Georg Büchner's talent is generally held in great esteem in Germany. It is widely believed that, but for his early death, he might have attained the significance of such central German literary figures as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. His works are hard to categorize. Written before the height of realism, they nonetheless display many realist sensibilities. Büchner seemed to share the revolutionary aim of Young Germany, but remained a committed Christian. He was as accutely aware of spiritual reality as he was social inequalities and the need for political change.
Born in Goddelau near Darmstadt, Hesse-Darmstadt, the son of a doctor, Büchner attended a humanist secondary school that focused on modern languages, including (French, Italian and English). Nevertheless, Büchner studied medicine in Strasbourg.
In 1828 he became interested in politics and joined a circle of William Shakespeare aficionados, which later probably became the Gießen and Darmstadt section of the Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte (Society for Human Rights). In Strasbourg, he immersed himself in French literature and political thought. While not officially a member of Young Germany, he became involved in the students' movement, attacking the ruling class. Buchner embodied both the radicalism of the time with a fervent Christianity.
In 1835, Büchner translated two works by Victor Hugo, Lucrèce Borgia and Marie Tudor. Two years later, his dissertation, "Mémoire sur le Système Nerveux du Barbeaux (Cyprinus barbus L.)" was published in Paris and Strasbourg. He was influenced by the utopian communist theories of François-Noël Babeuf and Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon.
While he continued his studies in Gießen he established a secret society dedicated to the revolutionary cause. With the help of Friedrich Ludwig Weidig he published the leaflet Der hessische Landbote, aimed at the perceived political education and indoctrination of peasants. Charged with treason, Büchner fled to Switzerland.
In 1835, his first play, Danton's Tod (“Danton's Death”), a pessimistic treatment of the famous Girondist party member during the French Revolution, was published, followed by Lenz (first partly published in Karl Gutzkow's and Wienberg's Deutsche Revue, which was quickly banned); Lenz is a novella based on the life of the Sturm und Drang poet Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. In 1836 his second play, Leonce and Lena, a satire on the ill-defined dreams of Romanticism, followed. His unfinished and most famous play, Woyzeck, anticipated the social dramas of Henrik Ibsen and the dramatists of the 1890s. It was the first literary work in German whose main characters were members of the working class. Published posthumously, it became the basis for Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (premiered 1925).
By the 1870s, Büchner was nearly forgotten in Germany when Karl-Emil Franzos edited his works, which later became a major influence on naturalism and expressionism. Arnold Zweig called Lenz, Büchner's only work of prose, the "beginning of modern European prose."
Woyzeck is Büchner's finest play, but he left the work incomplete at his death. It has been variously and posthumously "finished" by a variety of authors, editors and translators. Woyzeck has become one of the most-often performed and influential plays in the German theater repertory.
Büchner probably began writing the play between June and September 1836. It remained in a fragmentary state at the time of his early death in 1837. Woyzeck was first published in 1879 in a heavily reworked version by Karl Emil Franzos. It received its first performance on November 8, 1913 at the Residezentheater, Munich.
Woyzeck concerns the dehumanizing effects of doctors, the military, and women on a young man's life. Woyzeck is conscious of his crushing poverty, but unable to change the circumstances that seem to control his life. It is often seen as “working class” tragedy, but it is a difficult work to categorize. It is more than a social drama, although there is little question that the play reveals a character that is held back by his circumstances, and suggests the nineteenth-century sensibility that individual progress must first be preceded by social reform. The play is loosely based on the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker who murdered Christiane Woost, a widow with whom he had been living, in a fit of jealousy in 1821 and was subsequently publicly decapitated.
Franz Woyzeck, a lowly soldier stationed in a provincial German town, is the father of an illegitimate child by his mistress, Marie. Woyzeck earns extra money for his family by performing menial jobs for the Captain and agreeing to take part in medical experiments conducted by the Doctor. As one of these experiments, the Doctor tells Woyzeck he must eat nothing but peas. It is obvious that Woyzeck's mental health is breaking down and he begins to experience a series of apocalyptic visions. Meanwhile, Marie grows tired of Woyzeck and turns her attentions to a handsome drum-major. With his jealous suspicions growing, Woyzeck confronts the drum-major, who beats him up and humiliates him. Finally, Woyzeck stabs Marie to death by a pool. He drowns while trying to hide the knife in its waters.
Woyzeck is a comment on social conditions as well as an exploration of complex themes such as poverty. Woyzeck is considered as morally lacking by other characters of higher status, such as the Captain, particularly in the scene in which Woyzeck shaves the Captain. The Captain links wealth and status with morality suggesting Woyzeck cannot have morals as he is poor.
It is the exploitation of the character Woyzeck by the Doctor and the Captain which ultimately pushes him over the edge.
Woyzeck has seen many interpretations, including an adaptation into an opera by Alban Berg (Wozzeck), a movie by Werner Herzog, and a musical by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits, the songs from which are on Waits's Blood Money album. Nick Cave has also written music for an Icelandic production of the play.
All links retrieved May 26, 2017.
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