23 May 1975: Büchner, Voyzeck

University of Massachusetts Amherst Studio Theatre. Translated by David M. Knauf

A smoothly paced, varied production. Woyzeck, the luckless soldier, is hounded by a spiritual malaise he cannot explain. Around him he finds only the uncomprehending eyes of officers in authority and the Bohemian dwellers in hell. The setting, nominally the town of Giessen, resembles the interior of an infernal cathedral; a rose window stands at the apex of the scene, sometimes turning into a hot red sun or sullen moon, and along the perimeter of stage space, punctuating entrance areas, are dull, horrid gargoyles. The slanted playing area features a running cable halving the playing space and allowing chairs and larger pieces to be brought quickly in and out. Along the perimeter of the stage are raised platforms, where a mixed assembly of drunkards, prostitutes, denizens of slums, and soldiers on the make gathers. The tempo of the performance is partly owing to communal choric sounds — comments, grunting noises, off-key pitches — and partly to the arrangement of the scenes. The progress of the play is through an alternation of low-key scenes between Woyzeck and one or two other people, and scenes of revelry, mayhem, carnival, and the like, where the concerted efforts of the cast create the effect of sprawling, inchoate life.

Against this background the hapless Woyzeck works out his catastrophic destiny. A malcontent who in one scene pleads the cause of the hungry, disenfranchised poor of the world and in another tries desperately and futilely to hold onto the whore, Marie, whom he loves (in his own way) and who has borne him a son, Woyzeck can find no rest. He is already desperate as the play opens, and his alternatives are non-existent. The world is closing in. “Woyzeck, why are you always running?” Asks his Captain, a decent man who likewise feels the “urges of the flesh.” But Woyzeck cannot slow down, and he soon runs all the way to his death, executed (we infer) for the murder of Marie, who, he believes, has been unfaithful to him. Yet none of these events, or their combination as the action of this frenetic, chaotic play, are real correlatives to the nameless Angst that drives this man.

Büchner left the play unfinished at his death in 1837, a striking anticipation of the plight of the twentieth-century existential hero — or antihero, whose voice echoes subliminally in the awareness of the modern audience. A good many of these values emerge in this production, directed with verve by Harry Mahnken. The sound effects wear thin toward the end; they become what they ought never to become: predictable, prosaic. The promised inferno of the setting is not fully achieved. Yet it does carry us, in its ambience, and focuses our attention on the gaunt, lonely figure of Woyzeck himself, striving against the unnameable; hopeless, lost. The program note describes the play as an “anti-romantic, starkly realistic tragedy.” There is scarcely any of these things. Its form — to the extent that it is blessed or cursed by form — is that of the familiar panoramic Shakespeare-mit-Goethe affair, departing from this only in its relative lack of clear orientation. As for realism, the play about the common man goes back to George Barnwell a century before, and falls into the convention of domestic drama that comes down from the Elizabethan theatre in such deathless dramas as The Yorkshire Tragedy (which Woyzeck in part resembles) and Arden of Feversham. The tradition of domestic drama helps to explain a great deal of Woyzeck‘s form and subject, including its ostensibly fresh anti-providential cosmography. What it doesn’t explain is Büchner’s idiosyncratic genius, which finds in these somewhat tired materials the potential of new life, and breathes it, gasping yet vital, into his play. After this, it doesn’t much matter if the play is a tragedy or not.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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