According to Samuel Derrick’s General View of the Stage (1759), opera came to England when William Davenant (who claimed to be Shakespeare’s natural son) organized musical entertainments with story lines. These were not “plays,” of course, because Oliver Cromwell had forbidden that; they were just musical entertainments that happened to tell a story. There wasn’t anything particularly subversive about these operas, but their inception suggests that there might have been something right from the beginning about the form that was pushing the envelope. As least in England, musical entertainments were designed to get away with something. Their disturbing potential did not go unnoticed. In The Prompter, Aaron Hill rails against the popularity of opera: it is foreign; it is performed by freaks who can’t possibly feel the desires they sing about; it banishes reason. The Spectator also muses about how audiences will flock to performances they can’t understand and that historians of the future will be deeply puzzled by this phenomenon. John Gay fully mined their seditious potential in The Beggar’s Opera.
I was thinking about this last weekend when I saw Spring Awakening at the Kennedy Center. I think if Gay and Brecht had met as teenagers, they would have come up with something like Spring Awakening, an exquisitely poignant musical about, as one of the characters puts it, the “parentocracy” and, of course, “the bitch of living” (as the song goes). Rather than attempting to naturalize its form, Spring Awakening, like so many plays from the early eighteenth century, explores it. Spring Awakening highlights the musical interludes as the places where the most devastating critique becomes apparent by having characters conspicuously pull microphones out of their vest pockets and put them away after the song, returning to their repressive and sometimes abusive communities. Characters borrow microphone stands from the band playing in the back; one distributes a handful of them to a line of restless teenaged girls with their hands raised, poised to express themselves. Like a pre-Garrick eighteenth-century play, Spring Awakening seats a segment of the audience on stage (although I didn’t spot any royalty). You could read this as a postmodern blurring of lines between stage and spectator, but you could also read it as part of the production’s theatrical self-consciousness.
The only part I didn’t quite follow was the end. After a series of children are crushed by adult ignorance, brutality, and fear (on the back wall hangs a single blue butterfly wing, elegizing the failure of their metamorphosis) all the characters, living and dead, gather for a final song, smiling affectionately as if they had finally solved the tensions between the drama club kids and the jocks. “That’s because,” my daughter explained, “it’s a musical so they have to end it that way. It’s what everyone expects. But it’s not really what happened.” Could a beggar have put it any better? See this show with an adolescent you love.