Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Georg Büchner: Woyzeck

Like his short narrative Lenz, Georg Buchner's celebrated play Woyzeck was based on real events. In this case he was inspired by his critical reading of discussions and debates in medical journals (he was a student of medicine) regarding the case of a man named J. C. Woyzeck who had murdered a woman, a middle aged widow, with whom he had been living, in a fit of jealousy. He had a history of suffering from paranoia and experienced hallucinations. Despite all evidences of insanity and all the scholarly and legal objections, he was found legally responsible for the crime and was executed. This case interested Buchner as he was already interested in mental illness and had explored the same quite brilliantly in Lenz.

Lenz was a just a description of a few days in the life of the titular character and exploration of his mental states during that time. Woyzeck also covers similar territory but it goes a little beyond in that it tries to find reasons and explanations of its character's insanity. Buchner obviously shows enormous sympathy and understanding for his protagonist and tries to locate the sources of Woyzeck's mental illness in the socio-political environment in which he lived. It is in fact considered one of the first examples of "a working class tragedy" and is specially admired (though not limited to) by critics inclined towards Marxism. (Brecht and Georg Lukacs admired it very much and so did Antonin Artaud.) It also shows Buchner's antipathy towards "romantic" art-forms of his time which tended to glorify some ideal of beauty, something he explicitly discusses in Lenz too, and instead focusses on the seemingly ugly and seedy sides of contemporary life and society.

When we meet Woyzeck he is already hearing voices and exclaiming about the threat from freemasons or some such thing, showing that he is already in a advanced state of paranoia. In the next couple of scenes we meet the sadistic captain and doctor who are using him respectively as a servant and a guinea-pig. He is desperately poor and he has accepted these jobs in the hope of earning some money. The two, the captain and the doctor, are also the representatives of the power structures of the society -- the military and the scientific intelligentsia. The captain pontificates about the importance of a moral life and philosophical ideas about freedom and eternity and dismisses Woyzeck for living a life of an animal. He also reprimands Woyzeck for having a child out of wedlock. (He can't marry because he is poor according to some law.) Again showing how utterly irrelevant all the talk of bourgeois moral philosophy is, for someone like Woyzeck, with his proletarian background and his desperate existence. The doctor similarly is using him as an guinea pig for his pseudo-scientific experiments about human physiology. He has kept him on a diet of peas and nothing else and taking his pulse and analysing his urine and again spouting philosophical and scientific nonsense. The whole sequence brilliantly underscores the dehumanising effect of scientific rationality, specially when it is used as an ideology and an instrument of power to oppress rather than to enlighten.

His relationship with his wife is the only remaining source of stability in his life but when even this is exposed as a deceit owing to a fling she has with a drum-major, he is driven to take the final murderous decision after he hears voices urging him to kill his wife. There is a brilliant scene in a cafe where he confronts the drum-major and gets insulted and humiliated in return showing again how even personal and sexual relationships revolve around power. Woyzeck, the powerless, is left with no choice in the end.

Woyzeck was incomplete when Buchner died (at an absurd age of 23.) The manuscript was so fragmented that it was considered unpublishable. Only many decades after his death it was included in the complete edition of his works and it wasn't staged until in the 1920s. Scholars still debate about the missing scenes and dialogues and the order in which scenes appear. The ending is also a matter of speculation. In the standard edition, Woyzeck stabs his wife, goes back to the cafe where people question him about the blood after which he goes back to the scene of the crime and gets back the knife and throws it in the pond. That's where the manuscript ends. Scholars have tried to append more scenes based on his notes about a possible postmortem in which the same doctor again spouts his scientific mumbo-jumbo. Woyzeck either drowns in the pond when he tries to retrieve the knife in order to throw it even farther or else is captured, tried and executed, mirroring the real-life events on which it is apparently based.

Woyzeck is also considered a forerunner of modernism in drama. It doesn't follow the Aristotelian unity and structure of drama. The time lines of the scenes are not really linear and sequences are chronologically vague, the dialogues are unrealistic and are meant to show inner mental states of characters rather than any apparent communication between them. In this sense it is also an early example of literary expressionism. In its portrait of power and how it misuses science and rationality for its own ideological ends, it is also utterly prophetic and modern. He could foresee how science could be appropriated by fascist structures for its own goals, something which eventually came to pass only in the next century. In short it is a fantastic work, a brilliant classic.

There have been many adaptations of the play too including a famous opera by Allan Berg which is called Wozzeck (even the right title of the play was identified as late as the 1920s, after the opera was composed). Werner Herzog's film adaptation is absolutely brilliant too with a stirring performance by Klaus Kinski as Woyzeck. He was born to play this role. I will recommend it without any hesitation or qualification. I had earlier linked to an essay by George Steiner in the TLS. Previous post on Lenz here.


KUBLA KHAN said...

alok...well written post. i happened to read Lenz a few days back. the prose is quite impressive and some passages are brilliant.the description seemed suggestive of psychosis, and that was well written. i have not read Woyzeck yet. of all german writers, Buchner writes differently and quite well too. nothing about his prose seems archaic....in fact it is surprisingly lush.i have a feeling that he might have been depressed himself or melancholic, if not ill.
i had been aiming to write about Lenz but maybe another time.

Alok said...

I don't know, not much about his personal life is known I think. One thing that is noticeable is that his writing is not agitated at all, there is calmness, patience and a detached understanding of what the character is going through. the pastor featured in the story himself wrote about Lenz which buchner read and incorporated into his narrative.

also unlike many young and precocious writers he doesn't really seem to be a totally intuitive writer. he is widely read and trying to raise and question various philosophical ideas of his time in his books. he is definitely not one of those young and mad geiuses.... young and genius may be but not mad.

though i am convinced that artistic inspiration and a tragic sense of one's condition always go hand in hand.

Antonia said...

Büchner wasn't crazy, melancholy yes, but not crazy. Those people, Lenz and Woyzeck, actual medical documents exist on them and Büchner used this when he wrote these pieces. He was a doctor himself and very, like zou say, alok, calm and clear sort of person. He was also very aware of political injustices and wrote treatises on them, he had a very broad approach....young and genius is exactly right.

Alok said...

yes, that's exactly what one feels reading his works. In fact the edition I have contains some of his scientific writings as well. He seems to be struggling with finding some way of reconciling the idea of human self and personality with scientific findings about the physiology of brain, which is one of the themes of this play as well.

btw, you must have a germanic keyboard. was wondering about the umlauts.. or did you use html codes? they look good but i felt lazy to write down everywhere in the main post.

Antonia said...

new computer, alok, i deserted to become an apple user and there is such a little function with whom you with one click can change the nationality of the keyboard. If there wasn't this function I would be too lazy too to write all those different signs with html- I was wondering how you do write the hindi. Hindi keyboard? You are right about this brainidea in Büchner ß and ten you must also have this little essay he wrote at school on cato and suicide? But in the play itslf it turns out that Büchner does not see a way to reconcile brainphysiology with personality, as the sad scene with the doctor and Woyzeck explains.

Alok said...

I used the new transliteration feature in blogger. It is actually quite easy because hindi pronunciations are quite straightforward and easy to distinguish.

Will see again if the edition contains that essay. Didn't read the complete book. though i don't think it does.