Thursday, 1 October 2015

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner

Woyzeck is a play by German playwright Georg Büchner (1813-1837).

It is a simple story of a a soldier, Franz Woyzeck. He loses his sanity due to cruel treatment he receives from his captain and a doctor. The Doctor uses him for deranged experiments, like making only eat peas for three months. Woyzeck has an unmarried relationship with a woman named Marie, and they have child together. When he discovers that Marie is cheating on him with another man, this is the final humiliation. Woyzeck kills her and then apparently drowns. Whether he killed himself or it was an accident is left to interpretation.

The play was unfinished at the author's death and is in a very fragmentary state.  Scenes begin and end abruptly, and their order in which they are supposed to be is very uncertain. Matters weren't helped much by the difficulty in deciphering Büchner's handwriting and the physical decay of the original manuscript.

What does emerge through the murk is however a work that is far ahead of it's time. This is one of the first works of fiction to look at the psychological and especially social causes of crime.
Woyzeck's insanity and murder is for Büchner the product of the soldier's awful treatment by his social superiors.

There is of course a strong criticism of class society implicit in this. Woyzeck is the ordinary proletarian, who is in the end a victim of an unequal society.

The portrait of the Doctor, and his truly sickening experiments, is an early warning against the potential for medicine and science to have a dehumanizing effect. A portrayal of the very forces that would later produce Mengele.

There is an truly excellent operatic adaptation by Alban Berg, called Wozzeck. It is one of the true masterpieces of modernist music.

Woyzeck is a truly great play, astounding in it's psychological depth and prophetic in it's social criticism. It is unfinished, but it accomplishes more than most finished plays do.

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