Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring Awakening: Adolescents Today and 100 Years Ago

Last week several Campaign staffers attended the Broadway touring production of Spring Awakening at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC. That it was a wonderful and passionate production is not surprising – the show won 8 Tony awards and has received incredible reviews. What was surprising to me is that a musical based on a play written in 1891 in Germany could be as relevant and timely as if it were written today. Just as today, youth want the freedom to discover who they are and need the tools – information, education, guidance – to do it without destroying themselves.

The musical deals with the transition from childhood to adulthood in a world that is too rigid to allow them to really figure out who they are and they are guided by adults who at best seem benignly misguided and at worst are sadistic. The show follows the lives of several teens who confront just about every difficult issue there is – sex, child abuse, pregnancy, expulsion from school and conflict with parents. My husband studied German literature in college and gave me a brief history of the play’s origins, which I thought was pretty cool in terms of what it means for the show we saw. Apparently, at the same time the play was produced, Germany was confronting the industrial revolution which displaced more agrarian and rural ways of life – at the same time there were growing disparities of wealth and the mechanization of work, which also made peoples’ work more like being a cog in a wheel. This growing discontent created a society in conflict where the old order was still in control, but cracks in the order were developing. The younger generation wants something different and in their rebellion they expose the flaws in the system. This natural rebellion and exploration is ultimately crushed. By the end, innocence has been tarnished, lives lost, families destroyed.

Most poignantly, the show opens with a young girl begging her mother to tell her where babies come from and her mother just can’t bring herself to do it. Without knowing the risks involved, the girl has sex, becomes pregnant, and ultimately dies of a botched abortion. That the musical feels as fresh and relevant as it does partially speaks to the vision of the director and lyricist. However, it also points to how hard it is to be a teen – always – and how hard it is to be a parent. And, just as industrial Germany was in conflict between the old and new ways, our country is also experiencing conflict about what is the right way to do things and how to adapt to the new technologies that are changing our lives. It was a wonderful thing to see so many parents/ adults with young people watching the play together. Hopefully, this can be a moment where arts and culture can lead to having some conversations about what it means to be young, how to live your life fully, and how to protect yourself from the fates of the youth in Spring Awakening.

by: Shannon Flynn, Director of Research and Evaluation
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