“Running through the world like an open razor, you’re bound to cut someone”
–Georg Büchner, Woyzeck
What does one make of this line uttered by the Doctor about the main character, Woyzeck?
The quoted line marks, without exaggeration, the beginning of Theater after 1789. Prior to the French Revolution, every dramatic play, whether it was English, French, German, or Italian, comedy or tragedy, reaffirmed the social order, Church and Crown, and human relationships within a stable social context. Shakespeare, for all his range and rhetoric across genres, always ended on a moral note that reestablished the Status Quo.
Georg Büchner would demolish all of that by first making common street people, men and women you know and can identify with, the main characters in his drama; and he often had his plays end with an existing order destroyed. His proletariat characters, while servants, do not ape their social superiors or stay obedient to their place in the social schema; they are too busy trying to survive. Büchner anticipates Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, and Beckett.
Georg Büchner is not a name that, I think, most readers know. He lived a brief 23 years, dying of typhus in 1837. He was a man of many talents: poet, political essayist, dramatist, scientist, and translator. As a political agitator through his pamphlet, Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Messenger) he championed social equality and justice. Here are a few sedate lines:
“Peace to the huts! War on the palaces!”
“The breath of an aristocrat is the death rattle of freedom.”
“We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.”
“The state is therefore everyone; the rules within the state are laws which safeguard the welfare of all and which must originate from the welfare of all.”
As a playwright, Büchner was responsible for Danton’s Death (1835), about the French Revolution and arguably his most Shakespearean play; for the short story, Lenz (1835), about another writer, Jakob Lenz, and considered the beginning of European expressionistic prose, according to Arnold Zweig; a comedy, Leonce and Lena (1836), a satire disguised as a comedy and considered one of the best comedies in the German language, according to Erich Kästner; and then there is Woyzeck, his masterwork play, which exists in four versions – revisions, yes, but not because the author was unhappy with his endings, but rather that he had envisioned four possible conclusions. Alban Berg would do an opera, Wozzeck (1924), but misspelling the name because of a printing error. Werner Herzog would commit Woyzeck (1979) to film. Last but not least, Büchner translated two of Victor Hugo’s plays.
His talent was not limited to literature. Büchner was a scientist, having written a dissertation on the cranial nerves of fish that so impressed his examiners that he bypassed his oral examination and was appointed to a professorship in anatomy at the University of Zurich.
The sharp blade is a recurring motif in Woyzeck, as are animals, science and the doctor, and the cold, clinician’s language. The main character, Woyzeck, is a working-stiff prole, a man of the people, whose only joy in life is his Marie. In trying to navigate the dirty streets and to keep his head above poverty, he allows himself to become a guinea pig for an insensitive doctor’s experimentation. The humiliation Woyzeck endures is two-fold: he is forced onto a diet of peas and he has to urinate on command, having the doctor inspect and quantify his output. In one scene of desperation and defiance, Woyzeck pees on the wall. The doctor confronts him. Pissing on the wall becomes a man’s symbolic act of autonomy against mounting degradation. It could be said that Büchner anticipates political ownership of one’s own body. The play is ripe for debate on ethics and science, human dignity and class warfare, the exploited against their abusers.
The knife will return. Woyzeck will eventually kill Marie when he learns of her infidelity with a visiting Drum Major. Is Woyzeck also a play about domestic violence and a documentary on how far a man is pushed before he loses his mind? Is this Kafka before Kafka? Büchner no less a political scientist also as he addresses and dissects sanity and insanity. One of the four endings to the play explores the insanity defense in a criminal trial that is still relevant today. Büchner ripped Woyzeck from the headlines centuries before the Law & Order franchise and its spinoffs existed.
In anticipating what we call ‘modern drama,’ Georg Büchner gave us common people, ordinary lives pushed to extraordinary extremes, their stories often told in a schizoid narrative. His characters are not monsters but they do monstrous things. Context is everything. Büchner may have anticipated Beckett’s absurdity and nihilism, and Brecht’s provocation that the audience must judge its peers, but he did so with unswerving compassion and mercy, because their world is our world. How many of us think we are normal, living out our lives at a frantic pace that we have come to accept as ‘modern,’ juggling the encroaching demands of work, family, and technology with only so many hours in a day. Do not our actions and our words, when pushed to the edge, become no less dangerous than a straight razor?