Critical Evaluation

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Georg Büchner’s untimely death in 1837 was fortunate in one respect: His play Woyzeck remained unfinished. Had he lived to polish the play’s structure and bring it, as most scholars agree was his intent, to its logical conclusion with Woyzeck’s trial, conviction, and execution, the result may have been an interesting, perhaps even pioneering work, but it would not have been the completely unprecedented, startling piece that it is in its unfinished state. Indeed, the unordered succession of scenes and fragments seems out of place in the early nineteenth century, seeming to belong much more comfortably with the tortured expressionism of the early twentieth century.

Because the style and the structure of the Woyzeck fragments are so perfectly wedded to the work’s characterization and theme, the play has, in whatever order it is presented or read, the inevitability of a finished product. One version ends with the court clerk describing the crime with relish as a “beautiful murder,” and another ends with the children excitedly rushing off to view Marie’s body before the authorities move it. The other obvious aspect of the play’s being incomplete is the fact that it breaks off shortly after Woyzeck murders Maria, but this very lack of resolution is ideally suited to reflect not only the uncertainties of the twentieth century worldview but, more important, those of Woyzeck’s world. The play offers no consoling gesture, just as Büchner offers Woyzeck none. All of society’s institutions fail Woyzeck, who is tragic not because he is a great man brought low but because he started low and never had a chance.

Büchner was caught up in the radical protest politics of his day and his primary thematic intent in Woyzeck was no doubt political. Woyzeck’s troubles can be traced most directly to his low economic class. His pay is so meager that he is forced to hire himself out for scientific experiments that play havoc with his health. Even with supplemental pay, he cannot afford to marry Marie, whose affection, as long as he thinks he has it, is the one redeeming feature of his life. Since they cannot afford to marry, their child is illegitimate and cannot be baptized. Marie is as much a victim of poverty as is Woyzeck. She worries about her bastard child and is so pathetically eager for something to take her away from her drab surroundings and circumstances that she takes up with a vulgar drum major who can afford to buy her a few trinkets.

Poverty, though, is just one aspect of Woyzeck’s world that makes his life so hopeless. No age is free of poverty, but most ages offer consolations to the poor, the most obvious being religion, with its promises of the hereafter. Actually, Woyzeck is filled with religious imagery and direct quotations from the Bible, but these, rather than healing and consoling, tend toward the apocalyptic and anticipate violence to come. At moments, Marie is acutely aware of her “fallen” state, feels painful remorse, and calls on God for mercy. It is Woyzeck who summons up the apocalyptic imagery, and his wrath most closely resembles the biblical prophets impatient of evil. Had his moral vision been less rigid, Woyzeck might have accommodated himself to the world’s imperfections and not been driven to violence; had Marie not come equipped with moral sense, she might at least have enjoyed her dalliance and not been afflicted with remorse. These two not only do not profit from their religious beliefs but are plagued by them.

It is in Büchner’s century that there was, at least among many intellectuals, a movement away...

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from religion as a guiding principle and source of truth. What replaced religion for many of these apostates was science. Here, too, however, Büchner was ahead of his time, forWoyzeck manifests modern cynicism about the wisdom and worth of scientists and science. Woyzeck’s being forced to hire himself out as a guinea pig for the doctor’s experiments, who wants to observe the effects of a diet of peas, underscores both the evils of poverty and the inhuman arrogance of science. Indeed, Woyzeck’s depression and psychosis were certainly exacerbated by a diet lacking in vitamins and other nutrients. Like the god of religion, the god of science fails Woyzeck.

Referring to Woyzeck as a guinea pig is in keeping with the play’s animal motif. Horses, monkeys, and lizards are all present or at least referred to, always with a direct or implied comparison to human beings. The horse can count as well as a person; the monkey sports a uniform and sword just like a soldier; and the death of a lizard, the doctor maintains, would be a greater loss to his experiment than the death of Woyzeck. This underscores the pessimism of the play and also prefigures Charles Darwin, who not long after Büchner’s death was to rock the world with the theory that human beings were not higher beings close to a god of creation but animals that, like all animals, evolved according to laws of nature.

Although Woyzeck is a brilliantly conceived character, the play is not a character study so much as the dramatization of the spirit of an age about to be born. Woyzeck is an Everyman suffering through an age when the old certainties eroded and the new ones are suspect. Driven to desperation like so many of his fellow human beings, Woyzeck can only lash out and destroy, but that, too, brings only pain.