Friday, March 9, 2018

Wedekind’s erotic life

‘[Katya]’s wearing a brand new silk dress from the Louvre that’s too short for her and hence fastened up with a hundred pins. The opening is even sewn askew. I demolish the entire contraption and dump her into bed. In spite of the good supper with champagne, I can’t manage more than a couple of tributes: her confounded practice of refusing to take off her underclothes may be to blame for that.’ This is from the diaries of Frank Wedekind, a German playwright, a libertarian and forerunner of the Expressionism movement, who died a century ago today. Not well known in the English-speaking world, a few of his plays have been translated and published recently, and his Diary of an Erotic Life was published in 1990.

Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Wedekind was born in 1864 in Hannover to a Swiss actress mother and a German father twice her age. He grew up in his father’s Swiss castle, one of six children. He started work at 19, having dropped out of university, first as a journalist, then as a press agent, and then as a private secretary travelling extensively in France and England. By the mid-1890s, he had become an actor of sorts, giving public readings, in Switzerland, of Ibsen plays. A year or two later, he became political editor of Simplicissimus, a German satirical magazine. There followed a period in which he joined a touring company, producing and acting plays (also often Ibsen) through northern Germany, before he took on a similar role for the state theatre company in Munich at the Schauspielhaus.

By the 1890s, Wedekind, settled in Munich, was also writing his own material. First came Frühlings Erwachen in 1891 with such strong sexual content it was banned in Germany. (A hundred or so years later it was successful adapted into a Broadway rock musical, Spring Awakening.) The so-called Lulu plays would become his best known works: Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904). Most of his plays continued to challenge the prevailing bourgeois attitudes, particularly towards sex, sometimes causing scandal. Indeed, at one point earlier in his life he had served a short term in prison as a result of a lèse-majesté prosecution against Simplicissimus (Kaiser Wilhelm II had objected to an article by Wedekind). Apart from plays, Wedekind also composed (and performed) many Brettl-Lieder (cabaret songs).

Wedekind’s private life, 
associating with bohemian artists and political activists, was notoriously as libertarian as his writing. He enjoyed numerous relationships, and often visited prostitutes. He had an affair with the Austrian writer, Frida Uhl, who bore him a child in 1897 (she was already mother to one child by the playwright Auguste Strindberg). And he had another illegitimate child with his housemaid Hildegard Zellner. But, in 1906, he married an Austrian actress Tilly Newes, half his age, with whom he had two children. Their relationship was reportedly faithful though tempestuous. Wedekind died relatively young, from post-surgery complications, on 9 March 1918. Although much forgotten in the English-speaking world during the 20th century, he is back in print, perhaps because of the success of Spring Awakening. See Bloomsbury Publishing for translated plays currently available. For further biographical information see Wikipedia,, Spartacus, and Samuel A. Eliot’s introduction to his translation of four Wedekind’s plays - Tragedies of Sex (freely available at Internet Archive).

Eliot gives this assessment of Wedekind’s influence: ‘Though he died in March, 1918, he had incorporated in many a play before then both the sensational content and the free, direct, spasmodic form which German literature, especially German drama, was to show in the post-War turmoil and distress. Georg Kaiser and the other Expressionists so prized to-day can make no secret of their debt to him, and the wild rush they represent and play to - to contemplate man’s lowest impulses, the roots of will and feeling, the instincts, not the ideals that actuate confused and drifting peoples, and having studied them in crude, disordered life to set them down in baldest, swiftest speech, in rank but penetrating truth - this rush that is observed in all the Continental countries but most among the Germans did there alone possess a guide and prophet in the dead author, analyzer, wry and bitter thinker, Wedekind.’

Wedekind kept a diary at different times in his life, and surviving manuscripts were put together and edited by Gerhard Hay, and published in German for the first time in 1986. This work was translated into English by W. E. Quill and published by Basil Blackwell Ltd in 1990 as Diary of an Erotic Life. For the most part, Quill says in his preface, the original German publication includes ‘practically everything that survives in the way of Wedekind’s diaries and personal notebooks’. Some of these texts, he explains, had been published but many had not, and were only released by Wedekind’s daughter Frau Kadidja Wedekind-Biel in 1986. ‘The surviving diaries - whether in print or in manuscript - are discontinuous and at times fragmentary, but they do have a kind of fortuitous continuity as a series of mirrors reflecting the phases of the author’s development from the juvenile erotic skirmishes and fantasies of Lenzburg, through his years in Berlin and Munich, where he seems to have hovered diffidently on the brink of sexual adventure, to his time in Paris, where he celebrated his sexual coming of age.’

More from Quill’s preface: ‘Wedekind’s Diaries may perhaps best be left to speak for themselves: they are a plain record of a life largely devoted to social intercourse. It is indeed remarkable how unliterary they are as compared with the diaries of most professional writers. Wedekind very rarely writes about his current literary preoccupations in any detail. As he himself points out, the diaries had a kind of clinical function as a record of his responses to everyday experiences. They were intended to be a self-portrait, and this they certainly are to an almost embarrassing degree, portraying their author, piles, gumboils, false teeth and all. Given the emotive nature of many of the incidents described, they are remarkably dispassionate and objective. [. . .] Apart from recording Wedekind’s emotional and intellectual responses, the diaries seem to have served another purpose: the careful recording of social environment and behaviour, particularly evident in the graphic descriptions of cafe society in Munich, Berlin and Paris.’

I have not been able to track down any samples or extracts of Diary of an Erotic Life online, and the starting price for second hand copies is quite high, in the region of £50 - see Abebooks. One review - with quotes - can be found at The New York Times (the reviewer believes ‘the diary is full of detailedly, intimately, multifariously welcoming passages, far better than anything in Henry Miller or Frank Harris’). Here, though, are a few extracts from the 1990 print edition.

17 February 1887
‘I go to see Wilhelmine between two and three. Her sister is at home. When she goes off to her Women’s Guild at last, we are both glad to watch from the window as she departs. There are folk you prefer to see from behind rather than from in front, who cause you pain when you see them from the front, and pleasure when you see them from the back. I explain to Wilhelmine that this is the basis of Greek love. She cannot understand how a mind like mine which aspired towards the ultimate extreme could even reflect on such a serious matter. Then we talk about top-hats. If I ever want to cool her ardour, then I need only come to her wearing a top-hat. We would get married in an artist’s slouch hat, and divorced in a top-hat. As we part she begs me, if I have the smallest spark of feeling for her, to write her a poem by tomorrow. We intended to go to Aarau, and I should read it to her in the railway carriage. Gretchen comes for her piano lesson. Wilhelmine pushes me into the next room without a word and strangles me, so that I turn red and blue, then she returns with the maternal composure of a Madonna to the music-room, while I slink out of the house on tiptoe.

After supper I hunt through all my poems but can’t find anything suitable. I lie down full-length on the divan, but don’t manage to concentrate my thoughts on her. I fall asleep.’

3 May 1892
‘Sign my power of attorney at the Swiss Consulate, where Dr Stumm stamps me as a Swiss. Write to Mama. Dine with Katja and Weinhöppel, and discuss the Ballet Roquanedin at the Eden Theatre with him. Until two in the Pont Neuf, where we drink Baron Habermann’s health in Americain. Then I take the pair of them to an all-night cafe in the Halles, where Katja gets totally drunk. She refuses to take my arm, and I leave her to Weinhoppel, who trots out triumphantly with her into the Rue Montmartre. I keep out of sight and follow them about a hundred paces to the rear. Weinhoppel at last asks a passer-by, who directs him in the opposite direction. So they contrive to make their way over the Pont Neuf, which is just beginning to emerge in the first light of dawn, and get into the Boulevard St Germain, where they once more lose the track. They set out towards the Bastille. On the Boulevard St Michel they ask their way again and turn back the way they came. As they pass me, Katja asks me for her key. At the Eglise St Germain-des-Prés they lose their bearings once more and wait for me. I cross to the opposite pavement, they pursue me. I take refuge in a urinal and make them wait ages for me. Katja leans against a tree and starts crying. Finally they start walking round and round the urinal, come to the conclusion that I’m no longer inside, and set off again in search of the Rue Bonaparte. After wandering round for ages they return to my urinal, where I stick my umbrella out under the screen. They’ve finally found the right way. I once again follow them at a distance of a hundred yards, until Katja disappears in the entrance to the Hotel St Georges. Weinhoppel then comes up to my room. I go to bed about six.’

22 May 1892
‘I wait for Katja in a cafe. We take a cab to St Cloud, sit down in front of the restaurant, and drink until it’s time to go back. We dine together at Marguerite’s and then drive back to my room at one o’clock, where I invite her to get into bed. She’s wearing a brand new silk dress from the Louvre that’s too short for her and hence fastened up with a hundred pins. The opening is even sewn askew. I demolish the entire contraption and dump her into bed. In spite of the good supper with champagne, I can’t manage more than a couple of tributes: her confounded practice of refusing to take off her underclothes may be to blame for that. I don’t care in the least for her caresses. Her lips are flabby and she slobbers all over my face. I keep on pouring cognac into her, and the powerful aroma comes back at me. Elle me veut tailler une . . . , mais elle me mord les testicles que je crie par douleur. At the same time she keeps on making such clumsy attempts to address me in the familiar form that I simply can’t bring myself to reply in the same terms. Between four and five, in broad daylight, I take her home, and go to bed about seven.’

17 July 1892
‘I get up at nine o’clock and have just got dressed when there’s a knock. I draw the curtains in front of the alcove and ask Herr Weintraub to come in. He asks for 45 francs for copying the manuscript and spends an hour telling me how badly off he is. We read Hebrew together, and I serve him a schnaps. After he’s gone, I get back into bed with Rachel. We get up about four and go to lunch. She would simply love to go bathing with me in Chernetre, but I’m too lazy. We part after coffee.’

27 July 1892
‘Fetch Rachel from the Café d’Harcourt. She gets completely undressed in my room, apart from her vest, a diaphanous pink petticoat and her black stockings. In this outfit, with her hair let down and holding her black fan, she wallows around on my sofa between my guitar, my various fat lexicons and a couple of shapeless hessian cushions. She takes up one delicious pose after another, at the same time sucking down to the last drop a lemon which happened to be lying on the table. The lemon inspires her - and me as well - with lascivious ideas. After we’ve got into bed she sucks me off, which I can’t stand for long, as I find it drives me to utter distraction. The next morning she tells me she had dreamt about her mother all night. She had desperately wanted to suck her mother’s cunt. At first her mother wouldn’t let her, but then she had consented, and it had been so sweet, so sweet.’

25 January 1894
‘I go to the National Gallery and am furiously annoyed by the glass over all the pictures. After lunch I get on the Underground at Charing Cross and travel to the Tower, look round the museum, the most boring and tasteless I have ever seen, travel under the Thames via London Bridge and come back home through the underworld, dine at seven o’clock and take the omnibus to the London Pavilion. Apart from a couple of authentic English children, I find nothing new and very little that’s congenial. I spend some time in a bar amid a pack of frightful whores, and go to bed at twelve o’clock.’

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