Friday, 28 July 2000

Georg Bũchner: Woyzeck (1837, published 1879)

Translation: Gregory Notton, 1996
Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 555

Like Samuel Butler in England, Bũchner was derided and unpublishable in the nineteenth century, yet has gone on to be seen as an influential forerunner of twentieth century literature. As is the case with The Way of All Flesh, it is easy to see why Woyzeck seemed so strange and even dangerous. The structure of the play immediately strikes the reader (a stage production would hide this aspect of it to a certain extent). Instead of the conventional three or five acts, the play consists of twenty four fragmentary scenes whose order is not even certain. Even on stage it would soon become clear that Woyzeck is not a flowing narrative; the audience member or reader has to do quite a lot of work just to have some idea of what is going on. Characters appear and disappear, little reference is made to earlier scenes; to those who read the manuscript on Bũchner's death, the play probably looked more like notes for a work in progress than a complete drama.

The themes of the play are also typically twentieth century: it is about madness. Woyzeck, a private soldier, dissolves into insanity as a result of brutal treatment by his military superiors and the unfaithfulness of the woman he loves, and ends up a murderer and suicide. The whole process is distinctly unsettling.

The unsettling quality is preserved by the famous (and fabulous) operatic version of the play by Berg. The opera is named Wozzeck, and some character names are different; this is because Bũchner's handwriting and the quality of the manuscript were between them so bad that early German editions contained many gross mistakes not rectified until techniques developed during the Second World War were applied to them.

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