Subjugated to Manipulation: The Freedom of Will in Büchner’s Woyzeck
Karl Georg Büchner (17 October 1813 – 19 February 1837) was a German playwright, natural scientist, poet, and writer, who was a member of the literary group Young Germany. To this end, he was also considered a revolutionary, as the liberal movement was against the reactionary politics of the Restauration. In 1831, Büchner was introduced to politics and furthered his understanding of political history through French literature. His studies also took him to Gießen and Zurich, and proved so successful that medical dissertation, Mémoire sur le Système Nerveux du Barbeaux (Cyprinus barbus L.), was published and distributed in several cities and universities. With this publication came the award of his M.D. and Büchner’s final months were spent writing and lecturing at the university in Zurich before he succumbed to typhoid fever at the young age of 23 (Helock).
The play Woyzeck was written by Georg Büchner shortly before his death and is considered an important reflection of Naturalism. This disjointed theater piece involves a poor soldier, Woyzeck, and his common-law wife, Marie, with whom he has a child and whom he kills at the end of the story, due to her affair with the Drum Major. Of the many themes in this play, it is mental instability, freedom of will, and repressed emotions to be the most reflective of Woyzeck’s plight. Even in the beginning of the play, Woyzeck is having apocalyptic hallucinations of fire, darkness, and the Freemasons returning. As the story evolves, the reader notices that his madness is brought on by the Doctor, who inhumanely subjects him to tests (such as eating only peas, being the least cruel of his experiments), and the Captain, who is unreasonably obsessed with Woyzeck’s rushed activity and attempts to control him and his pace of life. Although the Captain employs Woyzeck with various mundane activities such as shaving him, he barely pays Woyzeck enough wages for a healthy living standard.
These two characters, the Doctor and the Captain, make for interesting case studies, as they both have peculiarities about their manipulative natures and display cognitive dissonance. For instance, when the Doctor catches Woyzeck urinating on the side of the building, he goes on a rant and paces – only to contradict himself by telling Woyzeck how calm the Doctor feels and his rationale for why he finds anger to be unscientific. Similarly, as previously mentioned that the Captain despises rushing, he berates both the Doctor and Woyzeck for their haste and yet is described as being out of breath in multiple passages, such as the ninth scene. This scene is prime for epitomizing the personalities of the Doctor and the Captain, both who hold themselves in very high regard.
As they interact, it becomes clear that the Doctor has a burning desire to experiment and be world-renowned in his practice. He eagerly attempts to persuade the Captain to become his patient and urges, “I could do some experiments that would put your name in the annals of medical history.” Uninterested with being the subject of study, the Captain not only prefers being the manipulator rather than the manipulated, but also he plays into the role of the virtuous victim. A few quotes which support this theory include the Captain’s line, “A good man with a clear conscience doesn’t rush about like that. Grant me the privilege of saving a human life.” The Captain also exposes his fears of failure and being forgotten, as he cries out, “Doctor, please stop – I get so depressed…I see my coat hanging on the wall with nobody in it and I burst into tears” (Büchner 29). Of these two characters, however, it is the Captain who is the most insidious, as he is the one to disclose Marie’s affair to Woyzeck. Still feigning virtue, the Captain tells Woyzeck that divulging this secret is him “only trying to help” (Büchner 31).
Given that Büchner died before finishing this drama, it is up to interpretation of how the author might have rearranged the scenes and established an ending – if any – to this piece. The disjointed scenes and murky ending, however, has made way for many adaptations of this book by various authors, playwrights, and directors. The classic work of literature has been read as a book, performed as a play and an opera, and even brought to life on screen as a film, with the most notable adaptation by the acclaimed German film director Werner Herzog. Woyzeck has also been utilized in studies of philosophy; play’s structural relationship to time and space as well as themes of freedom and causality reflect allusions to the philosopher Schopenhauer’s question of determinism and freedom of will (Weber). Rivaling the pessimism in previous German literature, Georg Büchner illuminates ethical issues while leaving the reader feeling as helpless and ignorant as Woyzeck himself.
Büchner, Karl Georg. Woyzeck. 1832. Rudall, Nicholas (trans.), Ivan R. Dee, 2002, Chicago, IL. PDF.
Helock, Steven. “Karl Georg Büchner.” German Literature in Translation. 23 January 2017. Florida State University. Lecture.
Weber, Dana Alina. “Büchner’s Woyzeck through Schopenhauer.” German Literature in Translation. 25 January 2017. Florida State University. Lecture.
Woyzeck as a symbol for Powerlessness and Suffering
Woyzeck is a very politically charged production with a great deal of room for symbolistic interpretations, however, with the circumstances of Buchner’s political life taken into consideration, it’s clear that they follow a pattern. Buchner’s revolutionary tendencies bleed into the script of Woyzeck in showing the shortcomings of the societal system that he operates in, and how that system leaves its subjects powerless. Woyzeck’s powerlessness in his society ultimately is what leads to his downfall as he’s attacked on all fronts.
To break this down a bit, Woyzeck’s powerlessness is emphasized in several key parts of the script, specifically the scene in which he is shaving his commanding officer and the officer directly belittles him for his position in the world, and the scenes in which he is utilized as a test subject for experimentation, and of course, his partner’s alleged affair with the drum-major.In the first example, Woyzeck is subjected to a show of power that is admittedly cliche, but effective nonetheless, as he is given the means and the power to easily assert his dominance over his commanding officer with a knife to the throat, and yet, is unable to act on that impulse, as he has neither the choice nor the ability to not submit to the authority of his superior. This is one of the first examples we see of his powerlessness in life, and it is one of the most straightforward ones, which gives it the least amount of weight, but regardless, still sets him on the path to self-destruction, which Buchner makes clear in his play was nearly unavoidable. With the world that Woyzeck inhabits, his only choices are to be destroyed by the oppressive world that is driving him into madness or to be destroyed by himself.
In the experiment scenes, we see a bit more of how the world drives him to the low-point at which he chooses to destroy himself, as he is stripped of his humanity and dignity. Placed on a peas-only diet, he finds himself urinating on the street and suffering from mild delusions and hallucinations, and is encouraged by the doctor to lose increasingly more of his humanity and is treated more as a test-subject than as a person. Furthermore, he is put on display in front of the audience being bitten by a cat that is being bitten by a flea and showcased in a meta-narrative showcase of Woyzeck as the embodiment of human suffering. Although he is referred to as a “truly human specimen”, the fact that he is labeled in that way brings both himself and the concept of the human race down to a more animalistic level. As animal imagery is so present in the script via the circus scenes, this serves to invert the symbol and use the label of “human” ironically in order to drive the point still further of humanity being a creature that was made to suffer and being repressed by an institution that exploits him for the gain of socially elite.
Then, of course, the crux of the production is the hardest hitting display of powerlessness as he is rejected in his social life. His partner’s infidelity with the drum-major is both a humiliation and a final defeat, as the most important figure in his private life rejects him and is the last straw that sends him spiraling into madness. She chooses a socially superior man in the drum-major, who is more animalistic, but simultaneously more powerful (both in status and physique, as is proven when Woyzeck picks a fight with the drum-major to defend his honor and Woyzeck loses by a wide margin). It is then that Woyzeck decides to make the only choice he can to assert his own power and dominance in any facet of his life by killing his partner, which ironically is one of the most powerless things that he could have possibly done, as it is a completely self-destructive act. While it does liberate him from the torment of a powerless life and alleviates some of his hallucinations, it does also lower his status to that of a fugitive and makes him ultimately responsible for the wrongs in his life rather than the system which has wronged him. This is even further exaggerated when he tries to collect his child after the fact and the child also rejects him for the act that he has done: pushing away the innocent bystander, who is also the only person that had yet to usurp his power.
Understanding these facets of the play is more explicitly clear when understanding Buchner’s life, and it becomes apparent that his intended symbolism was a dark message on how deeply flawed the political and social system was, and that Woyzeck was a commentary on why it needed to be overturned. As Buchner died before the play was completed, it’s an ironic truth that it showcased his own powerlessness as much as it did Woyzeck’s.