Authors: Frank Wedekind

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

German playwright and poet

July 24, 1864

Hanover, Kingdom of Hanover (now in Germany)

March 9, 1918

Munich, Germany


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. {$I[AN]9810001423} {$I[A]Wedekind, Frank} {$I[geo]GERMANY;Wedekind, Frank} {$I[tim]1864;Wedekind, Frank}

Frank Wedekind.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Drama: Der Schnellmaler, pb. 1889 Frühlings Erwachen, pb. 1891 (Spring’s Awakening, 1960) Der Erdgeist, pb. 1895 (Earth Spirit, 1914) Der Kammersänger, pr., pb. 1899 (The Tenor, 1946) Die junge Welt, pb. 1900 Der Marquis von Keith, pr., pb. 1901 (The Marquis of Keith, 1955) Die Büchse der Pandora, pr., pb. 1904 (Pandora’s Box, 1918) Hidalla: Oder, Karl Hetmann der Zwergriese, pb. 1904 Tod und Teufel, pb. 1905 (revision of his play Totentanz; Death and Devil, 1952) Musik, pr., pb. 1908 Die Zensur, pb. 1908 Oaha, pb. 1908 König Nicolo: Oder, So ist das Leben, pb. 1911 (Such Is Life, 1929) Schloss Wetterstein, pb. 1912 (Wetterstein Castle, 1952) Franziska, pr., pb. 1912, revised pr. 1914 (verse play; English translation, 1998) Simson, pr., pb. 1914 Bismarck, pb. 1916 Herakles, pb. 1917, pr. 1919 Die Kaiserin von Neufundland, pb. 1924 (ballet scenario) Five Tragedies of Sex, pb. 1952 The Lulu Plays, pb. 1967 Long Fiction: Mine-Haha: Oder, Über die körperliche Erziehung der jungen Mädchen, 1903 Short Fiction: Feuerwerk, 1906 Liebe auf den ersten Blick und andere Erzählungen, 1971 Poetry: Die vier Jahreszeiten, 1905 Lautenlieder, 1920 Ich habe meine Tante geschlachtet, 1967 Ich liebe nicht den Hundetrab: Gedichte, Bänkellieder und Balladen, 1967 Nonfiction: Schauspielkunst, 1910 Die Tagebücher: Ein erotisches Leben, 1986 (Diary of an Erotic Life, 1990) Vermummte Herr. Briefe Frank Wedekind aus den Jahren 1881-1917, 1967 (correspondence) Briefwechsel mit Maximilian Harden, 1996 (correspondence) Miscellaneous: Die Fürstin Russalka, 1897 Prosa, Dramen, Verse, 1960–64 (2 volumes) Bibliography Boa, Elizabeth. The Sexual Circus: Wedekind’s Theatre of Subversion. New York: B. Blackwell, 1987. An analysis of Wedekind’s works that focuses on his portrayal of sexuality. Bibliography and index. Chick, Edson. Dances of Death: Wedekind, Brecht, Dürrenmatt, and the Satiric Tradition. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1984. Chick examines the use of satire by the German dramatists Wedekind, Bertolt Brecht, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Bibliography and index. Izenberg, Gerald N. Modernism and Masculinity: Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky Through World War I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Izenberg looks at modernism and masculinity in the pre-World War I works of Wedekind, Thomas Mann, and Wassilly Kandinsky. Bibliography and index. Jones, Robert A., and Leroy R. Shaw, comps. Frank Wedekind: A Bibliographic Handbook. 2 vols. New Providence, R.I.: K. G. Saur, 1996. A bilingual bibliography on the playwright. Includes indexes. Lewis, Ward B. The Ironic Dissident: Frank Wedekind in the View of His Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997. Lewis analyses Wedekind’s dramatic works, focusing on the comments of critics over the years. Bibliography and index. Simon, John. "How Sex Killed Frank Wedekind." The New York Times, 18 Nov. 1990, Accessed 20 Sept. 2017. A favorable review of Wedekind's Diary of an Erotic Life. Skrine, Peter N. Hauptmann, Wedekind, and Schnitzler. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Skrine provides criticism and interpretation of the modern German dramatists Wedekind, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Arthur Schnitzler. Bibliography and index.

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