Spring Awakening: A Rock Musical

      Spring Awakening, adapted by Duncan Sheik, is a rock musical that follows the lives of young teenage students growing up in 19th-century Germany. We are taken on the journeys of these students as they discover themselves, things about each other, and most importantly, what sex and sexuality means to them and how it plays a part in their individual lives. Wendla Bergmann, Melchior Gabor, and Moritz Stiefel are the main characters that frame and guide us through these stories; they give the other characters incentive to step forward and bring us along their “coming-of-age” journey.

      In any form of performance art, whether it be film, television, theater, etc, it is important to have contrasts. Contrasts give the story and theme substance and elasticity as well as sharp, strong dynamics that grant the show the opportunities to be very impactful instead of just simple and blended. The contrast of setting and theme is something to be noted here. A time like 19th-century Germany being the place to carry the theme of sex and sexuality is extremely interesting to look at. The exposition of the show informs us of this strict, traditional, “no room for mistakes” culture in Germany where self expression and any mention of sex is taboo. In the very first scene of dialogue in the show, Wendla asks her mother the truth about conception and tells her she can no longer be fooled by the story of the stork. Her mother is so shocked by this and wonders where she even began to think of it. She can’t even look Wendla in the eye and goes as far as hiding her underneath her skirt to even before speaking. This discomfort in talk about sex reflects this contrast between this hard, stiff setting, and something apparently as wild and out of place as sex. The nature of this setting makes the overarching theme of sex and sexuality even more enticing to look at and follow.

“I Believe” Spring Awakening

   The songs are especially very cohesive with the theme of sexuality in the show: “The Word of Your Body” and “I Believe” are two major ones. “The Word of Your Body” is a ballad devoted to hinting at this overwhelming sense of wanting and desire of the other’s body and how these two bodies are going to have such an impact on each other, they’ll actually be each other’s “bruise” and “wound”.  “…haven’t you heard the word, how I want you?” This type of discourse reflects a lot of what we’ve talked about with “desire”. We discussed desire as this powerful force driving us towards someone. It is something that Whitman would even consider part of human nature. He sees human beings as one and desire as something that just comes with that exchange when the attraction is there. The essence of Whitman’s perspective of such inseparability between people really plays a part in this show; mostly in the case of Melchior and Wendla. Although they are taught that sex is sinful and almost deviant, they are still drawn together and engage in the act as “I Believe” plays in the background. “All will be forgiven…there is love in heaven”. This lyric in the song is reflective of the idea that sex is something that is too perverse for the world around them. It goes so far as to say it is something that needs to be “forgiven” in order to be okay.

      Freudian psychology and sexology can also be applied here because homosexuality is a part of this show as well. “The Word of Your Body (Reprise)” stars two male students sharing a love scene on top of a mountain while they both reveal their love for one another. Passionate kissing is involved as well as lustful dialogue and delivery of the lyrics. Freud would say this is a deviation of sexuality because it does not involve a penis and vagina. Homosexuality is considered way outside the standard of sex for Freud. This idea of sexual deviance and perversion pushes even further the contrast between the stiffness of 19th-century Germany and sexuality.

      

"The Word of Your Body (reprise)" Spring Awakening

“The Word of Your Body (reprise)” Spring Awakening

"Totally Fucked" Spring Awakening

“Totally Fucked” Spring Awakening

      I think this musical does an excellent job in approaching sex and sexuality in a very intriguing way. The restriction the characters feel by the adults and setting alone forces them to find other ways to discover themselves; thus creating this sort of “break out” attitude within the show. This can be reflected by the songs “Totally Fucked” and “The Bitch of Living”. The entirety of this show is incredibly powerful and really does an amazing job addressing the multiple themes of rebellion, sexuality, abortion, suicide, etc, that all play a huge part in the storytelling of these students.

Kill Your Darlings

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From director John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings is a 2013 American biographical film telling of the college days of Beat Generation members such as Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). This film debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and after garnering much acclaim, has won many awards across the board.

The true events that inspired the creation of this film had been previously documented in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a collaborative novel written by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The novel, and in turn the film, trails the lives of Beat Generation authors long before they had published their famous works such as Ginsberg’s Howl, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, or Kerouac’s On the Road. Written in 1945, this controversial novel remained unpublished and hidden under the floorboards for many years until it finally came to light in 2008. At the time of its publication, although written many decades prior, the authors were already well known worldwide. While Burroughs himself did not think this novel worthy of much praise, dismissing it as “not a distinguished work,” his audience disagreed. The tale of friendship and murder captivated the readers of the novel, and glued the viewer of the film to their screens.

Kill Your Darlings begins with a young Allen Ginsberg, circa 1940s, starting off his short-lived career at Columbia University. It is there that he meets Lucien Carr, an alluring young man whose main goal at university is to challenge the strict guidelines set up by the school. Carr is introduced to the movie, and Ginsberg, when he jumps up on a library table and reenacts a sexually illustrious passage from Henry Miller. The book this passage comes from is held in the restricted section of the library, and Carr, after its recitation from memory, is promptly chased out by security. After this incident, Ginsberg is completely enthralled with Carr. Not long after the movie begins, the viewer sees that Ginsberg, although a well kept, sober young man, may not conform to the standard literary guidelines Columbia has set up for him. In an exchange with a professor, young Ginsberg challenges the rigid guidelines set forward for a “successful poem.” He brings to the table Walt Whitman, a main influence of the Beat Generation authors, claiming that as a point Whitman never followed these rules and that is what made him the success he was.

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From the transcript of “Kill Your Darlings,” an exchange

between Allen Ginsberg and his Professor

Ginsberg and Carr, continue their journey together into madness by creating the “New Vision.” They want to turn the literary world on its head. Drugs, alcohol, and sexual tension fuel these young Beats as they team up with Kerouac and Burroughs to fulfill their vision. Along the way the tumultuous relationship between Carr and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) is revealed. Carr is the object of Kammerer’s obsessions. While Carr’s sexuality is fairly ambiguous, it is clear that he has no romantic interests in Kammerer. As the storyline progresses, Carr becomes completely fed up with Kammerer. In an attempt to leave Kammerer behind, along with Kerouac, Carr attempts to run off and join a merchant marine ship headed to Paris. Kammerer is informed of this plan and a deadly confrontation between the two ensues. Carr ends up stabbing Kammerer and then drowning his body in the river.

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Top: Real life newspaper article written about the murder

Bottom: Movie replication of article

It is important to note that the time frame of this movie is a significant period in Queer Culture. While homosexuality obviously exists in literature and the culture, when it becomes personal it is denied. Walt Whitman, a great inspiration to many of the Beats, had a very similar experience. In Whitman’s work, Leaves of Grass, the “Calamus” cluster celebrates the “manly love of comrades.” Many critics argue that these poems are an expression of Whitman’s homosexual love. While the homoerotic content is fairly clear, in a correspondence between Whitman and John Addington Symonds, in 1890, Whitman vehemently denies that he himself is a homosexual. When confronted about his own sexuality he fervently declared “no, no, no!” I am straight “I have six children,” none of which is true. The depiction of homosexual love is accepted when it is just words on paper, however as soon as the finger pointed at the poet, Whitman himself, he denied that accusation. He created a little family for himself because being gay meant not being “The Poet” Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind. Similarly, many of the Beats were notorious for being homosexuals, but some went to great lengths to conceal their sexuality, like Burroughs who had a wife.

At the time of Kill Your Darlings, gay liberation had yet to occur. Even Ginsberg, who later goes on to produce Howl, an epic poem riddled with homosexual content, keeps his identity hidden. Homosexuality is a crime, sodomy laws are still in effect, and being gay can get you jailed. In this vein, Carr uses gay panic to his advantage. Carr testified that Kammerer was a sexual predator, and Carr killed him in self-defense. They bring up the concept of an “Honor Slaying” which is “relating to a lethal attack committed when the accused is defending himself against a known homosexual.”

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Link to Video Clip from Kill Your Darlings explaining Honor Slaying

In an era of gay panic, this defense is enough to get Lucien Carr’s sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter. This is an important time period for Queer Culture because the simple act of making a pass at someone you are attracted to is an excusable reason to find yourself murdered. Kill Your Darlings portrays a hidden element of the Beat Generation’s lives, a time before they are out and living in a world riddled with hatred toward homosexuality. While many of them will face ridicule and lawsuits later in their lives because of these issues, at this era they are hiding behind the concept of “Honor Slayings” and letting gay-hatred propagate through their lives. This movie brings to light the dark past of the Beats who were all complacent in the murder of an individual some of them considered a friend.

Whitman and Carr both had their reputation on the line when confronted with ideals about homosexuality. Although far less extreme as Carr, Whitman created children for himself in order to escape the label of a homosexual. Likewise, Carr clung to a defense that heavily depended on him being completely heterosexual. If there was a single drop of evidence proving he had even the slightest of homosexual tendencies, the guilty charge of murder would have stood. Both men lived their lives in such a way that their sexuality came into question. When brought into the light both men went to great lengths to turn the spotlight away from them in order to return to what the heteronormativie world around them deemed as normal.

“The Platonic Blow” – A 20th Century Response to Whitman

W.H Auden was one the the greatest and most intelligent writers of the 20th century and one of my favorite poets of all time. Much of Auden’s work is influenced by politics, religion, philosophy, and love. Auden was gay and fairly open about that fact. He often traveled to Berlin before WWII broke out to enjoy the gay scene in the city and to visit his close friend Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood, whom we briefly discussed in class, traveled with Auden to China, Spain, and eventually to America. They collaborated together on books about the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war in Spain.

I will leave it to you to read Auden’s more famous poems (which is something you really should do) and instead focus on a particular poem that is not as well known. Auden wrote this particular poem to his lover Chester Kallman to be playful and never meant it to be published. It is titled “A Platonic Blow” and you can read it here. It’s worth the read.

Not only is the poem about a guy cruising a man, bringing him back to his apartment, blowing him and rimming him, but it is a finely structured poem on top of that. Auden uses internal rhyme, an end rhyme scheme of ABAB, and each line is metered so that there are five stressed syllables. “A Platonic Blow” is unique in Auden’s work because of the explicit and raw eroticism of it.

Auden and Chester Kallman

I chose to look at Auden and this particular poem in contrast to Walt Whitman. We spent a significant amount of time in class talking about Whitman and his poetry. Whitman is in ways regarded as one of the father’s of queer culture and literature, despite the fact words like queer or gay were not labels he applied to himself. It was the 19th century and these terms were not in play yet; however, Whitman still laid the groundwork for the queer literature to come. As you know from Whitman’s poems we read in class, much of his work was centered around the intersection and combination of the American nation and sex.

Auden and Isherwood

Auden, too, wrote about the nation and sex, but he chose to keep the two separate. His poem “Spain” is one of his greatest works and deals with the idea of the nation. He wrote it while in Spain with Isherwood, and it describes the country in its past, its present, and in its future. Much like Whitman, he had an idea of what he thought the nation should be, although they were writing about different nations. Whereas Whitman saw love and sexual relations between men as a reconstruction of the nation’s relations, Auden never mentions the two in conjunction. He, who was out in a way Whitman couldn’t be, chose to keep his ideas of the nation separate from his ideas of same-sex relations.

It may have been because Auden lived in a strange period where same-sex relations were not so taboo that he did not feel the connection between the homoerotic and politics that Whitman felt. The Weimar Republic was fading and war was approaching, but there seemed to be this bubble in time that allowed for queer culture to flourish for a few years. “The Platonic Blow” highlights the sexual climate of the time, which was becoming much more open than the the one Whitman knew. The poem is blunt, crass and beautifully written, and it seems to say that sex does not need the nation. It can exist outside the confines of politics and borders. Whitman saw sex and the nation as being intertwined, but Auden saw them as separate entities. “The Platonic Blow” is one step further into the explicit erotic that Whitman couldn’t take, and it show so clearly how Auden chose to keep his sexual feelings separate from his published work.

Here are some great Auden links:

Biography

Auden Reading His Own Poems

My Favorite Auden Poem

 

Albee and Whitman with the Woolfs

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Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf

When the morning comes….

Edward Albee’s 1962 play’s title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf comes from a play on words of the 1933 Disney song, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Already mixing dark comedy and literature with the very title, Albee’s play is a hallmark of absurdist theatre. The drama describes the emotional and psychological instability of a couple’s wasting marriage. Hailed as a revolution for drama at the time, it won two awards within the first five years of production. Some critics then say it polarized audiences; some lauded its themes and creative use of tension, while others found it perverse through its sexual and explicit content. And this theme of polarization is what I find key to describing Edward Albee.

Albee is an out proud gay man, known as an accomplished playwright even before WAoVW, but he is most remembered for it due to its raw details. And it is these raw details, written with the intensity of a melodrama that put Albee into question. The campiness of the play and the writer’s sexuality led some critics to read the characters as stand-ins for gay relationships. The play as a metaphor for the ‘absurd’ trials and tribulations homosexual couple’s face and create themselves. At first, I was just going to archive that- the play as a thought that queer agency was created on stage before it was condoned, even if it was obscured. But through more research I discovered Albee’s total refusal to classify Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as queer literature. His stance is even more controversial considering his advocacy for civil rights and LGTBA understanding, but he deems his art to not be affected or analyzed by his sexuality. As Albee accepted his award at the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards, he is quoted in his speech saying “a writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer, I am a writer who happens to be gay.” This remark was met with disgruntlement or abject fury by the audience, his words seen as a dismissal of self and the gay identity. I kind of agree with Albee though in the same vein of the argument Hogan and Caskie make about Sam Smith.

It is the new wave quiet activism, how ‘gay’ can be a part of your reality but not the whole of it. Albee is later quoted commenting to NPR about the negative reactions as “so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.” His remarks remind me about our class debate on whether or not Whitman was gay. Albee is most assuredly, but that sexuality-identity connection to art is still questioned the same across generations. Does it affect Whitman’s poetry if he was gay? It affects the way we view him now, the way we have archived him in the queer history, but we argued about whether or not he would accept such a classification. Albee, unlike Whitman, is aware of the connotations of the word ‘gay’ but still contests such a distinction to be necessary. I am aware I am archiving Albee the same way history has archived Whitman, but we all should note that neither has agreed to it. Albee can be in queer history because he is a gay man making art, but his work should not critiqued only through that lens. As with Sam Smith, the man is not the art and the stories are not the same. ‘The body is political’ is denied by these artists, for the sake of their works meaning not be marginalized or pigeon-holed into outdated stereo-types of queer art. There is current Queer art, the same way there is Black art and Women’s Art; its existence cannot be denied or forgotten, but it is not all-inclusive and it is not all-political. It can be remembered, as I am making this so archiving it, but it must be remembered with all its origins and all its meanings intact.

 

Sarah Caskie, “Sam Smith: Musician on the Rise,” Contemporary Queer Culture hosted by Sites@PSU, last modified April 2, 2015, https://sites.psu.edu/245spring2015/2015/04/02/sam-smith-musician-on-the-rise/.