Georg Büchner 1813-1837
(Full name Georg Karl Büchner) German playwright and novella writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Büchner from 1964 through 2001. For additional information on Büchner's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 26.
Büchner is known for the few works he composed during his brief life: the novella fragment Lenz (1839) and the plays Dantons Tod (1835; Danton's Death), Leonce und Lena (1838; Leonce and Lena), and Woyzeck (first published in 1879). In these works Büchner rejected the idealism of the Romantic movement, which dominated German letters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; instead, he sought to realistically depict what he saw as the hopelessness of life in a world where isolation, monotony, and suffering prevail and are perpetuated by deterministic historical and biological forces. This pessimistic view of life, along with the innovative techniques he used to obtain a sense of realism, gives Büchner a greater affinity with authors of the modern era than with those of the nineteenth century. Additionally, his link to several later developments in drama, among them Naturalism, the Theater of the Absurd, and Expressionism, has frequently been observed by scholars.
The eldest of six children, Büchner was born in Goddelau, Germany. His family moved in 1816 to nearby Darmstadt, the capital of the duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. During Büchner's school years his father, a physician, encouraged him to study the sciences, while his mother nurtured in him a love of literature and art. He left for France in 1831 to study medicine at the university in Strasbourg. At that time Strasbourg was a refuge for German liberals seeking asylum from the widespread political repression in the German states following the Napoleonic Wars. Because of a law requiring all Hessian students to attend a native institution for at least two years in order to receive a degree, however, Büchner returned to Hesse in 1833. He continued his studies at the university in Geissing and there become involved in radical politics. Early in 1834 he and some fellow students founded an underground revolutionary group, the Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte (“Society for the Rights of Man”), whose aim was to reform the Hessian government and social structure. Shortly thereafter Büchner wrote a seditious pamphlet in collaboration with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, an aging liberal devoted to revolutionary causes. The pamphlet, Der Hessische Landbote (1834; The Hessian Courier), was distributed secretly among Hessian peasants and workers by the society but had very little effect on them. (Indeed, many of the copies were handed over to the police.) After returning to his parents' home in Darmstadt while authorities conducted an investigation into the pamphlet's distributors, Büchner began to write his first play, Danton's Death, in the early months of 1835. Hoping the play's publication would help finance his escape from Germany before his impending arrest, Büchner sent the manuscript to Karl Gutzkow, a young German man of letters who succeeded in selling it to a publisher. Before he received payment for the play, however, Büchner was forced to flee the country. Subsequently, he renounced all revolutionary activity and resumed medical studies in Strasbourg, where, after writing a well-received dissertation, Sur le système nerveux du barbeau (“On the Nervous System of the Barbel”), he obtained his doctorate. During this time he also composed Leonce and Lena for a romantic comedy contest, wrote Lenz, and began work on Woyzeck and possibly on Pietro Aretino, a play that has since been lost. In late 1836 he moved to Switzerland, where he taught at the University of Zurich. Early the following year, Büchner became ill with typhus. He died in February 1837 at the age of twenty-four. Following Büchner's death, his family would not allow his manuscripts in their possession to be published. Moreover, Wilhelmine Jaegle, to whom Büchner was secretly engaged in Strasbourg and who initially cooperated with Gutzkow by sending him Leonce and Lena and Lenz for publication in his periodical Telegraf für Deutschland, eventually became unwilling to surrender the other writings by Büchner that she owned. She destroyed all of her copies of his writings before she died in 1880. The first significant and complete edition of Büchner's works did not appear until 1879, when Karl Emil Franzos issued Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß after years of interviewing Büchner's acquaintances and collecting his manuscripts, letters, and papers. In the 1880s the popular German playwright Gerhard Hauptmann enthusiastically praised Büchner, and in 1902 and 1913, respectively, Danton's Death and Woyzeck were given their first stage productions.
In his early political pamphlet The Hessian Courier, Büchner and his co-author urged the lower classes to violently rise against the landed aristocracy, basing this exhortation on the grounds of radical socioeconomic reasoning for the period. The work had little tangible effect, although it has since been regarded as an original and innovative revolutionary manifesto. Büchner's first literary work, Danton's Death is frequently regarded as an expression of the author's subsequent disillusionment with radical politics. The play focuses on the last days of French Revolutionary leader Georges Jacques Danton, who, after the new regime had been established, became a proponent of peace and thus came into conflict with fellow insurrectionist Maximilien de Robespierre. Accusing Danton of trying to overthrow the government, Robespierre has him guillotined. Büchner depicts Danton as a passive hero who succumbs to the forces that oppose and torment him. These forces, ostensibly Robespierre and his adherents, are in the abstract a historical inevitability, what Büchner called in an often-quoted letter the “terrible fatalism of history.” While the dialogue of Danton's Death makes explicit Büchner's deterministic views, the themes of his later writings are more implicitly expressed. In the comedy Leonce and Lena, the title characters, the Prince of Popo and the Princess of Pepe, are unwilling victims of a mutually unsatisfying arranged marriage. They each attempt to escape their fate by running away, but they meet again, neither realizing the other's identity. Ultimately they fall in love and, when their identities are revealed, marry. Seemingly a derivative and light romantic comedy, Leonce and Lena features dark overtones of suicidal boredom, pessimism, and despair, themes that are also emphasized in Büchner's last, uncompleted play, Woyzeck. The title character of this later play is a poor young army private who, driven to madness by jealousy and his vision of a wretched and futile existence, murders his girlfriend and then commits suicide. Regarded as one of the first plays to portray a lower-class hero, Woyzeck is often perceived as a work of trenchant social criticism. The forces oppressing Woyzeck are represented by three grotesque figures from a higher social class, each deeply motivated by the repressed hopelessness and suffering that characterize the universe of Büchner's plays. These characters include the Captain, who continually berates Woyzeck; the Drum Major, who is having an affair with Woyzeck's girlfriend; and the Doctor, who uses the private as an experimental subject, feeding him nothing but peas in order to determine his minimal nutritional requirements. Büchner's only work of prose fiction, the novella fragment Lenz, is based upon an episode in the life of Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) playwright Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. This work portrays the gradual deterioration of Lenz's mind, culminating in his total mental collapse. To achieve realism in the story, Büchner employs a complex technique of shifting viewpoints to render each subtle nuance of Lenz's situation. Within a given paragraph, Büchner will often begin by describing a scene from the viewpoint of an objective third-person narrator, then abruptly switch to Lenz's sensory and psychological perspective, a method deemed very effective by critics.
Since the discovery of Büchner's works in the late nineteenth century, criticism has been for the most part positive, underscoring a shift in aesthetic sensibilities that has made his writings far more acceptable to modern literary tastes than those of Büchner's own time. While some commentators have pointed to the discursive, unrefined quality of his writings, arguing that they lack the polish achieved by more mature artists, most contend that Büchner attained a remarkable artistic and philosophical sophistication during his brief life. Woyzeck, despite its unfinished state, has generally been regarded as Büchner's masterpiece. Together with the somewhat more thematically transparent Danton's Death, this play is thought to evince Büchner's unique philosophical outlook, since recognized as a forerunner to twentieth-century Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. Equally noted by scholars are the aesthetic concerns and techniques displayed in these works. Büchner's forward-looking dramatic methods and theories, traced by a few commentators to the works of William Shakespeare and the Sturm und Drang playwrights, are more typically thought to anticipate techniques employed by twentieth-century playwrights, particularly Bertolt Brecht. Additionally, Büchner's novella Lenz has generally been considered a seminal piece of German prose fiction, and a work that demonstrates Büchner's break with the dominant literary aesthetics of his age. In an early part of the story, Lenz discusses his theories of art, attacking the idealism of the German Romantics. Lenz states, “I demand of art that it be life. … Let them try just once to immerse themselves in the life of humble people and then reproduce this again in all its movements, its implications, its subtle, scarcely discernible play of expression.” While some critics have argued that this statement merely summarizes Lenz's views on art, most critics accept it as also epitomizing Büchner's aesthetic precepts.