The Censorship of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening

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Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play Spring Awakening – which follows a group of young German teens who struggle through their newly discovered sexual feelings without any guidance from their parents, which proves to be fatal for some characters – was subject to censorship for practically a century. It was being banned from being performed in Germany until 1906. It did not receive its first English performance in the U.S. until 1917, to which the city’s Commissioner of Licenses threatened it with closure as he claimed it was too pornographic. Then in England in 1963, it was performed for two nights only under heavy censorship. Even the popular 2006 musical adaptation by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater  – whose staging includes partial nudity – eventually came out with a heavily edited school edition of the show that still causes controversy when it’s performed by colleges and even some high schools.

Due to its suggestive themes like rape, suicide, prostitution, homosexuality and abortion, many may agree with art being censored when it deals with subjects like this – especially when it’s through young characters like those in Spring Awakening. But, in my personal opinion, I believe that a play like Spring Awakening  should never be censored or edited. I can understand why these subjects could possibly be triggering or conflict with an audience member’s moral values. And I do think it’s important to keep performances of Spring Awakening marketed toward its target audience: teens and young adults. But obviously, not every audience member will find these themes as sensitive as some might. Because of this, I don’t feel that censorship does the play’s message any good.

The play’s events are meant to be a cautionary tale to its audience; it’s a story of what can go wrong when there is a lack of communication between parent and child. By censoring scenes that involve rape or violence, you’re doing exactly what the play warns against: being honest and upfront about the truth to children who are coming of age. The same can be said for editing, which is arguably even worse than simply censoring a rape scene versus taking it out altogether. It’s not the play’s responsibility to make you feel comfortable, it’s supposed to do the opposite. That is the genius behind Wedekind’s play, it forces you to step out of your bubble of safety and confront what makes you uncomfortable and consider it – and you how deal with it in your own life.

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John Gallagher Jr., Jonathan Groff (center), and Lea Michele in a scene from the 2006 musical adaption of Spring Awakening.

Spring Awakening represents a worst case scenario – how the censoring of content that could be seen as offensive, suggestive, or controversial can kill, if it goes on for too long. While Spring Awakening is only one example of censorship in theatre, there are many others. And if censorship in theatre and other art forms continues, its negative effects on impressionable audiences could be felt sooner than we seemingly thought.


What do you think about the censorship of Spring Awakening or other similar works? Share with me in the comments!