Last reviewed: June 2018
German playwright and poet
July 24, 1864
Hanover, Kingdom of Hanover (now in Germany)
March 9, 1918
Benjamin Franklin "Frank" Wedekind (VAY-duh-kihnt), one of the most controversial of fin de siècle German writers, was the son of a world-traveling doctor who, at sixty-four, had married an actress less than half his age. Born in Hanover, Kingdom of Hanover, on July 24, 1864, Wedekind graduated from Lenzburg in Switzerland in 1883. Later he worked as a journalist and as traveling secretary for Herzog’s Circus. While he was with the circus he became convinced that humans are essentially animals who are healthiest when they live entirely by their instincts, uncorrupted by bourgeois education. Frank Wedekind.
After a brief period as secretary to a Parisian art dealer, Wedekind went to Munich and wrote his first play, Der Schnellmaler (the world of youth), the story of a girls’ boarding school. It was followed by Spring’s Awakening, which presents an adolescent tormented by sexual drives and ruthlessly curbed by the iron discipline of society—an attempt on Wedekind’s part to out-Nietzsche Friedrich Nietzsche. He also attacked Henrik Ibsen and the realists of the preceding generation for being too genteel and middle class. As writer, actor, and director of the Munich Theater, he believed that the stage needed “beasts of prey,” and he proceeded to supply them.
Lulu, the heroine of Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, is a Dionysiac character who becomes sex incarnate and is finally cut down by Jack the Ripper. The hero of The Marquis of Keith conceives of love as a sexual orgy, drives his wife to suicide, tries to build a bawdy house with stolen money but fails, and is abandoned by his mistress. These plays are not simply acted; they are mimed, danced, and screamed, as if Wedekind had Caliban within every character. Toward the end of his career, however, Wedekind reformed, thanked the judges who had condemned Pandora’s Box, and expressed a reverence for the church. Around 1904, he married Tilly Newes, who had performed the part of Lulu in Pandora’s Box. The couple later had two daughters. At fifty-three, Wedekind underwent surgery for a hernia and died of complications in March 1918.
Wedekind’s plays bridge the naturalistic realism of Ibsen and August Strindberg to German expressionism. His characters tend to be caricatures depicting specific ideas and personality types. The confrontations between social outcasts and society, with actors speaking at one another instead of conversing, directly influenced Bertolt Brecht’s development of epic theater. Wedekind’s plays were often banned by German censors and were later among those condemned by Adolf Hitler. The postwar German theater revived Wedekind’s plays as curiosities of emotional and imaginative excess; later, the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century resulted in productions based on their sexual politics. Wedekind's Lulu in particular inspired film, opera, and graphic novel adaptations as well as derivative visual artwork. Several of Wedekind's plays were translated into English in the mid-twentieth century, broadening his audience, and the private diary detailing his youthful sexual exploits was published as the well-received Diary of an Erotic Life in 1990.