[IU Theatre would like to thank Johannes Türk for generously sharing the below notes from his recent Theatre Circle lecture. He asks readers to please excuse missing references. Also we ask that you also excuse the formatting of the reference numbers, which appear as full text. This piece will be available during the run of Woyzeck, and will be removed once the show has its final performance, but we really hope these thoughtful notes will enhance your understanding of and appreciation for the play. Enjoy!]
Tragedy and the Lowest Form of Life: Georg Büchner’s Wozyeck1
Johannes Türk, Associate Professor of Germanic Studies
“Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen!” “Peace to the huts! War to the palaces!” – this is the motto of a radical pamphlet distributed on August 1st, 1834, in several towns in the north of the grand duchy Hesse-Darmstadt in the center of present-day western Germany. Between the 5th and the 9th of July, a young man had brought it to the printer Carl Preller in Offenbach, who printed an estimated 1500 copies. But an undercover police agent reports the activities and after the young man was able to gain some time by warning his co-conspirators, a relentless crackdown follows: interrogations, torture, imprisonment, and death are the consequence of a political activism perceived as terrorism.
The grand duchy Hesse-Darmstadt is one of the 38 small kingdoms, principalities and duchies constituting the political landscape of present-day Germany in the early 19th century. It is the time known as “Restoration:” Revolutionary France, led by the young Emperor Nepoleon, had conquered the largest part of Europe in a sweeping series of military campaigns. Napoleon forced the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, to which the German lands belonged, to abdicate in 1806 and spread a new law and a new order. But the old powers were only waiting to return. And after the French army was defeated by the Russian winter and begins to retreat not far from Moscow in 1813, the European powers unite to oust the man who for many years has been seen as either a beacon of hope or a bitter enemy. And thus they restore the order that existed prior to Nepoleon’s invasion. Although the Holy Empire does not return, absolutist monarchies are reestablished – a great disappointment especially for the rising national and liberal movements in the German lands that helped oust Napoleon only to find themselves subjected to an absolutist rule more oppressive than the one before.
In the grand duchy Hesse-Darmstadt, where the pamphlet is published, the climate is particularly repressive: Duke Ludwig II. has dissolved the Diet, the legislative assembly, implemented censorship, and suspended the right of assembly in a country characterized by dire poverty, especially of a large class of people we would call “working poor.” The onset of industrialization adds significantly to the economic hardship. But whereas large parts of the population are groaning under the yoke of taxation, the aristocracy and the court display absolutist splendor and voluptuous consumption. The pamphlet uses Biblical language to shape its message: “It appears as if God had created farmers and craftsmen on the 5th day of creation, and the dukes and noble on the 6th: “The life of the noble is a long Sunday…but the people are laying under them like dung on the field.” The pamphlet appeals to the people to end exploitation: “Enough is enough!” It questions the existing order, and calls for an insurrection: “You have bent for long years in the thorny fields of servitude, then you sweat for a summer in the vineyard of freedom, and you will be free down to the thousandth generation.” The young man who has brought the anonymous pamphlet to the publisher, the man who travels through Hesse to warn his friends, and who is today known to have co-authored the pamphlet with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, is Georg Büchner. Prior to these events, he had founded a society for human rights whose first united political action is the production and distribution of this pamphlet.
Georg Büchner was born, the first of 7 children in 1813 in Goddelau, a village in the duchy where his father, Ernst Büchner, worked as a surgeon. Soon, in 1815, the family moved to the capital Darmstadt, where Georg’s father enters the duke’s bureaucracy. Through his father, who served in the French army and subsequently studied medicine in Paris, the young boy is acquainted with the French Revolution and the post-revolutionary period. Although the father is rather politically conservative, this does not prevent him from also being an ardent admirer of the revolution. He reads accounts of the revolution to his children that appear in popular periodic publications. In spite of the conservative nature of the humanist school he attends – Georg Büchner is busy giving a speech in Latin supposed to convince the plebs in the name of Menenius Agrippa to return to Rome when the second revolution in France breaks out in 1830 –, he begins at an early age to stylize himself in scribbles in his schoolbooks as a Jacobin, therefore as a member of the influential and increasingly radical political club during the French Revolution of 1789 to which Robespierre belonged. And under the impression of the 1830 revolution as well as the subsequent peasant uprisings in the north of the duchy, the political awareness of the young man takes its shape. At high school, he forms a reading group, many of whose members later become political activists. In 1831, he follows in his father’s footsteps and enrolls at the University of Strasburg, France, to study medicine. During his two years there, he lives among exiles from his home country that are keenly aware of the tyrannical nature of the regime in the great duchy. In the French climate of political freedom and intense political debate, Georg Büchner begins to perceive the narrow and repressive nature of Hesse-Darmstadt all the more. In 1833, he returns to Hesse- Darmstadt to complete his studies according to the law of his home country. It is there that he founds the society for human rights and becomes an active member of the web of political movements that spread throughout the German lands. Nationalist, liberal, as well as early socialist movements ferment unrest in the paralyzed and suffocating political climate of the time of the restoration.
It is in the aftermath of what reveals itself as a failed political engagement that the egalitarian Georg Büchner becomes a writer. His complete work, comprising four plays, – one of them, presumably entitled Pietro Aretino was lost – and one novella is written within two years, between January 1835 and February 1837 by a man who is cornered and chooses exile and a double career as a way out of the existential dilemma. This work cannot be understood, as has long been the case, as a mere continuation of a political cause, rather, it is its transformation that endows especially the dramas with a colloquial and yet sober poetic language unheard in German letters before. While other conspirators are imprisoned, Georg Büchner manages to disperse the initial suspicion of the university administration through an alibi, so that the distribution of the Hessischer Landbote resumes by mid-August. He returns to his parental home in Darmstadt – officially to 3 prepare for his exams, but he also reorganizes the Darmstadt-branch of the society for human rights after differences of opinion with other co-founders in Gießen. And he returns to his study of the French Revolution, borrowing historiographic literature form the library. The result is his first play Danton’s Death, written in early 1835 in less than five weeks under what Büchner calls “unhappy circumstances:” Büchner is repeatedly interrogated. The play Danton’s Death depicts the revolution not at its euphoric onset, but rather at the moment of when its political legacy is at stake: he represents it at the moment when Robespierre turns against Danton, Camille and other fellow revolutionaries not willing to follow his radical path. They are arrested and after hearings imprisoned and eventually executed. Although around 60 percent of the text consists of quotes form historical sources – most of what Danton, Camille, Thomas Paine, and Robespierre say in the drama was actually said by the historical figures – Büchner draws up a personal as well as a historic balance sheet: In the conversations of the imprisoned and condemned revolutionaries that question the meaning of their political engagement in the face of their imminent death in the play, Danton quotes a letter Georg Büchner wrote on March 9.,1834 to his fiancé to Strasburg: “I feel as if crushed under the horrible fatalism of history. I find in human nature an abominable indifference … the individual not more than foam on a wave, greatness a mere accident, the reign of the genius a game of puppets, a ridiculous struggle against a brazen law.” When Büchner is eventually summoned to court and does not appear, he is sought by warrant as well as a poster and leaves for Strasburg again in early March. In Strasburg, he translates two dramas by Victor Hugo and begins to write his novella Lenz based on a biographic episode of the German writer 18th century writer Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. In the spring of 1836, Büchner completes his doctoral thesis on the nerves of a local fish within a few months while giving a series of lectures on the nervous system that makes him a member of the society of the natural science of Strasburg. At the same time, he is writing two lectures, one on the history of Greek philosophy, the other in Descartes and Spinoza in preparation for his application to the recently founded Swiss university of Zurich. During the summer, he writes both Leonce und Lena, a charming and satirical parody of absolutism in which references to plays from Shakespeare’s As you like it to Alfred de Musset abound, and the first version of Woyzeck. Subsequently, he moves to Zurich, where he lectures on anatomy and continues his work on Woyzeck. On January 20, 1837, he suddenly falls ill, his fever rises until he falls into a delirium, and two days after his fiancé Minna Jeaglé has arrived form Strasburg he dies on February 19, 1837 of typhus. Georg Büchner is 23 years old. Two days later, Friedrich Ludwig Weiding, with whom he has published the Hessischer Landbote, dies from unknown causes after having been tortured in the remand prison in Darmstadt.2 To use Büchner’s own metaphor: Like many others, Georg Büchner’s life appears to us as foam on a wave.
Although only a defused version of Dantons Tod, two translated dramas by Hugo, and the anonymous pamphlet appear in print during his lifetime, Büchner’s work, the result of 4 two years of feeverish labor alongside scientific writings, represents a milestone in world literature. Today, Woyzeck is considered his most significant achievement, an achievement that is seen to inaugurate modern drama. It is the most frequently performed play in German language. The reasons for the fact that the play seems to speak to us more than others is are both thematic and formal. For one, as Büchner remarks in a letter, the play represents one of the “Geringste unter den Menschen”, one of the the “least significant or lowest among men” and endows him with the dignity of tragic form. And this lowest man is placed in the vicinity of the animal. The second reason is that the drama has features that are nothing short of revolutionary in the history of modern theater. But I will return to these points later. Please let me guide you in the remaining half hour through the major features of the play and its history in order to show its significance. I will first talk about the history of the text, a more interesting topic than you might expect. From there I will move on to the origin of the play’s theme. Subsequently, I will focus on the thematic and formal innovation that assigns the drama its place in the history of theater. Its innovation is breathtaking but needs some explanation in order to become visible:
1. The plot of the play Woyzeck is not difficult to summarize: a young soldier, Woyzeck, who has a child with his girlfriend Marie, works several jobs in order to earn the means to barely survive – a common lot for this type of soldier. One of his superiors in the military hierarchy, a major, has an affair with Marie, who is seduced by his superior social status. Eventually, Woyzeck stabs her with a knife. Woyzeck is also hearing voices and he has hallucinations, so that the play put his sanity into question. At the same time, Wyzeck participates in a medical experiment. Through the depiction of his mental state as well as his submission to medical experimentation and social repression, the question of his legal accountability is opened. While most posthumous works by Büchner are published in the years after his death by his finance, and his brother Ludwig edits a first work edition in 1850, the unfinished Wozyeck has to wait until 1878 to appear in print. From its first publication on, the text of the published drama is a compromise between a play that can be performed and faithfulness to the original handwritten versions which are more fragments of a play than a completed drama. At Büchner’s death, four different manuscripts were found. The first outlines a complete sequence of scenes representing a plot centered on jealousy and murder. It does not, however, emphasize the social dependence of both Woyzeck and Marie, which is something that the second version underlines by adding scenes that show, for example, Woyzeck working for a captain. The third manuscript consists of only two brief scenes, but they are a significant addition: it is here that we see Woyzeck in the doctor’s yard and learn about the medical experiment. The fourth and final version of the play shows considerable changes compared to earlier versions. It combines scenes from all prior versions. The scenes that reappear in the last version were crossed out in the earlier versions, and this is how we know which versions were was older. On the other hand, significant parts of earlier versions are missing in the last version and gaps indicate passages where Büchner wanted to insert text or complete scenes from prior material or add new scenes. This is why it is unclear how a final version edited by Büchner himself would look like.3 Thus every publication of the play is a construction that relies on scenes that Büchner may have included but certainly not in the form in which they exist in the earlier versions and therefore not in the form they are incorporated in every Woyzeck text that can be performed. The most blatant question that can arise in this context results, by the way, form the fact that the scene in which the murder takes place is not a part of the last manuscript version but only exists in the first draft. When the Austrian novelist Karl Emil Franzos first published the drama in 1878, he also had problems with Büchner’s difficult handwriting. This becomes visible already in the title under which the first publication appears “Wozzeck: Ein Trauerspiel-Fragment,” that gets the name of the protagonist wrong. Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck from1923 will follow this misreading of Woyzeck’s name. Besides the handwriting, abbreviations Büchner used to allow his handwriting to follow the speed of his work are partly similar to colloquialisms in the dialect of the duchy Hesse-Darmstadt – this poses a challenge for any text version. But most importantly, Franzos also rearranges the sequence of the scenes considerably: in his version, the play begins with the shaving-scene and it ends with one of the several inventions Franzos adds to the text, namely with Woyzeck drowning in the lake. This is the version I read as a high school student. The first performance of the play takes place in Munich in 1913, hundred years after Georg Büchner’s birth, so that the fact that the reception begins belatedly is not only due to the radically modern and provocative nature of the play. It is this play, or rather: this torso on which the author’s importance in the history of the European drama is based.
2. Woyzeck is not an invention stemming from the playwright’s imagination, rather, its plot is modeled on a real case that Georg Büchner must have known from the Magazin für Staatsarzneikunde – a periodical on medical matters of political relevance, in which his father Ernst Büchner published and which was readily available in the Büchnerhousehold. In it, the original medical opinions in the case were published. The historic person Johann Christian Woyzeck was a soldier who returned to his hometown Leipzig after having earned his living as a soldier abroad. His girlfriend Johanna Woost, a widow, was not willing to give up her relations to other soldiers and having already been arrested for mistreating his lover before, he stabbed her out of jealousy. For the following trial, the court counselor and MD Clarus was asked to write an expert opinion on Wozyeck’s mental state. In it, he concluded that Woyzeck was sane and therefore accountable for his deed. He claims the delinquent was neither possessed by monomania, nor was his mind delirious. And he also did not act out of a passion capable of eliminating his self-determination. Instead, Clarus finds in Woyzeck “the signs of moral depravity or imbrutement, of the blunting against natural sentiments, and of indifference.”4 Consequently, the historic Woyzeck is condemned to death. But the execution is deferred due to a letter from the scholar and MD called Bergk – only one among several critics – questions Woyzeck’s sanity on the basis of his acoustic hallucinations as well as his persecutional mania. But Clarus, who is asked to write a second opinion in response to this criticism, confirms his verdict and Woyzeck is beheaded in 1824. That a verdict depends on a medical expertise is new and a sign of the liberalization of the law in the early 19th century. Both the Code Napoleon as well as the Preussisches Landrecht, the Prussian law – authoritative models in this period – exempt “sensless people,” people dispossessed of reason, from jurisdiction.5 And that Büchner writes a literary comment on the difficulties that emerge from this development makes his play highly relevant for someone interested in legal history – our legal prehistory – as he gives philosophic depth to these problems. In Clarus’ argumentation, there is for example a significant overlap of morality and scientific argument that is instructive and that is elaborated in the play. What is more, it was crucial for Clarus’s expertise that there was no witness to the murder. And because Woyzeck himself was not a reliable witness, he had no signs that Woyzeck was insane at the moment of his deed, therefore, he concluded, he is accountable. In Büchner’s play, the murder scene is, as I mentioned, only included in the earliest version that relies heavily on a jealousy-driven plot. But he leaves the motivation for the crime open. Although we see him buy a knife and therefore the murder seems premeditated, the scene of the purchase insinuates suicide as a possible reason for buying it in the scene itself. And the jealousy plot is less and less important in subsequent versions of the play. Woyzeck’s mania and his hallucinations are severed from the moments in which jealousy is shown. All that remains in the last version is a driven person that hears voices and that begs us to interpret its motivations. Instead of the psychological portrait that suggests clear-cut motivations for a criminal action that was common in Enlightenment literature, Büchner’s play gives us complex motivations and a plot that reclaims a fundamental ambivalence and complexity of human behavior.6 What else is relevant other than the fact that Büchner adapted the outline of the case in his drama? The legal texts mentioned above define “sensless people” as incapable of being legal subjects. And they give three examples for this lack of reason: the child, the animal, and the idiot.7 Neither of them can be – and this is a legal innovation – held accountable. All of them are present in the play, and Woyzeck is brought into the their vicinity. In Woyzeck, the line between the pathological and the normal, the social and the individual, the animal and the human becomes blurry in a way unheard and unseen before. And it was exactly the drawing of this line between accountable and insane, between sensless and reasonable, between animal and man, that allowed the historical figure Woyzeck to be executed. It is not by criticizing a legal decision and an expertise in which it finds its support that Büchner’s literature relates to the case, but rather by showing the fragile and superficial nature of such a line, by showing, so to speak, how it slips off the reality it desires to mark. The play therefore opens an investigation into what it means to be human and if it is not essential for the human that it can become animal, idiot, and child. It is this fundamental dimension which can be seen as the discovery Büchner makes after his political activism is forced to come to an end: that we are in need of a new perspective on how man relates to the order in which he lives. That the seeming stability of the institutions and boundaries we live by are hastily drawn and need to be considered premature. And it is this exploration that he began in Danton’s Death by portraying a revolution gone awry from the perspective of the moment in which some of its heroes are facing their execution and the revolution, as the idiom goes, begins to eat its children. Danton says: “What is it in us that makes us lie … and murder? ….. A mistake was made when we were created; we are lacking something, I don’t have a name for it.”
3. Let me finally get to the thematic and formal features that define the significance of Büchner’s play in historical perspective. And let me begin with the thematic aspect: In the history of Western theater, a character like Woyzeck would have been unimaginable before Büchner. And it would have been impossible to find him in a tragedy, the serious genre. If Woyzeck has ancestors, we would have to look into comedies to find them. It is only here that they are possible as object of satire, ridicule, and condescension. Some of this is still visible in the play, some of whose scenes have hyperbolic or caricaturesque features that are underlined in some interpretations, for example in the film version of Woyzeck by Wener Herzog released in 1979. The reasons for the exclusion of characters that are not noble are historical – Greek and Roman tragedies served as examples for the serious genre in later periods, and their protagonists are exclusively of noble origin. It was also important that the paradigmatic text on the rules of poetry, Aristotle’s Poetics, claimed that tragedy required a protagonist of noble origin, as only such a character can be exemplary and as such he can induce pity and fear in the audience. Only a king or a leader of a war effort can represent the human as such. In French classicism as well as in the German Baroque period, this rule is respected as well as discussed. The first theater that introduced a new character into the serious genre is the theater of the Eighteenth Century, the so-called bourgeois tragedy. It is the Bourgeois or middle class character that is the first to demand access to a tragic destiny in theatrical representation and that tries to show that there is a potential for tragic conflict in middleclass existence. Büchner radicalizes this scandal by making an outcast the protagonist of a tragedy: the excluded figure of a pauper. This is the reason why the choice of the case of Woyzeck as a theme equals the redefinition of tragedy. It is not only a choice that is relevant on the level of theme but also on the level of form. And this historic redefinition has an enormous power as it breaks with the modalities in which the tragic and the value of a destiny was perceived and represented. This scandal is not easily perceived today as such. This is why Büchner’s play is said to inaugurate a new genre in the domain of tragedy, the so-called social tragedy or the social drama. Its name comes from the fact that in Woyzeck, to follow Glück in his wording, “poverty occupies the place, where destiny stands in Attic tragedy.” All components of the play converge in leading to a fatal end, and although this end results from social pressures and not from a metaphysical conflict, it claims that in this world, our world with its social problems tragedy is possible. Although we can find elements of bourgeois tragedy in the play, for example: a rudimentary family conflict and a female victim at the end of a plot that can be perceived as a patriarchal conflict between male social status etc.8, Büchner challenges one of the core values at stake in Bourgeois theater as a whole: namely, it challenges the focus of the Bourgeois theater on virtue. It questions morality as an autonomous sphere of human interaction and of human value in a radical way. Let me quote a scene in which Woyzeck is shaving the captain and the two of them enter into a conversation. It is not the first work Woyeck performs on this day, as we have seen him cutting branches with Andres long before he shaves the captain:
Captain: Woyzeck, you are a good man, a good man – but Woyzeck, you’ve got no morality. Morality–that’s when you are moral, you understand. It’s a good word. You have a child without the blessing of the church, as our reverend Chaplain says, without the blessing of the church. I didn’t make that up.
Woyzeck: Cap’n, the good Lord isn’t going to look at a poor worm only because amen was said over it before it was created. The Lord said: “Let little children to come unto me.”
Captain: What’s that you’re saying? What kind of crazy answer is that? You’re getting me all confused with your answer. When I say you. I mean you – you!
Woyzeck: Us poor people. You see, Cap’n – money, money. If you don’t have money .. just try to raise your own kind on morality in the world. After all, we’re flesh and blood. The likes of us are unhappy in this world as in the next. I guess if we ever go to heaven, we’d have to help with the thunder.9
The scene ends with the Captain claiming that Woyzeck “thinks too much.” What we see here is that Woyzeck is keenly aware of the fact that not everyone can afford to be moral in the way that the Bourgeois middle- class defines morality. While the Captain seems unaware of the schizophrenic attitude that makes him perceive Woyzck as a good man and at the same time think of him as without morality – and how could he have someone shave him that is an evil poor man – Woyzeck is aware of his own position in the social world and what it means. A harsher negation of Bourgeois values could not be imagined. But the passage also leads us back to the question of the human that I talked about earlier when I acquainted you with the legal case of the real Woyzeck.
1 Notes for a presentation that do not include exact references and in some cases no reference, and is for informational purposes of theatergoers only. Please do not quote, copy or distribute.
2 See Borgards and Neumeyer ed., Büchner Handbuch Stuttgart 2009, here pp. 379-388. I rely on this excellent handbook and its sketch of Büchner’s biography as well as on Kurzke, Georg Büchner: Geschichte eines Genies, München 2013, and summarize and paraphrase parts of these works in this autobiographical sketch.
3 See the entry on Woyzeck in Kindlers Literaturlexikon 1990 as well as in the Handbuch.
4 See Handbuch p. 104ff.
5 This is the claim of Yvonne Wübben, Literatur und Wissen, Stuttgart 2013, p. 352.
6 Ibid., p. 352.
7 ibid., p. 352.
8 See Handbuch.
9 Woyzeck, Complete Collected Works, New York: Avon Books 1977, pp. 186-187.