Thursday, May 20, 2010

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1837)

The next stop on my journey through Harold Bloom's western canon is the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (written in 1837, unfinished because Büchner died [at the age of 23!], and not published until 1875 or staged until 1913).

I had some familiarity with Woyzeck through Werner Herzog's 1979 movie starring Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes (trailer here -- no English subtitles, but you don't really need them). It's been quite awhile since I've seen the film, and now that I've read the play I'm excited to see it again. From what I can remember, Herzog follows Büchner's script pretty well. However, since Büchner never finished the script, several different versions of the play have been edited together and performed over the years, and each director or editor has been able to put his or her own mark on the sequencing and staging of the play.

In the play, Woyzeck is a soldier. He has a son with his common-law wife Marie, but they don't have enough money to get the proper papers to get married. There doesn't seem to be any war going on, so most of Woyzeck's soldiering involves digging ditches and shaving the commanding officers. He is a haunted man and doesn't seem to be particularly at ease with life, possibly in part because he is eating nothing but peas as part of a medical experiment to earn extra money for Marie and the baby. A handsome and fancy Drum Major catches Marie's eye and seduces her, and when Woyzeck finds out, he goes mad and kills her.

It may seem like I've given away the whole thing, but what is really interesting about the play doesn't have anything to do with the plot. The plot, in fact, was taken from a real life "true crime" case of a man (named Woyzeck) who killed his wife in a jealous rage. Rather than carrying the reader with its plot, Woyzeck brings us in through its episodic structure, the humanity and suffering of the characters, and the buffoonery of the authority figures. It is because of the strong characters and episodic plot that each director of the play can mold it to his or her own vision without losing Büchner.

I got Woyzeck as part of a larger book of Büchner's complete plays and other writings, and read all of them except Danton's Death (which is also on the western canon list). I'll do a second post for the other plays and works in the larger book because I am too excited about Büchner to put it all in one post!

[Awesome Woyzeck poster found here.]

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