Challenging “All That’s Known”: The Brechtian Elements of Spring Awakening
If I have learned anything from my time studying Theatre, it’s that musical theatre rarely receives the amount of respect from academia that it deserves. Usually, musicals are blindly labeled “spectacles” and Broadway is given the sort of wide berth that Mufasa orders Simba to give the Shadowlands. Or at least that is what I have found at my own theatre department.
What these people fail to recognize, however, is that musical theatre can explore some fascinating experimental tactics and make those theories accessible to both locals and tourists. For example, when Spring Awakening opened in 2007, it challenged the typical appearance of a Broadway musical through its Brecht-like alienating staging elements.
Bertolt Brecht is most well known for his theory of the alienation effect, or the idea that theatre should constantly be reminding the audience of its falseness in order for intellectual engagement to occur. In his opinion, a spectator should never identify with a character; to do so would allow for an emotional response, which would inhibit their critical understanding of the production. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, he articulates that
[alienation] sets out society’s experiences, past and present alike, in such a manner that the audience can ‘appreciate’ the feelings, insights and impulses which are distilled by the wisest, most active and more passionate among us from the events of the day or the century.
Therefore, Brecht encouraged that plays be written and performed in such a manner that they would resemble life so it was recognizable, but not realistic. Brecht-style theatre often employs devices such as onstage costume changes, direct addresses to the audience, non-realist set or lighting techniques, and absurd plots to constantly remind the audience that they are watching a false piece of performance, so they would view it with a critical mind.
Now, you may be saying, “Where does Brecht come into musical theatre?” Well, musical theatre is actually, to an extent, inherently alienating, because to turn to the audience and perform a song and dance is to always make your spectators more attune to the falseness of the performance, even in Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals in which a fourth wall is thoroughly maintained. In fact, the musical Urinetown directly references Brechtian theatre. In the musical, a narrator (Officer Lockstock) is constantly reminding the audience that they are in attendance at “Urinetown; not the place, of course, the musical.” Absurd plot elements, like the notion of a drought so bad private toilets became illegal, and indicative character names (the heroic Bobby Strong, the wealthy Mr. Cladwell, the staunch and frugal Penelope Pennywise) do not allow for the audience to identify with characters’ struggles. And references to other musicals, like the number “Snuff the Girl” (referencing “Cool” from West Side Story), keep the spectator outside of the world of the story.
When a spectator is constantly being reminded that they are watching a piece of theatre, they are more likely to analyze the piece and apply it to their own lives. Spring Awakening’s performance style displays similar techniques.
The Broadway musical production of Spring Awakening did not look like 19th century Germany. The costumes and dialogue may have alluded to the original period play, but the neon lit set––a bizarre flea-market collection of picture frames, butterfly wings, and a chair on a brick wall––the use of handheld microphones, the rock concert lighting, and onstage audience members situated the play firmly in the contemporary day; not to mention the indie rock score sprinkled with references to modern living, like stereos and telephones. All of these elements work to keep the audience, both onstage and in the house, aware of their position in relation to, and of the falseness of the production. This works to Spring Awakening’s advantage. The original Frank Wedekind play was far ahead of its time and challenged accepted ideas of what theatre should be. It challenged them so much, it was banned from being performed for decades! Today, a traditional revival of the play would not instigate the same challenge to Broadway, but a rock musical based on a German play about teenagers and puberty? That is something Broadway has never seen – something that instigates both the shock value and emotional impact that the original play worked to produce. Through its use of Brechtian elements, Spring Awakening encourages the audience to look at a story and character that could feel so distant, and recognize how themes of adolescence, frustration, and struggling to be heard and understood are common between 19th century Germany and contemporary America.
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