Analysis of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck

The story of a simple soldier who murders his girl in a fit of jealous rage becomes the theme of a tragedy which Büchner wrote during the last months of his life. The play comes to us a fragment without a real ending. It nevertheless has become Büchner’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed work. There is something almost uncanny about the spell it casts over audiences. Extraordinarily short, it vibrates with its compact intensity. A good performance need last no longer than forty minutes, although there are almost thirty scenes. The new dramatic structure, first attempted in Danton, is here brought to perfection. The division into acts disappears and so does character development. Plot is kept to a minimum. Just a series of stark pictures, brief confrontations between a humble man and the various people who populate his narrow world. . . . It is especially the structure of the play which strikes us today as radical, but in 1837, when Büchner planned to publish it, the theme would have been just as startling. Here is a proletarian tragedy, some eight years before the modern bourgeois tragedy had been made respectable with the appearance of Friedrich Hebbel’s Maria Magdalene! Even more shocking: kindly sympathy for a man who viciously murders a woman right on the stage! And it is not just any murderer, for Woyzeck is not the perverse invention of a writer, but an extraordinarily faithful portrait of one of the most publicized killers of the time.

—Ronald Hauser, Georg Büchner

When tracing the development of the modern theater, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck is arguably the most significant European drama of the 19th century. Writing decades before the first appearance of the works of Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, or August Strindberg—the conventional founding fathers of modern drama—Büchner opened new doors and broke down previous bar-riers to dramatic expression. Woyzeck is one of the first plays in Europe about ordinary people. It radically alters the established Aristotelian dramatic formula by presenting “a poor good-for-nothing” as its tragic hero. A lower-class character, formerly marginalized and ignored in previous plays, suitable not for a revealed subjective or moral life but for comic relief, takes center stage for the first time. Büchner extends to his proletarian protagonist the same serious consideration formerly reserved for the heroes of high rank and stature of past tragedies. Woyzeck, however, does not just democratize drama by introducing a radically new dramatic subject. Concerned with the ways in which individuals are shaped by surroundings and social position, Woyzeck anticipates literary naturalism by almost a half-century. By its treatment of a notorious real-life murder case, Woyzeck is also one of the earliest examples of documentary theater and has been praised as the greatest social drama in German literature. Its open-ended, fragmented structure projecting internal, distorted states of mind anticipates expressionism, while its reduction of experience down to the incongruous and bizarre anticipates the theater of the absurd. For all of these reasons many critics have claimed Büchner as the first truly modern dramatist, and Woyzeck as the paradigm-shifting modern play. In 1941 critic Kurt List declared that Woyzeck “more and more has come to be the keynote of modern times,” and critic George Steiner has argued that Woyzeck “poses in a new way the entire problem of modern tragedy.” These are remarkable claims for the work of a playwright who died by the age of 23 and never saw a single one of his three plays performed. It would take nearly 50 years after his death for Büchner to be recognized in his native Germany as a distinctive and important literary figure and almost a century for international recognition of Woyzeck as one of the crucial works of world drama.

This early 19th-century writer who seems so uncannily to anticipate and predict our own time’s literary methods and existential concerns was not an anomaly but fully a man of his time. Karl Georg Büchner was born in 1813 in the German village of Goddelau in Hesse, the eldest of six children. His father was a successful physician, an enthusiast of the French Revolution, and a fervent supporter of the social reforms instituted by Napoleon in Germany. While his father encouraged the young Büchner’s interests in natural science and history, his mother, an ardent German nationalist who applauded Napoleon’s downfall, fostered her son’s reverence for nature and love of literature. Educated at the gymnasium in Darmstadt, where his family had moved when he was three, Büchner showed considerable intellectual promise and independence, including skepticism about received wisdom and rebelliousness against authority. His was the postromantic generation, contending with the collapse of the social idealism of the French Revolution and the repressive return to authoritarian dogmatism following Napoleon’s defeat. The collapse of the democratic and romantic values stimulated by the French Revolution caused Büchner and other intellectuals of his time to search for a new belief system, a new realistic faith to oppose discredited romantic idealism and the despotism that followed. In 1831 Büchner studied medicine and natural science at the University of Strasbourg, which had become a haven and gathering place for Germans seeking intellectual freedom from the conservative and oppressive authorities across the border. There Büchner advocated democratic reforms in Germany and protested the increasing suppression of political opposition in France by the restored monarchy. Returning to Germany to continue his studies at the University of Giessen in 1833, Büchner founded the secret Society for Human Rights for students and laborers dedicated to radical social change. He also collaborated in 1834 on the political pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Messenger) that promulgated his view that social reform in Germany would only come through the revolutionary awakening of the disenfranchised, oppressed, and impoverished German peasantry aligned with enlightened industrialists, politicians, and intellectuals. Under threat of arrest as a subversive Büchner returned home to Darmstadt. There, between October 1834 and January 1835, he composed his first play, one of the great imaginative works on the French Revolution, Danton’s Tod (Danton’s Death). Blending documentary and biographical materials into a series of scenes that echo William Shakespeare in its dazzling inventiveness and intellectual reach, Büchner presents the story of a dedicated social idealist who sees his dreams wrecked by the pettiness of others and by his own natural weaknesses. The play’s passive hero whose progress rests in self-knowledge and increasing social awareness, as well as the play’s episodic structure that proceeds by analogies, contrasts, and juxtapositions rather than through conventional continuities, would supply the model for Woyzeck. Before Danton’s Death could be published in a German journal, however, Büchner fled the country, returning to Strasbourg after receiving a summons to appear in court. In Strasbourg he would complete a second play, the satirical comedy Leonce und Lena and the psychological novella Lenz. He also finished his research and dissertation on the nervous system of fish and received his doctorate from the University of Zurich, where he was offered a faculty position. While lecturing there in comparative anatomy during the autumn and winter of 1836–37, Büchner composed several draft versions of Woyzeck, which remained unfinished at his death from typhus in February 1837.


Woyzeck originated in Büchner’s reworking the details of three case histories of soldiers who murdered their mistresses. These crimes formed the basis for the playwright’s consideration of the conjunction between environment and psychology behind such violent acts. Of these the case of Johann Christian Woyzeck provided the play’s essential details and title. In Leipzig in 1821 Woyzeck, a 41-year-old homeless ex-soldier and onetime barber, was apprehended for the stabbing death of a 46-year-old widow, his former mistress, whom Woyzeck killed in a jealous rage. Confessing fully to the police, Woyzeck was summarily tried and found guilty after evidence of insanity was discounted by the expert testimony of Dr. Johann Clarus, a clinical professor at the medical school of the University of Leipzig. After examining Woyzeck on several occasions, Clarus judged him free of any physical or mental impairment to justify the suspension of his legal responsibilities. “The only motive for the crime,” Clarus concluded, “was the preponderance of passion over reason.” Eventually, after three years of legal proceedings, Woyzeck was executed in 1824, the first public decapitation in Leipzig in a generation. The notorious Woyzeck murder case, in which no miti-gation in either the defendant’s mental or social situation was allowed to compromise the pursuit of justice, provided the material for Büchner’s reexamination of the factors that could drive an ordinary man first to madness and then to murder. As critic Ronald Hauser summarizes, Büchner “used the historical incident to develop an answer to that question he had once posed in a letter and later put into Danton’s mouth: ‘What is it in us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?’ ”

The dramatic response to this question takes the form of a series of nearly 30 disjointed vignettes showing Woyzeck’s temperament and response to his environment that lead him to suspect the infidelity of his mistress, Marie, through his murder of her and to its aftermath. In a sense Büchner rewrites William Shakespeare’s Othello, with the heroic Venetian general replaced by an inconsequential foot soldier and Iago by various representatives of the empowered in society who are complicit in causing Woyzeck to run “through the world like an open razor.” To tell Woyzeck’s story Büchner explodes the closed form of neoclassical drama substituting an open, nonlinear form that more closely resembles a modern poetic sequence that moves not from crisis through rising action to climax but by juxtaposing images that generate contrasts and deepen context. As the play opens Franz Woyzeck, a lowly soldier who supports his mistress and child by doing odd jobs such as gathering firewood, shaving the captain, and participating in a doctor’s medical experiments is already beset by the psychological disintegration that will result in his jealous rage and murder of Marie. Cutting branches in an open field with his comrade Andres, Woyzeck observes:

You know this place is cursed? Look at that light streak on the grass. Over there where the toadstools grow. That’s where the head rolls every night. One time somebody picked it up. He thought it was a hedgehog. Three days and three nights, and he was in a box. Andres, it was the Freemasons, don’t you see, it was the Freemasons!

The play opens then with Woyzeck’s deranged revelation. His surrealistic visualization that includes a hallucination of a fire breaking out in the nearby town symbolizing the coming apocalypse establishes him as both a visionary and psychotic. The next scene introduces Marie and establishes that their domestic happiness has been undermined by Woyzeck’s being haunted by “Something that I can’t put my hands on, or understand. Something that drives us mad.” The initial scenes, therefore, pose the question of what has caused Woyzeck’s decline and breakdown. A symbolic answer is indirectly suggested in the next scene set at a fair in which a barker pitches the extraordinary ability of his performing horse:

This is no dumb animal. This is a person! A human being! A human brute! But still an animal. A beast [The horse conducts itself indecently]. That’s right, put society to shame. As you can see, this animal is still in a state of nature. Not ideal nature, of course! Take a lesson from him! . . . What we have been told by this is: Man must be natural! You are created of dust, sand and dung. Why must you be more than dust, sand and dung? Look there, at his reason. He can figure even if he can’t count it off on his fingers. And why? Because he cannot express himself, can’t explain. A metamorphosed human being.

If the horse on show here is a metamorphosed human being, Woyzeck is a metamorphosed animal, a lower-class trick pony to serve and entertain his betters but denied his humanity. Like the performing horse, Woyzeck is inarticulate because self-expression and communication have been overruled by his betters and repression has pushed him to a psychic break.

Subsequent scenes show this clearly. The Captain’s condescending moral idealism inflates his own superiority by degrading Woyzeck. The Captain uses conventional morality, or at least moral jargon, to limit and control him. “Woyzeck, you have no morality!” says the Captain. “Morality, that’s when you have morals, you understand. It’s a good word. You have child without the blessings of the Church, just like our right reverend garrison chaplain says.” Woyzeck’s defense cites the words of Jesus to “Suffer the little children to come unto me” but draws only another outburst from the Captain: “Woyzeck, you have no virtue! You’re not a virtuous human being!” Woyzeck responds: “You see, us common people, we haven’t got virtue. That’s the way it’s got to be. But if I could be a gentleman, and if I could have a hat and a watch and a walking-stick, and if I could talk refined, I’d want to be virtuous all right.”

Woyzeck’s dilemma of being denied his humanity is underscored in his relationship with the Doctor. If the Captain represents inhumane morality, the Doctor symbolizes inhumane science. Put on a diet of peas for the Doctor to study the effect on his urine, Woyzeck is reprimanded by the Doctor for urinating without permission:

I saw it all, Woyzeck. You pissed on the street! You were pissing on the wall like a dog! And here I’m giving you three groschen a day plus board! That’s terrible, Woyzeck! The world’s becoming a terrible place, a terrible place!

Woyzeck’s defense is that he was only following Nature, prompting the Doctor’s response:

What has Nature to do with it? Did I or did I not prove to you that the musculus constrictor vesicae is controlled by your will? Nature! Woyzeck, man is free! In Mankind alone we see glorified the individual’s will to freedom! And you couldn’t hold your water!

When Woyzeck asserts his will and confesses his understanding of the world’s “double nature” and the voices he hears, he gains only the Doctor’s labeling jargon as a more interesting specimen: “Woyzeck, you have a most beautiful aberration mentalis parialis of a secondary order! And so wonderfully developed! Woyzeck, your salary is increased.”

Woyzeck’s dispossession and disorientation under the treatment of society’s authority figures leads Marie to seek relief in an affair with a drum major, and her infidelity is the final impetus toward Woyzeck’s psychic break. Taunted by the Captain and the Doctor that another man’s beard hair is in his soup bowl, Woyzeck discovers Marie dancing in the arms of the Drum Major. The scene produces a new apocalyptic vision of venal carnality:

Woyzeck: (choking) Don’t stop! Don’t stop! (beating his hands together) Turn and roll and roll and turn! God! Blow out the sun so they can roll on each other in their lechery! Man and woman and man and beast! They’ll do it in the light of the sun, they’ll do it in the palm of your hand like flies!

Woyzeck’s vision of the human beast leads him to kill Marie, who has become the incarnation of the evil that has tormented him. Ironically Woyzeck turns his existential fury on the one person he most loves, becoming the instrument of both of their deaths. Psychologically Woyzeck has internalized the regression to animality that society has defined for him and becomes its agent for self-destruction.

The play makes clear how wholly inadequate was the diagnosis of Dr. Clarus and the understanding of the murder of the actual Woyzeck. Büchner’s drama widens sensibilities and sympathies so that Woyzeck becomes not an anomaly but representative, and his crime, a symptom of a far more complex and widespread social, moral, and psychological malaise. On one level the murderer is shown to be the ultimate victim of a society that has enshrined human reason and morality but denied its extension to the dispossessed, marginalized, and invisible among us. On another Büchner offers a radically altered sense of who the victim is in this existential tragedy. The true death-dealers here are the Captain, the Doctor, and the other respectable agents of civilization who cannot see with the clarity of the visionary Woyzeck and Büchner.

On multiple levels Woyzeck announces new possibilities for drama. It gives voice for the first time to individuals previously silenced in our literature. It points the way for a new kind of drama that is both intensely social and psychological. It puts in place a new operating system of dramatic construction that opens up the stage to the power of the psyche, dreams, and the associational logic of poetry.

Categories: Drama Criticism, German Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature

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