A turning point in my undergraduate years came when I was allowed to choose which authors to study.
At this point, I became earnestly interested in writers who, by an extraordinary coincidence, had either died young or whose literary output was, shall we say, modest in quantity. Nothing to do, of course, with lack of scholarly assiduity on my part, or aiming to navigate a degree course doing the barest minimum. It just so happened that, suddenly, it was no more no more Thomas Mann massive Magic Mountains for me and adieu to Proust’s interminable temps perdu.
I conceived instead a deep admiration for Kleist (suicide pact at 34), Kafka (died of tuberculosis at 40), Rimbaud (gave up poetry while still a teenager and got into gun-running in Africa instead), Camus (killed in a car crash —never let your publisher drive)— and I had a special liking for Büchner, who died at the tragically early age of 23.
Woyzeck might have been unfinished and left in fragments, but it was more than good enough for me.
The play has electric dramatic tension and it all springs from the eponymous poor soldier’s mental and emotional strain, ratcheted up from the first moment, when Woyzeck is splitting firewood and talks about a head rolling down a bank of nearby grass every evening. He is spooked by curses and freemasonry. We sense that his instability is going to create drama. We just don’t know yet what it will be.
The social order —and this, I think, is Büchner’s main point— offers no chance to a decent but manically disturbed fellow like Woyzeck, born to poverty and designated the role of underling. As we know, the millionaire madman is an eccentric whose whims should be indulged, whereas the poor one is of no import, to be dealt with, employed usefully when possible, or else restrained.
Similarly, virtue is presented as a luxury that poor folk like Woyzeck and Marie, mother of his illegitimate baby, cannot afford. In the conversation with the Captain, it is clear that virtue is socially understood to be about keeping up appearances. “Es muß was Schöns sein um die Tugend, Herr Hauptmann. Aber ich bin ein armer Kerl.” [“Virtue must be very nice, sir, but I’m just a poor devil.”]
To the self-satisfied Captain, the soldier thinks too much, which is not conducive to the status quo. To the Doctor, he is a curious medical experiment. To Marie, who also feels every right to look after number one, even if that means guiltily offering herself to the Drum Major, Woyzeck’s lowly position and affliction don’t offer enough.
Woyzeck’s hypersensitivity has him living on a knife edge as sharp as the razor he shaves the Captain with. He is highly suggestible and takes apocalyptical biblical prophecy and teachings at face value. The one authority figure missing from the play is a cynical Priest to ridicule his innocent belief.
Büchner does not show his unlikely hero as insane so much as uneducated and highly strung. His hysteria, fired up by betrayal, produces striking imagery: “Sehn Sie ein schön, festen, groben Himmel, man könnte Lust bekomm, ein Kloben hineinzuschlagen und sich daran su hänge” [“You see a fine, solid, filthy sky and you might just want to hammer a peg into it and hang yourself”]
For one of the best performances of Woyzeck, see Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s movie.