s problems. There are moments, surely, when Slater, as lyricist, does truly attempt to get to the deeper urges and complications of his youth’s sexual feelings, as in “The World of Your Body”


                                         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
And in the openly rebellious sing-along, the students, led by their intellectually superior Melchior (a charming Austin McKenszie) speaks out:

                                       There's a moment you know
                                       You're fucked
                                       Not an inch more room
                                       To self destruct

                                       No more moves, oh, yeah
                                       The dead end zone
                                       Man, you just can't call
                                       Your soul your own

    Yet, for the most part, the Slater-Sheik score simply reiterates the ideals of a young people blinded by their generations’ simplistic beliefs, but also filled with the absolute openness of young people who simply cannot imagine (fortunately) all the horrors in the life ahead they will have to face:

                                      I believe

                                      I believe

                                      I believe
                                      Oh, I believe
                                      There is love in Heaven

                                     I believe
                                     I believe
                                     I believe
                                     Oh, I believe
                                     There is love in Heaven

I suppose that in a world where you’re not permitted to believe in love on earth, Heaven is a great alternative, but it precisely that lack of imagination which resulted, as we know in hindsight, in this same generation’s terrible fates in World War I, and the their children’s children in World War II. 
     And even in this relatively abandoned expression of the testosterone-driven boys and girls, Sater and Sheik have felt the need to tone down Wedekind’s honest shrieks against bourgeois notions of correctness, shifting Melchior’s rape of his beloved Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank/voiced by Katie Boeck) to confusing give-and-take between the sexes, behavior which, as I’ve described elsewhere, as encouraging males—at least of my generation—to close their ears to female protests.

     But the real villains of both Wedekind’s original play and this musical concoction remain the very audience attending the performance, whether we be truly parents (or, as my own case, complacent adults who have not had to deal the terrifying joyful experience of parenthood). And that fact makes Wedekind’s work a kind of painfully tearful reunion with reality, with the confusion, longings, and impossible dreams we all had as youths, now so terribly unfulfilled and forgotten. Wedekind’s play, accordingly, no matter how fully we realize its truths, can never be a truly pleasant experience for the elders who might bother to attend the theater event. These young people (even when they are a bit older than the characters they play) will always be a reminder of our own failures, a truth the deaf theater performers made even more poignant, by madly signing the words they expressed to an audience that was not only deaf to their metaphorical pains, perhaps, but primarily blind to what they were trying to tell us.

Los Angeles, June 1, 2015

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