Leonce und Lena

Leonce und Lena; Leonce and Lena (written 1836; first published in abridged form 1838; first performed in 1895 in Munich)

Mein Leben gähnt mich an, wie ein großer weißer Bogen Papier, den ich vollschreiben soll, aber ich bringe keinen Buchstaben heraus.


My life yawns at me like an enormous sheet of paper that I am supposed to cover with writing, but I can’t manage a single letter. (Act 1, Scene 3)

This three-act play, Büchner’s only comedy, was written as an entry for the ‘best German comedy’ prize announced by the publisher Cotta. The manuscript missed the competition deadline of 1 July 1836 and was returned unopened, after which point Büchner continued to revise the play. The play was first published in two different, unreliable versions: Karl Gutzkow published an abridged version in 1838 and Büchner’s brother Ludwig published a different version in 1850. Since the original manuscript has disappeared, modern editions of the play are based on an amalgamation of the first two unreliable editions.

This brilliant play contains several intertextual allusions. The most important references are to Clemens Brentano, Ponce de Leon (1803); Alfred de Musset, Fantasio (1834); Friedrich Schlegel, Lucinde (1799); Goethe, ‘Der König in Thule’; ‘The King in Thule’ (1774); Die Leiden des jungen Werther; The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774/87); Italienische Reise; Italian Journey (1817); Shakespeare, As You Like It (c. 1600), Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), Hamlet (c. 1600) and Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759-67). John Reddick (see reading list below, p. 217) and Andrew Webber (see reading list below, p. 88) argue that this use of montage is an essential part of the play’s aesthetic strategy.

In Act One, Prince Leonce of Popo, disgusted by his own idleness, jokes around with his jester Valerio. Leonce’s father, King Peter, is more concerned with Kantian philosophy than with his own people. Leonce’s girlfriend Rosetta appears and dances for him, but Leonce tells her that his love for her has died, and so she goes away. The President of the State Council appears and tells Leonce that his bride, Princess Lena of Pipi, will arrive tomorrow. Leonce decides to flee to Italy. Meanwhile, Lena also decides to flee, rather than have to marry a man she has never met.

In Act Two, Leonce and Valerio have travelled through around 20 principalities in half a day. They arrive at an inn. In Act 2, Scene 2, Leonce declares his interest in morphology; then Lena and her governess arrive at the same inn. Leonce hears Lena’s voice and falls in love with her. They meet in the garden in the moonlight and Leonce kisses Lena. She runs away. Leonce attempts to kill himself by jumping into the river but Valerio (wearing a yellow waistcoat like Goethe’s Werther) prevents him.

By the beginning of Act Three, though, Leonce has been cured of his morbid romanticism, and has decided to marry Lena and be happy. Now in a sanguine mood, he announces his marriage to Valerio and remarks:

Weißt du auch, Valerio, daß selbst der Geringste unter den Menschen so groß ist, daß das Leben noch viel zu kurz ist, um ihn lieben zu können?


Do you know, Valerio, that even the most insignificant person is so great that even a whole lifetime would be much too short to love them?

Meanwhile in the Kingdom of Popo, the people have been waiting for many hours to see the royal wedding, and are showing signs of fatigue. Finally Leonce, Lena, Valerio and the governess arrive, wearing masks. Valerio takes off a whole series of masks and announces that the two world famous robots have arrived. The king orders the robots to be married so that the royal wedding can be celebrated ‘in effigy’ at least. Leonce and Lena get married and then are pleasantly surprised to discover each other’s true identities. King Peter retires, handing over reigning power to Leonce. Leonce decides to turn the kingdom into a theatre, to have all clocks destroyed and to forbid all calendars.

The play combines political satire with reflections on the performativity of human identity and the ways in which people are at the mercy of biological compulsions, such as the need to urinate (this is a running gag throughout the play) and the need to love. As Valerio puts it in Act 3, Scene 3:

der Mechanismus der Liebe fängt an sich zu äußern […]


the mechanism of love is beginning to manifest itself […]

Further Reading

Louise Adey, ‘Leonce und Lena: Time, Love and Language’, in Büchner in Britain: A Passport to Georg Büchner, ed. by Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1987), pp. 19-28

Laura Bradley, ‘Stealing Büchner's Characters: Leonce und Lena in East Berlin’, Oxford German Studies 35:1 (2006), 66-78

Peter M. Musolf, ‘Parallelism in Büchner's Leonce und Lena: A Tragicomedy of Tautology’, German Quarterly 59:2 (1986), 216-27

John Reddick, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Martin Swales, ‘The Fragility of High Comedy: Büchner’s Leonce und Lena’, in Erbe und Umbruch in den neueren deutschsprachigen Komödie: Londoner Symposium 1987, ed. by Hanne Castein and Alexander Stillmark (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1990), pp. 71-85

Andrew Webber, ‘Büchner: Leonce und Lena’, in Landmarks in German Comedy, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), pp. 87-102