Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Society’s varied and opposing attitudes toward sex are at the heart of Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening,” performed this weekend in the Pearson-Hall Theater in LPAC. The play was originally published in 1891 in Germany, but the premiere was delayed until 1906 due to its scandalous content, which include rape, suicide, and an abortion–all in the lives of fourteen year olds.
The K. Elizabeth Stevens directed performance made use of a translation of the text by Jonathan Franzen ’81. On Saturday night, Franzen attended the performance and led a question and answer session after the show.
The play still strikes a strange middle ground between dark comedy, horror, and tragic social commentary one hundred years later. The story of teenagers lost in their own confusion about sex and schoolwork, it was impressively performed by a cast sensitive both to Wedekind’s interests in an extreme, caricatured circus-performance and the intensity of the subject matter.
Niccolo Moretti’s ’10 Melchior, the central character, remained pensive and conflicted throughout, like a guilt-ridden Hamlet, continually straddling between society’s norms and nature’s realities. His friend and occasional foil, Moritz, played by Arthur Chu ’07, bounced from an impossibly idealized world to a much darker extreme of despair and tormented self-loathing. Cara Arcuni ’09 and Anne Kolker ’08 played Wendla on alternate performances, and both gave heart-breaking performances of a girl punished by society’s refusal to teach her about sex. The entire cast portrayed characters wandering amidst questions of morality, mortality, and freedom with a totally unforced and moving pace.
The set and costumes were a blend of old and new. The performers were dressed in clothes harkening back to nineteenth century dress with bold and colorfully accented eye makeup, calling attention simultaneously to their position as performers and creating at times dramatically exaggerated profile effects.
The set was a decaying bathroom, which set designer Marsha Ginsberg explained was based on a “Jewish girls’ school in Berlin.” The cast also pointed out graffiti on the bathroom doors. This bathroom was lit in what always seemed to recall either twilight or dawn, and it would appear stark and institutional one minute, worn and familiar the next.
The intimacy and immediacy of the action was also heightened by the creation of bleacher seating on the jutting-out portion of the stage, placing the audience at the same level as the action and significantly closer to the performers than in LPAC’s normal seating arrangement.
During the question and answer session with Jonathan Franzen, Professor Allen Kuharski of the Theater Department suggested that “there’s a link between acting and translation… they’re both working in relation to another text but they’re also very much their own thing.”
Franzen rejoined that “almost everything seems easier than being an actor.” When asked about the process of translation, he said, “it helps to love the work… my German professor George Avery said it was wonderful, and it’s an unbelievably funny and rich and wonderful play.” According to Franzen, Avery’s highest compliment for literature was “It’s insane! It’s crazy!” Franzen’s personal favorite scene is the one where Melchior is asking Wendla why she likes to visit poor people, since “they’re talking past each other.”
Franzen continued, “it’s a hard play to translate because of condensed language… Germans can get away with a certain kind of abstraction and inversion of word order.” He said that in his opinion there have been many bad translations, some of which “impose a tendentious reading on the play and make a translation from that narrow reading of its meaning.”
He’s also read translations that “despair over translating comically complicated sentences… it’s easy to make a translation that’s hard to speak out loud, or you might downplay the humor.” Some translators “don’t know the language as well as we should.” He gave the example of the word “Plump” in German, which is tempting to translate as “plump” in English, but which should actually be given as “scrawny.”
Franzen has seen the Broadway musical and “didn’t like it… it’s unbelievably sentimental and does violence to the original. Everything’s much more literal and less rough.”
Other members of the cast and staff also expressed their feelings about the play. Director Stevens said that she loves the play because “I’m fond of things that keep shifting tone so you don’t know whether to laugh or cry… life is like that.” She also says that it “seems shockingly modern… it doesn’t diminish the teenage experience.” On this note, Franzen pointed out that Wedekind was twenty-six when he wrote the play, and that “a fourteen-year-old can’t write a play about the misery of being fourteen… it’s very sympathetic but it also makes fun of them. You really have to be old enough to have perspective.”
The cast unanimously agreed that it was easy to play awkward fourteen-year-olds because “none of us are really past that stage,” and also because Swarthmore has a lot of awkward people to emulate, and Franzen singled out Chu in particular for his exceptional acting. Chu explained, “I actually am Moritz… I am somewhat more at peace with my own masculine stirrings, but many of those experiences were me last year or a few months ago… that retreat into your own head is a very college thing.”