Dramatic works by Ted Hughes
Spring Awakening (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)
Carol Bere (writer & independent scholar) examines Hughes’s ‘version’ of Wedekind’s controvertial play.
Ted Hughes’s extensive and generally successful work in the theatre was directly related to his themes and interests as a poet—in fact, nourished his experiments with language, myth, and the needs of his overall poetic enterprise. Hughes had not worked in commercial theater, however, since he translated Seneca’s Oedipus for Peter Brook in l968, and the impetus for reentry, so to speak, came from director Tim Supple who commissioned Hughes to produce a new translation of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s surprisingly frank and groundbreaking late-19th century play about adolescent sexuality and adults who essentially fail their children . Their collaboration was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Pit at the Barbican on August 2, l995, and was generally well-received by critics.
Wedekind, the late 19th century-early 20th century German playwright, finished Spring Awakening in l891 when he was twenty-seven years old, and the play is clearly the work of an angry young man not long past his teenage years. Some years later, Wedekind recalled that when he wrote the play, which included many autobiographical incidents, it was the first time in his life that he actually felt free . Set in a late 19th century environment of repressive authority, Spring Awakening focuses on a group of young teenagers who are having enormous difficulty understanding their burgeoning sexuality. Their parents—products of the same repressive upbringing—are incapable of explaining the sexual drives experienced by their children, while, at the same time, the teenagers are being taught by a band of self-satisfied, dictatorial teachers. This lethal combination of parental evasiveness, inability to explain the basics of reproduction, and school pressures, undercut with occasional sardonic humor by Wedekind, are the establishing shots for the actions of the play. There is also little question that the overt themes of the play (the destructive cultural impositions that fractured childhood innocence, repressed openness, and ultimately inhibited any sense of personal freedom) certainly had strong resonance for Hughes.
The effectiveness of the Supple/Hughes collaboration can be attributed, in large part, to the casting of teenagers who were about fourteen, the age of the children in Wedekind’s original script. Earlier and even more recent productions have cast older children, and some suspension of disbelief has been required on the part of the audience since these actors were well beyond the first stirrings of sexuality. Hughes did not read German, and worked from a literal translation of the play, and read the available versions in English . He was also notably successful in capturing the mix of the everyday and the unknowingly pretentious language that is often characteristic of young teenagers. What is clear is that Hughes’s translation appears to hew to the literal framework, yet it is concentrated, specific, occasionally poetic, with a few contemporary phrases perceptively inserted throughout the text. Stephen Sater, who adapted the script from the original German, and wrote the lyrics for the recent hit musical of Spring Awakening, in an e-mail said that he felt that Hughes’s translation was ‘the most concise and poetic, the most elliptical.’ 
Yet there is a sense throughout Spring Awakening, whether created by the ubiquitous Masked Man who tends to spout platitudes, the hypocrisies of the parents, the generally over-the-top characterizations of the teachers, or simply a general unease that permeates various scenes, that for all of the conversation of the teenagers, they are essentially limited in vision, lost. Melchior Gabor, a brilliant rather charismatic group leader, may be the only character in the play who attempts to consider the fallacies of received tenets. But he is inexperienced, and generally unable to move beyond his utterances, or to quote Hughes, ‘to break into [his] inner life to capture answers or evidence,’ and thus does not fully understand the implications of his positions. And, ultimately, incarceration, teenage suicide, pregnancy, and abortion comprise the fate of the major characters: Melchior is sent to reform school for the ‘crime’ of writing the sex manual requested by Moritz, yet escapes, and unsure of his direction accepts the questionable bromides of the Masked Man. Moritz Stiefel, naïve, gullible, lovable yet overcome by misplaced guilt and poor school grades, commits suicide; while the naïve, relatively clueless Wendla Bergmann, impregnated by Melchior, dies from an abortion.
The significance of the play, however, extends far beyond the framework of plot. If, as Hughes wrote in ‘Myth and Education,’ ‘Every new child is nature’s chance to correct culture’s error’ , then Spring Awakening, while focusing on one group of children, and by implication their parents, also lets them act as proxies for the errors of culture—generations of children and adults isolated from their inner selves—the bridge to their inner and outer worlds virtually destroyed. There are few scenes in the play where we are not reminded of this critical and ultimately destructive division: the dialogue is often deliberately and effectively flat, and routes to self-awareness effectively foreclosed. While there are bits of caricature or comedy in the play—moments where Wedekind may be amused by the actions of his characters- transcendent moments are rare, and most of the characters ultimately experience some sense of isolation and failure. The overall success of the Ted Hughes/Tim Supple production, however, is that it captures Wedekind’s contempt for the so-called morality of his age, while simultaneously implying that his argument is contemporary, even timeless.
Carol Bere is an independent scholar and professional writer. She taught literature and writing at New York University and Rutgers University, and was also an officer in a New York investment bank. Her articles and reviews have appeared in several publications including The Washington Post Book World, Boston Review, The Literary Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, Translation Review; Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons; Lire Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994; Ted Hughes: Critical Essays; and Sylvia Plath: the Critical Heritage. Her articles have also been published in many international finance magazines.
1. Tim Supple, email to Carol Bere, October 4, 2005.
2. Edward Bond, translation of Spring Awakening, London: Methuen, l980, xx.
3. Ann Skea, email to Carol Bere, August 5, 2010. See also Tim Supple’s article, Ted Hughes and the Theatre, posted at Ann Skea’s website, http://ann.skea.com/
4. Steven Sater, email to Carol Bere, January 26, 2010.
5. Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen, ed. William Scammell, London: Faber and Faber, 149.