Saturday, May 29, 2010

Büchner: The Complete Plays, edited by Michael Patterson (1987)

As I mentioned in my post on Woyzeck, I also read the rest of the works in Büchner: The Complete Plays, edited by Michael Patterson (1987), with the exception of Danton's Death, which is also on the western canon list and which I will probably get to in about 2045.

Georg Büchner
(1813-1837) managed to squeeze quite a bit into his 23 years of life, and this collection documents his many facets -- political revolutionary, dramatist, biographer, scientist, son, and fiancée:

The Hessian Courier (1834)
This was a revolutionary and really quite illegal pamphlet that Büchner wrote with a radical clergyman. Inspired by the French revolution, Büchner called for the German peasantry to rise up against the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. He argues logically (including lots of facts and statistics) that the rich were living off of the work of the poor and not giving the poor anything in return. Over Büchner's objections, his partner added religious language that he thought would appeal more to the rural poor. The pamphlet was printed and distributed twice, but in both cases the revolutionary nature of the work scared everyone who was meant to read it, and anyone who did get their hands on a copy immediately turned it over to the local police. Several conspirators were arrested and tortured, but Büchner managed to escape the country and live out the rest of his short life in exile in Strasbourg (where he had previously lived as a student) and Zurich. His experience with The Hessian Courier proved to him that revolutionary action was ineffectual, and while there are some political themes that run through his literary works and letters, he never returned to the political stage.

Lenz (1835)
This novella, based on the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (a literary contemporary and romantic rival of Goethe) was one of my favorite pieces in the collection. Büchner focuses on the period in Lenz's life when he has been exiled from the court of Weimar and subsequently suffers an attack of paranoid schizophrenia. He goes to the mountains of Alsace to stay with the clergyman J. F. Oberlin and regain his sanity, but his mental state goes downhill and he ends up returning to Eastern Europe with his brother. Büchner paints a convincing and sympathetic portrait of paranoia and depression, a state that he had some familiarity with himself.

Leonce and Lena (1836)
This comedic play was written for a literary contest, but submitted past the deadline and returned to Büchner unopened. It was not published or produced until after his death. This is a romantic comedy of mistaken identity, filled with word play, with an obviously Shakespearean influence. When the prince of the kingdom, an unrepentant playboy who is bored with his affluent life of leisure, is forced into an arranged marriage, he and his sidekick take off on a road trip to avoid being tied down. Little does he know that his fiancée, who he has never met, had the same idea and also escaped the castle with her governess. It is pretty easy to guess what happens next, and everything coalesces into a very satisfying play. I, of course, can't read the original German, but the translation is crisp and the playfulness and puns in the dialogue all seem to come through.

On Cranial Nerves (1836)
The opening remarks of this scientific lecture given by Büchner as part of becoming a member of the teaching staff at Zurich University show his humanism and his philosophical rather than mechanical view of science.

The book also includes excerpts from Büchner's letters to his family, fiancée, and friends, as well as descriptions of Büchner from his contemporaries, which were all very revealing and fun to read. Each piece in the collection, as well as the book as a whole, is given an insightful introduction by the editor, Michael Patterson. I don't always enjoy introductions in a book, but Patterson gives just the right amount of context and interpretation and his clear prose is a pleasure to read. If you are looking to insert a little 19th century German literature into your life, you can't go wrong with this extensive collection of the works of Georg Büchner.

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