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...
(The entire section is 933 words.)