Read CHAPTER VI - FRANK WEDEKIND of Ivory Apes and Peacocks , free online book, by James Huneker, on

A very deceptive mask is literature.  Here is your Nietzsche with his warrior pen slashing away at the conventional lies of civilisation, a terrific figure of outraged manhood, though in private life he was the gentlest of men, self-sacrificing, lovable, modest, and moral to a painful degree.  But see what his imitators have made of him.  And in all the tons of rubbish that have been written about Tolstoy, the story told by Anna Seuron is the most significant.  But a human being is better than a half-god.

Bearing this in mind I refused to be scared in advance by the notorious reputation of Frank Wedekind, whose chief claim to recognition in New York is his Spring’s Awakening, produced at the Irving Place Theatre seasons ago.  I had seen this moving drama of youth more than once in the Kammerspielhaus of the Deutsches Theatre, Berlin, and earlier the same poet’s drama Erdgeist (in the summer, 1903), and again refused to shudder at its melodramatic atrocities.  Wedekind wore at that time the mask Mephistophelian, and his admirers, for he had many from the beginning, delighted in what they called his spiritual depravity ­forgetting that the two qualities cannot be blended.  Now, while I have termed Frank Wedekind the naughty boy of the modern German drama, I by no means place him among those spirits like Goethe’s Mephisto, who perpetually deny.  On the contrary, he is one of the most affirmative voices in the new German literature.

He is always asserting.  If he bowls away at some rickety ninepin of a social lie, he does it with a gusto that is exhilarating.  To be sure, whatever the government is, he is against it; which only means he is a rebel born, hating constraint and believing with Stendhal that one’s first enemies are one’s own parents.  No doubt, after bitter experience, Wedekind discovered that his bitterest foe was himself.  That he is a tricky, Puck-like nature is evident.  He loves to shock, a trait common to all romanticists from Gautier down.  He sometimes says things he doesn’t mean.  He contradicts himself as do most men of genius, and, despite his poetic temperament, there is in him much of the lay preacher.  I have noticed this quality in men such as Ibsen and Strindberg, who cry aloud in the wilderness of Philistia for freedom, for the “free, unhampered life” and then devise a new system that is thrice as irksome as the old, that puts one’s soul into a spiritual bondage.  Wedekind is of this order; a moralist is concealed behind his shining ambuscade of verbal immoralism.  In Germany every one sports his Weltanschauung, his personal interpretation of life and its meanings.  In a word, a working philosophy ­and a fearsome thing it is to see young students with fresh sabre cuts on their honest countenances demolishing Kant, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche only to set up some other system.

Always a system, always this compartmentising of the facts of existence.  Scratch the sentimentalism and aestheticism of a German, and you come upon a pedant.  Wedekind has not altogether escaped this national peculiarity.  But he writes for to-morrow, not yesterday; for youth, and not to destroy the cherished prejudices of the old.  His admirers speak of him as a unicum, a man so original as to be without forerunners, without followers.  A monster?  For no one can escape the common law of descent, whether physical or spiritual.  Wedekind has had plenty of teachers, not excepting the most valuable of all, personal experience.  The sinister shadow cast by Ibsen fell across the shoulders of the young poet, and he has read Max Stirner and Nietzsche not wisely, but too well.  He is as frank as Walt Whitman (and as shameless) concerning the mysteries of life, and as healthy (and as coarse) as Rabelais.  Furthermore, Strindberg played a marked rôle in his artistic development.  Without the hopeless misogyny of the Swede, without his pessimism, Wedekind is quite as drastic.  And the realism of the Antoine Theatre should not be omitted.

He exhibits in his menagerie of types ­many of them new in the theatre ­a striking collection of wild animals.  In the prologue to one of his plays he tells his audience that to Wedekind must they come if they wish to see genuine wild and beautiful beasts.  This sounds like Stirner.  He lays much stress on the fact that literature, whether poetic or otherwise, has become too “literary” ­hardly a novel idea; and boasts that none of his characters has read a book.  The curse of modern life is the multiplication of books.  Very true, and yet I find that Wedekind is “literary,” that he could exclaim with Stephan Mallarme:  “La chair est triste, helas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.”

Regarding the modern stage he is also positive.  He believes that for the last twenty years dramatic literature is filled with half-humans, men who are not fit for fatherhood, women who would escape the burden of bearing children because of their superior culture.  This is called “a problem play,” the hero or heroine of which commits suicide at the end of the fifth act to the great delight of neurotic, dissatisfied ladies and hysterical men.  Weak wills ­in either sex ­have been the trump card of the latter-day dramatist; not a sound man or woman who isn’t at the same time stupid, can be found in the plays of Ibsen or Hauptmann or the rest.  Wedekind mentions no names, but he tweaks several noses prominent in dramatic literature.

He is the younger generation kicking in the panels of the doors in the old houses.  There is a hellish racket for a while, and then when the dust clears away you discern the revolutionist calmly ensconced in the seats of the bygone mighty and passionately preaching from the open window his version of New Life; he is become reformer himself and would save a perishing race ­spiritually speaking ­from damnation by the gospel of beauty, by shattering the shackles of love ­especially the latter; love to be love must be free, preaches Wedekind; love is still in the swaddling clothes of Oriental prejudice.  George Meredith once said the same in Diana of the Crossways, although he said it more epigrammatically.  For Wedekind religion is a symbol of our love of ourselves; nevertheless, outside of his two engrossing themes, love and death, he is chiefly concerned with religion, not alone as material for artistic treatment, but as a serious problem of our existence.  A Lucifer in pride, he tells us that he has never made of good evil, or vice versa; he, unlike Baudelaire, has never deliberately said:  Evil, be thou my good!  That he has emptied upon the boards from his Pandora-box imagination the greatest gang of scoundrels, shady ladies, master swindlers, social degenerates, circus people, servants, convicts, professional strong men, half-crazy idealists, irritable rainbow-eaters ­the demi-monde of a subterranean world ­that ever an astonished world saw perform their antics in front of the footlights is not to be denied, but it must be confessed that his criminal supermen and superwomen usually get their deserts.  Like Octave Mirbeau, he faces the music of facts, and there are none too abhorrent that he doesn’t transform into something significant.

On the technical side Strindberg has taught him much; he prefers the one-act form, or a series of loosely joined episodes.  Formally he is not a master, nor despite his versatility is he objective.  With Strindberg he has been called “Shakespearian” ­fatal word ­but he is not; that in the vast domain of Shakespeare there is room for them both I do not doubt; room in the vicinity of the morbid swamps and dark forests, or hard by the house of them that are melancholy mad.

The oftener I see or read Wedekind the more I admire his fund of humour.  But I feel the tug of his theories.  The dramatist in him is hampered by the theorist who would “reform” all life ­he is neither a socialist nor an upholder of female suffrage ­and when some of his admiring critics talk of his “ideals of beauty and power,” then I know the game is up ­the prophet, the dogmatist, the pedant, not the poet, artist, and witty observer of life, are thrust in the foreground.

There is Hermann Sudermann, for example, the precise antipodes of Wedekind ­Sudermann, the inexhaustible bottle of the German theatre, the conjurer who imperturbably pours out any flavour, colour, or liquid you desire from his bottle; presto, here is Ibsen, or Dumas, or Hauptmann, or Sardou; comedy, satire, tragedy, farce, or the marionettes of the fashionable world!  Frank Wedekind is less of the stage prestidigitator and more sincere.  We must, perforce, listen to his creatures as they parade their agony before us, and we admire his clever rogues ­the never-to-be-forgotten Marquis of Keith heads the list ­and smile at their rough humour and wisdom.  For me, the real Frank Wedekind is not the prophet, but the dramatist.  As there is much of his stark personality in his plays, it would not be amiss to glance at his career.

He has “a long foreground,” as Emerson said of Walt Whitman.  He was born at Hanover, July 24, 1864, and consequently was only twenty-seven years old when, in 1891, he wrote his most original, if not most finished, drama, Spring’s Awakening.  He studied law four terms at Munich, two at Zurich:  but for this lawless soul jurisprudence was not to be; it was to fulfil a wish of his father’s that he consented to the drudgery.  A little poem which has been reproduced in leaflet form, Felix and Galathea, is practically his earliest offering to the muse.  Like most beginnings of fanatics and realists, it fairly swims and shimmers with idealism.  His father dead, a roving existence and a precarious one began for the youthful Frank.  He lived by his wits in Paris and London, learned two languages, met that underworld which later was to figure in his vital dramatic pictures, wrote advertisements for a canned soup ­in Hauptmann’s early play, Friedensfest, Wedekind is said to figure as Robert, who is a réclame agent ­was attached to circuses, variety theatres, and fairs, was an actor in tingletangles, cabarets, and saw life on its seamiest side, whether in Germany, Austria, France, or England.  Such experiences produced their inevitable reaction ­disillusionment.  Finally in 1905 Director Reinhardt engaged him as an actor and he married the actress Tilly Niemann-Newes, with whom he has since lived happily, the father of a son, his troubled spirit in safe harbour at last, but not in the least changed, to judge from his play, Franziska, a Modern Mystery.

Personally, Wedekind was never an extravagant, exaggerated man.  A sorrowful face in repose is his, and when he appeared on Hans von Wolzogen’s Ueberbrettl, or sang at the Munich cabaret called the Eleven Hangmen, his songs ­he composes at times ­Ilse, Goldstueck, Brigitte B, Mein Liebchen, to the accompaniment of his guitar, there was a distinct individuality in his speech and gesture very attractive to the public.

But as an actor Wedekind is not distinguished, though versatile.  I’ve only seen him in two roles, as Karl Hetman in his play of Hidalla (now renamed after the leading rôle), and as Ernest Scholtz in The Marquis of Keith.  As Jack the Ripper in The Box of Pandora I am glad to say that I have not viewed him, though he is said to be a gruesome figure during the few minutes that he is in the scene.  His mimetic methods recalled to me the simplicity of Antoine ­who is not a great actor, yet, somehow or other, an impressive one.  Naturally, Wedekind is the poet speaking his own lines, acting his own creations, and there is, for that reason, an intimate note in his interpretations, an indescribable sympathy, and an underscoring of his meanings that even a much superior actor might miss.  He is so absolutely unconventional in his bearing and speech as to seem amateurish, yet he secures with his naturalism some poignant effects.  I shan’t soon forget his Karl Hetman, the visionary reformer.

Wedekind, like Heine, has the faculty of a cynical, a consuming self-irony.  He is said to be admirable in Der Kammersaenger.  It must not be forgotten that he has, because of a witty lampoon in the publication Simplicissimus, done his “little bit” as they say in penitentiary social circles.  These few months in prison furnished him with scenic opportunities; there is more than one of his plays with a prison set.  And how he does lay out the “system.”  He, like Baudelaire, Flaubert, and De Maupassant, was summoned before the bar of justice for outraging public morals by the publication of his play, The Box of Pandora, the sequel to Erdgeist.  He had to withdraw the book and expunge certain offensive passages, but he escaped fine and imprisonment, as did his publisher, Bruno Cassirer.  He rewrote the play, the second act of which had been originally printed in French, the third in English, and its republication was permitted by the sensitive authorities of Berlin.

If a critic can’t become famous because of his wisdom he may nevertheless attain a sort of immortality, or what we call that elusive thing, by writing himself down an ass.  The history of critical literature would reveal many such.  Think of such an accomplished practitioner as the late M. Brunetiere, writing as he did of Flaubert and Baudelaire.  And that monument to critical ineptitude, Degeneration, by Max Nordau.  A more modern instance is the judgment of Julius Hart in the publication, Tag (1901), concerning our dramatist.  He wrote:  “In German literature to-day there is nothing as vile as the art of Frank Wedekind.”  Fearing this sparkling gem of criticism might escape the notice of posterity, Wedekind printed it as a sort of motto to his beautiful poetic play (1902), Such Is Life.  However, the truth is that our poet is often disconcerting.  His swift transition from mood to mood disturbs the spectator, especially when one mood is lofty, the next shocking.  He has also been called “the clown of the German stage,” and not without reason, for his mental acrobatics, his grand and lofty tumblings from sheer transcendentalism to the raw realism, his elliptical style, are incomprehensible even to the best trained of audiences.  As Alfred Kerr rightfully puts it, you must learn to see anew in the theatre of Wedekind.  All of which is correct, yet we respectfully submit that the theatre, like a picture, has its optics:  its foreground, middle distance, background, and foreshortening.  Destroy the perspective and the stage is transformed into something that resembles staring post-Impressionist posters.  The gentle arts of development, of characterisation, of the conduct of a play may not be flouted with impunity.  The author more than the auditor is the loser.  Wedekind works too often in bold, bright primary colours; only in some of his pieces is the modulation artistic, the character-drawing summary without being harsh.  His climaxes usually go off like pistol-shots.  Fruehlings Erwachen (1891), the touching tale of Spring’s Awakening in the heart of an innocent girl of fourteen, a child, Gretchen, doomed to tragic ending, set all Germany by the ears when it was first put on in the Kammerspielhaus, Berlin, by Director Reinhardt at the end of 1906.  During fifteen years two editions had been sold, and the work was virtually unknown till its stage presentation.  Mr. Shaw is right in saying that if you wish to make swift propaganda seek the theatre, not the pulpit, nor the book.  With the majority Wedekind’s name was anathema.  A certain minority called him the new Messiah, that was to lead youth into the promised land of freedom.  For a dramatist all is grist that makes revolve the sails of his advertising mill, and as there is nothing as lucrative as notoriety, Wedekind must have been happy.

He is a hard hitter and dearly loves a fight ­a Hibernian trait ­and his pen was soon transformed into a club, with which he rained blows on the ribs of his adversaries.  That he was a fanatical moralist was something not even the broadest-minded among them suspected; they only knew that he meddled with a subject that was hitherto considered tacenda, and with dire results.  Nowadays the thesis of Spring’s Awakening is not so novel.  In England Mr. H. G. Wells was considerably exercised over the problem when he wrote in The New Machiavelli such a startling sentence as “Multitudes of us are trying to run this complex, modern community on a basis of ‘hush,’ without explaining to our children or discussing with them anything about love or marriage.”

I find in Spring’s Awakening a certain delicate poetic texture that the poet never succeeded in recapturing.  His maiden is a dewy creature; she is also the saddest little wretch that was ever wept over in modern fiction.  Her cry when she confesses the worst to her dazed mother is of a poignancy.  As for the boys, they are interesting.  Evidently, the piece is an authentic document, but early as it was composed it displayed the principal characteristics of its author:  Freakishness, an abnormal sense of the grotesque ­witness that unearthly last scene, which must be taken as an hallucination ­and its swift movement; also a vivid sense of caricature ­consider the trial scene in the school; but created by a young poet of potential gifts.  The seduction scene is well managed at the Kammerspielhaus.  We are not shown the room, but a curtain slightly divided allows the voices of the youthful lovers to be overheard.  A truly moving effect is thereby produced.  Since the performance of this play, the world all over has seen a great light.  Aside from the prefaces of Mr. Shaw on the subject of children and their education, plays, pamphlets, even legislation have dealt with the theme.  A reaction was bound to follow, and we do not hear so much now about “sex initiation” and coeducation.  Suffice it to say that Frank Wedekind was the first man to put the question plumply before us in dramatic shape.

A favourite one-act piece is Der Kammersaenger (1899), which might be translated as The Wagner Singer, for therein is laid bare the soul of the Wagnerian tenor, Gerardo, whose one week visit to a certain city results in both comedy and tragedy.  He has concluded a brilliantly successful Gastspiel, singing several of the Wagnerian roles, and when the curtain rises we see him getting his trunks in order, his room at the hotel filled with flowers and letters.  He must sing Tristan the next night in Brussels, and has but an hour to spare before his train departs.  If he misses it his contract will be void, and in Europe that means business, tenor or no tenor.  He sends the servant to pack his costumes, snatches up the score of Tristan, and as he hums it, he is aware that some one is lurking behind one of the window-curtains.  It is a young miss, presumably English ­she says:  “Oh, yes” ­and she confesses her infatuation.  Vain as is our handsome singer he has no time for idle flirtations.  He preaches a tonic sermon, the girl weeps, promises to be good, promises to study the music of Wagner instead of his tenors, and leaves with a paternal kiss on her brow.  The comedy is excellent, though you dimly recall a little play entitled:  Frederic Lemaitre.  It is a partial variation on that theme.  But what follows is of darker hue.  An old opera composer has sneaked by the guard at the door and begs with tears in his eyes that the singer will listen to his music.  He is met with an angry refusal.  Gradually, after he has explained his struggles of a half-century, he, the friend of Wagner, to secure a hearing of his work, the tenor, who is both brutal and generous, consents, though he is pressed for time.  Then the tragedy of ill luck is unfolded.  The poor musician doesn’t know where to begin, fumbles in his score, while the tenor, who has just caught another woman behind a screen, a piano teacher ­here we begin to graze the edge of burlesque ­grows impatient, finally interrupts the composer, and in scathing terms tells him what “art” really means to the world at large and how useless has been his sacrifice to that idol “art” with a capital “A.”  I don’t know when I ever enjoyed the exposition of the musical temperament.  The Concert, by Bahr, is mere trifling in comparison, all sawdust and simian gestures.  We are a luxury for the bourgeois, the tenor tells his listener, who do not care for the music or words we sing.  If they realised the meanings of Walkuere they would fly the opera-house.  We singers, he continues, are slaves, not to our “art,” but to the public; we have no private life.

He dismisses the old man.

Then a knock at the door, a fresh interruption.  This time it is surely serious.  A young, lovely society woman enters.  She has been his love for the week, the understanding being that the affair is to terminate as it began, brusquely, without arrière-pensee.  But she loves Gerardo.  She clamours to be taken to Brussels.  She will desert husband, children, social position, she will ruin her future to be with the man she adores.  She is mad with the despair of parting.  He is inexorable.  He gently reminds her of their agreement.  His contract does not permit him to travel in company with ladies, nor may he scandalise the community in which he resides.  Tenors, too, must be circumspect.

She swears she will kill herself.  He smiles and bids her remember her family.  She does shoot herself, and he sends for a policeman, remembering that an arrest by superior force will but temporarily abrogate his contract.  No policeman is found by the distracted hotel servants, and, exclaiming:  “To-morrow evening I must sing Tristan in Brussels,” the conscientious artist hurries away to his train, leaving the lifeless body of his admirer on the sofa.  Played by a versatile actor, this piece ought to make a success in America, though the biting irony of the dialogue and the cold selfishness of the hero might not be “sympathetic” to our sentiment-loving audiences.  The poet has protested in print against the alteration of the end of this little piece, i. e., one acting version made the impassioned lady only a pretended suicide, which quite spoils the motivation.

Ibsen must have felt sick when such an artist as Duse asked him to let her make Nora in Doll’s House return to her family.  But he is said to have consented.  Wedekind consented, because he was ill, but he made his protest, and justly so.

The Marquis of Keith is a larger canvas.  It is a modern rogues’ comedy.  Barry Lyndon is hardly more entertaining.  The marquis is the son of an humble tutor in the house of a count whose son later figures as Ernest Scholtz.  The marquis is a swindler in the grand manner.  He is a Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, for he has lived in the United States, but instead of a lively sketch is a full-length portrait painted by a master.  You like him despite his scampishness.  He is witty.  He has a heart ­for his own woes ­and seems intensely interested in all the women he loves and swindles.  He goes to Munich, where he invents a huge scheme for an exhibition palace and fools several worthy and wealthy brewers, but not the powerful Consul Casimir, the one man necessary to his comprehensive operation.  When his unhappy wife tells him there is no bread in the house for the next day, he retorts:  “Very well, then we shall dine at the Hotel Continental.”  Nothing depresses his mercurial spirits.  He borrows from Peter to pay Paul, and an hour later borrows from Paul to pay himself.  His boyhood friend he simply plunders.  This Ernest, in reality the Graf von Trautenau, is an idealist of the type that Wedekind is fond of delineating.  He would save the world from itself, rescue it from the morass of materialism, but he relapses into a pathological mysticism which ends in a sanitarium for nervous troubles.  The marquis is a Mephisto; he is not without a trace of idealism; altogether a baffling nature, Faust-like, and as chock-full of humour as an egg is full of meat.  He goes to smash.  His plans are checkmated.  His beloved deserts him for the enemy.  His wife commits suicide.  His life threatened, and his liberty precarious, he takes ten thousand marks from Consul Casimir, whose name he has forged in a telegram, and with a grin starts for pastures new.  Will he shoot himself?  No!  After all, life is very much like shooting the chutes.  The curtain falls.  This stirring and technically excellent comedy has never been a favourite in Germany.  Perhaps its cynicism is too crass.  It achieved only a few performances in Berlin to the accompaniment of catcalls, hisses, and derisive laughter.  I wonder why?  It is entertaining, with all its revelation of a rascally mean soul and its shady episodes.

Space, I am sorry to say, forbids me from further exposition of such strong little pieces as Musik, a heart-breaking drama of a betrayed girl studying singing who goes to jail while the real offender, the man, remains at liberty (1907), or of Die Zensur, with its discussion of art and religion ­the poet intrudes ­and its terrible cry at the close:  “Oh, God! why art thou so unfathomable?” Or of the so-called Lulu tragedy (Erdgeist and The Box of Pandora) of which I like the first act of the former and the second act of the latter ­you are reminded at this point of the gambling scene in Sardou’s Fernande ­but as I do not care to sup on such unmitigated horrors, I prefer to let my readers judge for themselves from the printed plays.

Karl Hetman is an absorbing play in which a man loses the world but remains captain of his soul; actually he ends his life rather than exhibit himself as motley to the multitude.  As a foil for the idealist Hetman ­who is a sort of inverted Nietzsche; also a self-portrait in part of the dramatist ­there is the self-seeking scamp Launhart who succeeds with the very ideas which Hetman couldn’t make viable, ideas in fact which brought about his disaster.  They are two finely contrasted portraits, and what a grimace of disgust is aroused when Launhart tells the woman who loves Hetman:  “O Fanny, Fanny, a living rascal is better for your welfare than the greatest of dead prophets.”  What Dead-Sea-fruit wisdom!  The pathos of distance doesn’t appeal to the contemporary soul of Wedekind.  He writes for the young, that is, for to-morrow.

The caprice, the bizarre, the morbid in Wedekind are more than redeemed by his rich humanity.  He loves his fellow man even when he castigates him.  He is very emotional, also pragmatic.  The second act of his Franziska, a Karnevalgroteske, was given at the Dresden Pressfestival, February 7, 1913, with the title of Matrimony in the Year 2000, the author and his wife appearing in the leading roles with brilliant success.  It contains in solution the leading motives from all his plays and his philosophy of life.  It is fantastic, as fantastic as Strindberg’s Dream Play, but amusing.  In 1914 his biblical drama, Simson (Samson), was produced with mixed success.

Translated Wedekind would lose his native wood-note wild, and doubtless much of his dynamic force ­for on the English stage he would be emasculated.  And I wonder who would have the courage to produce his works.

Musik, for example, if played in its entirety might create a profound impression.  It is pathetically moving and the part of the unhappy girl, who is half crazy because of her passion for her singing-master, is a rôle for an accomplished actress.  If the public can endure Brieux’s Damaged Goods, why not Musik?  The latter is a typical case and is excellent drama; the French play is neither.  For me all the man is summed up in the cry of one of his characters in Erdgeist:  “Who gives me back my faith in mankind, will give me back my life.”  An idealist, surely.

The last time I saw him was at the Richard Strauss festival in Stuttgart, October, 1912.  He had changed but little and still reminded me of both David Belasco and an Irish Catholic priest.  In his eyes there lurked the “dancing-madness” of which Robert Louis Stevenson writes.  A latter-day pagan, with touches of the perverse, the grotesque, and the poetic; thus seems to me Frank Wedekind.