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The play Woyzeck presents characters and situations that are self-contradictory in the sense that they are naturalistic but are also surreal to the point of prefiguring the theater of the absurd of nearly a century later. Is it primarily a work of realism? Perhaps, but the drama tests our willingness to accept exaggeration and a grim sort of parody as representative of the human condition.

Woyzeck is the proverbial little guy, a victim of bad luck but also of the forces of the establishment around him. He's pushed around and abused by the Captain, the Doctor, and his girlfriend Marie. The Captain says,

You're stupid, horribly stupid!—Woyzeck, you're a good man, but—Woyzeck, you have no morality! Morality, that's when one is moral, you understand. It's a good word. You have a child without the blessing of the church, as our respected garrison preacher says...

But when, in response, Woyzeck quotes Jesus's words, the Captain doesn't know what he's talking about. The Doctor, a man supposedly dedicated to healing, uses Woyzeck as an experiment, restricting his diet to peas and then congratulating himself when Woyzeck begins to fall apart both physically and mentally. Both the Captain and the Doctor are caricatures, but as in a satire, which Woyzeck is in some sense, there is a "higher" truth embedded in this. As social criticism, it's realistic. The plight of a working man who cannot control his life is central to the story. When his girlfriend cheats on him, he goes berserk. The fact that a dreamlike, bizarre atmosphere pervades the play does not prevent a naturalistic message from coming through. Woyzeck is expressive of a qualified realism that somehow embodies a negation of literal realism within itself.

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