Looking at Danton’s Death and Woyzeck in their historical perspective, it is evident that Georg Büchner’s realistic portrayal of the speech, humor, and demeanor of people from the lower classes would not have been acceptable except in comical or derogatory terms. The commoner, with his uncouth behavior, his crude jokes, his inability to express himself without resorting to his native dialect, had his place in the comedy—as a clown or fool to amuse—not as a tragic hero in a serious play. Büchner was among the first to break this basic dramaturgical rule. Where Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had made the common citizen a worthy tragic hero in plays such as Miss Sara Sampson (1755; English translation, 1933) and Emilia Galotti (1722; English translation, 1786) by pointing out that the lower classes, too, were capable of heroism and idealism, Büchner went one step further and demanded respect for the humanity of the common people, fear of their power when enraged, and compassion for their plight. In his realistic depictions of life among the lower classes, Büchner emancipated the tragedy by refusing to conform to accepted linguistic norms—for example, by using dialect and indelicate phrases within the drama—and by drawing images of human beings and their sufferings from the underside of society in a manner not extensively explored until such later developments as naturalism and expressionism.
It is clear why Büchner’s vision has influenced many modern writers. Thematically, he anticipated the fundamental concerns of modern drama. His theater is stark, his language forceful yet frequently colorful in its subtle, expressive shadings. His style and method bridge the centuries from the artistry in characterization and the delight in linguistic bawdiness of the Shakespearean stage to the philosophical developments in German theater of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Danton’s Death is an example of Büchner’s linguistic “shock therapy.” Remaining essentially true to the historical occurrences in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Büchner depicts well-known political figures within an environment of sex and violence. With the expertise of a surgeon, he dissects the human animal and bares its physiological and psychological functions and drives. A world of chaos, destruction, and rebirth emerges, in which intense pain follows ecstatic pleasure and in which love and death form a close kinship to provide peace, rest, and relief: “I love you like the grave,” Danton says to his wife, Julie, and explains:They say there is peace in the grave, and that the grave and peace are one and the same. If that is true, then I’m already lying beneath the earth when I rest between your thighs. You sweet grave; your lips are like the mourning bells, your voice is my funeral chime, your breast my burial mound, and your heart my sepulchre.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy is echoed in both the insatiable instinctual drive and in the concomitant quest for peace. As macabre as this depiction appears at first, it nevertheless portrays deep devotion and personal commitment.
Interlaced with this conversation between Danton and Julie is an entirely different one—an interchange between some cardplayers nearby—which attaches eroticism to life and provides it with a lighter side. Love and sex, emotional attachment and physical pleasure, are separated in a remark about a lady who plays her cards right: “They say she offers her husband her coeur and others her carreau.” A third element is introduced by one of the male players: Explaining his losing game, Hérault refers in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the political situation: “The queen was always with child, bearing jacks by the minute. I wouldn’t let my daughter play games like that. The kings and queens fall on top of each other so indecently and the jacks pop up right after.” In depicting the card game in sexually explicitly terms as the game of life, Hérault also expresses his disappointment at the moral depravity of society and in the fact that the execution of one type of moral degenerates (the kings and queens toppling one on the other) gave rise merely to another set of knaves from the lower classes. Here, too, life, death, and eroticism are intertwined, but with an emphasis on continued strife rather than peace. Büchner’s articulation of these events in brilliant wordplay offers a concise expression of life’s phenomena on different levels—realistic, philosophical, political—yet the result appeared offensive, obscene, and even pornographic to the conservative tastes of the time.
The juxtaposition of these two separate conversations (that of Danton and Julie and that of Hérault and the lady), both alive with several shades of meaning and different aspects of life, sets the tone in the very first scene for the structural composition of the drama. Using historical material as background, Büchner superimposes personal glimpses, sketches, fragments, and bits of information to form a collage effect. Gradually, characters are molded not only by the lines they speak but also by shifts in perspective, a special emphasis casting a distinctly different light on a figure, by the imagery and symbolism, and by the masterful manipulation of viewpoint that the use of the short, fragmented scene permits. Linguistic brilliance and innovative structural technique give the drama an atmosphere of stark realism and an air of modernity.
The world that Büchner depicts has moved out of the Romantic age into an era when personal alienation, human and divine indifference, and physical as well as psychological destruction threaten every individual. Nothing is certain, no one can be trusted, former values are stripped of their sentiment and revealed in their naked emptiness. Not even the most intimate of relationships escapes this deadly scrutiny: When Danton claims to know little about Julie and she retorts that he knows her well, he insists: “We have coarse senses. To know one another? We would have to break apart our skulls and pull the thoughts from the brain’s fibers.” The violence that surrounds them permeates and poisons every aspect of life.
In Woyzeck, Büchner dissects not an era but a personality, not history but science. Here he breaks apart the skull of his protagonist and pulls “the thoughts from the brain’s fibers” as he examines the follies of the medical arts. Specifically, Büchner questions what he called in his Zurich lecture on cranial nerves the “teleological” or positivistic method of scientific inquiry and affirms instead the speculative, “philosophical” approach. The play is based on a real incident, the case of a mentally unstable barber, Woyzeck, who was...
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