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Woyzeck, a play by Georg Buchner, first premiered in Munich in 1913. While Buchner did not finish the play before he died, it was finished posthumously by a team of playwrights, editors, and translators working together. Since its premiere, Woyzeck has become an important and influential piece of drama. While Buchner died in 1837, almost one hundred years passed before its premiere. It wasn’t even published until 1879, over fifty years after Buchner’s death. These facts alone make Woyzeck an intriguing piece of literature and worthy of study.
Described as a working class tragedy, Woyzeck shows the way doctors and the military can dehumanize life. In addition to struggles of the working class, this play also contains the theme of jealousy. This play garnered admiration among naturalists and other playwrights , influencing expressionist drama, a modern movement that took hold in the early twentieth century.
Buchner derived inspiration from the play from a man named Johann Christian Woyzeck. He was originally a wigmaker in Leipzig, but over the course of his life he became a soldier. In 1821, he was living with a widow named Christian Woost. Driven by jealousy, he killed her and was sentenced to public beheading. While public executions in many countries have fallen out of favor, it is worth noting that at the time that Buchner was writing, they were still in use. At such executions, the condemned were permitted to speak to the public one last time. These executions also ensured accountability and allowed the state to demonstrate its power to the people (or in cases such as the French Revolution, demonstrate the power of the people to the state).
In Buchner’s play, the main character is named Franz Woyzeck. A soldier stationed in a provincial town, Franz lives with Marie. They have a child together but are unmarried. The child and Marie both face censure because of this. In order to make ends meet, Woyzeck moonlights by not only completing extra little tasks for the Captain, his commander, but also by offering himself up as a test subject in the Doctor’s experiments.
One such experiment requires that Franz limit his diet to peas. Suffering from a lack of proper nutrition, he begins to hallucinate. He experiences apocalyptic visions as his mental state deteriorates. Meanwhile, Marie turns from Franz and sleeps with another man—a drum major. Already, the audience or reader can begin to see how the military and medical professionals are taking their toll on Franz
Franz becomes more and more jealous, ultimately fighting the drum major. He loses and is humiliated. This jealousy and humiliation culminate in Franz killing Marie. He stabs her by a pond and then cleans off the knife.
This is where Buchner’s writing ends. Had he not died, he might have continued on to write scenes for Franz’s trial and subsequent execution—presuming he intended to follow the inspiring events of Johann Christian Woyzeck’s life. The play as it stands ends differently. In most versions, Franz drowns in the pond.
Poverty is another main theme of this play. Without it, Franz wouldn’t have been required to submit himself to medical experiments. He never would have had to subsist solely on peas. He might not have hallucinated or become jealous enough to lose Marie’s attentions and later fight the drum major. If those things had not occured, he wouldn’t have killed Marie or drowned in the pond. Even the Captain has a part to play, as he tells Woyzeck that he could not possibly have morals since Woyzeck is not wealthy.
Over the years since Woyzeck finally premiered, there have been many works inspired by Buchner’s play. Those works include two operas, half a dozen films, musicals, songs, and numerous stage adaptations. These works have been produced over the course of decades, from 1922 through the twenty-first century, all over the world. So many works influenced by Buchner’s final play suggest that the themes are still relatable.
George Buchner himself had a short life. He was born in 1813 and lived only to the age of 23. Despite that, he wrote six works, including several plays and a short story. He also translated Victor Hugo’s Lucretia Borgia and Maria Tudor, both in 1835. In addition to being a dramatist, Buchner was also a revolutionary and natural scientist. His brother, Ludwig Buchner, was a physician and philosopher. His influence exists beyond his works; the top literary prize in Germany, the Georg Buchner Prize, began annually awarding recipients in 1923. Buchner died of typhus fever, which was once a prevalent and deadly disease, caused in most cases by overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions. Following his death, Buchner’s legacy was largely forgotten until Woyzeck was finished and published.
Georg Büchner’s untimely death in 1837 was fortunate in one respect: His play Woyzeck remained unfinished. Had he lived to polish the play’s structure and bring it, as most scholars agree was his intent, to its logical conclusion with Woyzeck’s trial, conviction, and execution, the result may have been an interesting, perhaps even pioneering work, but it would not have been the completely unprecedented, startling piece that it is in its unfinished state. Indeed, the unordered succession of scenes and fragments seems out of place in the early nineteenth century, seeming to belong much more comfortably with the tortured expressionism of the early twentieth century.
Because the style and the structure of the Woyzeck fragments are so perfectly wedded to the work’s characterization and theme, the play has, in whatever order it is presented or read, the inevitability of a finished product. One version ends with the court clerk describing the crime with relish as a “beautiful murder,” and another ends with the children excitedly rushing off to view Marie’s body before the authorities move it. The other obvious aspect of the play’s being incomplete is the fact that it breaks off shortly after Woyzeck murders Maria, but this very lack of resolution is ideally suited to reflect not only the uncertainties of the twentieth century worldview but, more important, those of Woyzeck’s world. The play offers no consoling gesture, just as Büchner offers Woyzeck none. All of society’s institutions fail Woyzeck, who is tragic not because he is a great man brought low but because he started low and never had a chance.
Büchner was caught up in the radical protest politics of his day and his primary thematic intent in Woyzeck was no doubt political. Woyzeck’s troubles can be traced most directly to his low economic class. His pay is so meager that he is forced to hire himself out for scientific experiments that play havoc with his health. Even with supplemental pay, he cannot afford to marry Marie, whose affection, as long as he thinks he has it, is the one redeeming feature of his life. Since they cannot afford to marry, their child is illegitimate and cannot be baptized. Marie is as much a victim of poverty as is Woyzeck. She...
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