Spring Awakening and the call to communication

The University of Notre Dame Department of Film, Television, and Theatre produced the much contested musical Spring Awakening on April 21 and 22. Based on a German play of the same name, the musical explores the sexual, religious, emotional, and interpersonal developments of adolescents growing up in 19th century Germany.

Spring Awakening has a number of plot lines, the most important of which concerns the three main characters: Melchior Gabor (Jorge Rivera-Herrans), Moritz Stiefel (Shane Dolan), and Wendla Bergmann (Teagan Earley). Melchior, an intelligent rebel who is admired by some and admonished by others, fights the establishment of his school by challenging his professors and other students. Moritz, his best friend, is in the throes of puberty and struggling with his newfound sexual feelings. Wendla, sweet and innocent, grapples with a life which she sees as devoid of feeling.

The production follows the lives of these teenagers, grappling with abuse, both homo- and heterosexual experimentation, an unexpected pregnancy, a subsequent forced abortion, and one character’s suicide. The show ends with the entire cast on stage, singing of hope for a brighter future.

The quality of the production was professional and unparalleled by any other performance I’ve yet to see at Notre Dame. Dolan’s vocal prowess was a standout, as was the impressive tenor of Nolan Carter, a graduate voice student. The relationship developed between Earley and Rivera-Herrans was the highlight of the production. The tension between them was well-crafted and resulted in a connection that felt real and was genuinely captivating. The two actors clearly put their all into crafting their characters. The set was minimalist in design, and was effective in keeping the focus on the action.  

The production was contentious in the Notre Dame community due to its controversial themes. The show features the depiction of sex, masturbation, suicide, homosexual relations, and a botched abortion resulting in the death of the child and the mother. The main character, Melchior, exhibits atheistic leanings. The show depicts adults and authority figures as rather detestable, disconnected with the younger generation, and at fault for much of the tragedy which occurs in the piece.

Many of these themes are undeniably at odds with the Catholic nature of the university.  However, the main theme which the production chose to focus on was quite different— communication. Teagan Earley stated, “We as a cast and team worked really, really hard from day one to be all on the same page about what story we were telling, and that story was [about] the dangers and struggles that children can face when adults aren’t willing to engage in important conversations with them.” The intention was to tell the stories of these young people and what they experienced.  

Unfortunately, these things—domestic abuse, suicide, abortion—happen. We as a community would be stronger if we were more comfortable talking about them. For example: the character who had the botched abortion did not know children came from sexual intercourse due to her mother’s reticence to talk to her about such things as a result of their perceived unseemliness. Had there been communication between the two, that tragedy might not have occured.

This production could have been condemnatory of adults as aloof, uncaring, controlling, and cruel.  However, the final scene presents the two adult characters coming together and joining the children in a line on the front of the stage, taking their hands after the children gestured to them. This symbolic act overcomes the divide between the two generations, sharing a message of hope for a future where communication can be present and make a difference.

I’m not a fan of this show in and of itself— it’s too inappropriate and edgy for me.  Having done theatre my entire life, I’ve come in contact with and performed in shows with content that I don’t agree with; Spring Awakening goes far beyond anything I’ve experienced.  More than just controversial, it’s raw and shocking.  But, I do appreciate well-done theatre as well as how this show can create conversation on campus, and I think those two things make up for many of the negative themes in the piece.  As far as well-done theatre goes, it’s a good thing in and of itself. A beautiful voice and a well-acted role testify to the good by their beauty. Additionally, theatre is uniquely situated to foster thought and conversation due to its powerful appeal to pathos.  That appeal to pathos makes Spring Awakening a challenging work since it amplifies it’s inappropriate themes, but at the same time this leads to deeper and more thought-provoking conversation.  Taking all this into account, I found Spring Awakening to be a worthy production in it’s quality and the forum it created for our community.  It provided a unique stage for conversation that is absent from Notre Dame, and made for conversation and thought that pushes us and helps us grow individually and as a community.

Zach Pearson is a freshman studying music and the Program of Liberal Studies.  He wants YOU to go to the Latin Mass! But seriously. 9AM in Alumni on Sunday.  Send him music requests at zpearson@nd.edu.