Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund; es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinabsieht. (H2, 8)
Every person is an abyss; it makes you dizzy when you look down inside.
The theatre director Max Reinhardt called Woyzeck ‘das stärkste Drama der deutschen Literatur’; ‘the most powerful drama of German literature’ (see Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal; Work Journal; 20 May 1942; BFA, vol. 27, p. 99).
The drama shows the murder of Marie by Woyzeck, a man suffering from hallucinations and sexual jealousy. The final scene of draft H1 (H1, 21) shows the authorities preparing the execution (legal murder) of Woyzeck.
The play is based on the actual case of Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780-1824). After serving in the Prussian army Woyzeck returned to his home city of Leipzig in 1818. There he began a relationship with Johanne Christiane Woost. Woyzeck objected to Woost’s relations with Leipzig city soldiers and in early 1821 Woyzeck was sentenced for physical violence towards Woost. He served a prison sentence lasting eight days. Once released, he was homeless, unemployed, and living as a beggar (this is not the case with Büchner’s character, who has a somewhat more regular income). Woyzeck stabbed Woost to death on the evening of 2 June 1821. He was immediately arrested and confessed to the crime. On 24 August 1821 Dr Johann Christian August Clarus was appointed to write a report on Woyzeck’s mental condition. The report was written after five interviews with Woyzeck and delivered to the court on 16 September 1821. Dr Clarus’s conclusion was that Woyzeck was fully accountable for his actions, despite his hallucinations. Based on this report Woyzeck was sentenced to execution by decapitation. In November 1822 the authorities received a letter from Dr Bergk questioning Woyzeck’s accountability on the basis of his hallucinations, and so Dr Clarus was called to write a second report. He interviewed Woyzeck five more times and delivered the new report on 28 February 1823, which confirmed his earlier findings. Woyzeck was finally executed on 27 August 1824. Dr Clarus’s second report was published in 1825 and the first in 1826; they were used as sources by Büchner [see below, Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch, pp. 104-05]. Excerpts from the two reports are reproduced in Büchner, Werke und Briefe, Münchner Ausgabe, ed. by Karl Pörnbacher et. al., pp. 630-53.
The Four Drafts, H1-H4
When Büchner died on 19 February 1837 Woyzeck was still unfinished. Published versions of Woyzeck are all composite, synthetic versions derived from the three surviving manuscripts, which are written on ‘booklets’, each booklet formed from sheets of paper folded in half to form two leaves and four ‘pages’. Manuscript (1) is a folio set consisting of five booklets, which contain H1 and H2. Manuscript (2) is a single sheet of quarto paper containing H3 (just two scenes). Manuscript (3) is six pages folded to make six quarto-sized booklets; this is H4. H1 is the first version and H4 is the last version.
H1 consists of 21 scenes. In it, the main characters are called Louis and Margreth. Scenes 1-3 are set in the fairground. Scenes 4-13 develop the theme of jealousy. Scenes 14-21 depict the murder and its aftermath.
H2 consists of 9 longer scenes. In it, the main characters are called Woyzeck and Louise (or ‘Louisel’). In H2 the characters of the Doctor and the Hauptmann (Captain) have been introduced. H2 ends with Louise praying alone; the murder is not depicted.
H3 consists of only two scenes. H3, 1 is ‘Der Hof des Professors’; The Professor’s Courtyard’. H3, 2 is ‘Der Idiot. Das Kind. Woyzeck’; ‘The Idiot. The Child. Woyzeck’. In H3, 2 the Idiot, Karl, chants that Woyzeck has fallen into the water, and Woyzeck’s child rejects him. This suggests that Woyzeck does not commit suicide after the murder, in contradiction to the first Karl Emil Franzos edition of 1879. However, H3 1 and 2 are not generally included in published versions, because we do not know if, or where, Büchner planned to insert them.
H4 consists of 17 scenes. The main characters are now called Woyzeck and Marie. 6 of the scenes are new. H4, 3 is entitled ‘Buden. Lichter. Volk’; ‘Booths. Light. People’ and is then left blank. The final scene, H4, 17 is a discussion in the Barracks (Kaserne) between Woyzeck and Andres. The murder is not shown.
As a result of the gaps in H4, the most recent ‘Studienausgabe’ (Student Edition) of Woyzeck, edited by Burghard Dedner (see below), offers a composite version based principally on H4, but with H4, 3 filled in with from H1 and H2; and the last seven scenes taken from H1, 14-21.
Some published versions, including the one on gutenberg.spiegel.de, begin with Woyzeck shaving the Hauptmann (Captain), but none of Büchner’s drafts begin in this way. H2 and H4 begin with Woyzeck and Andres in an open field, and so this should be used as the opening scene.
The four drafts are reproduced in the two critical German editions listed below. The student edition edited by Dedner is particularly recommended. For a detailed analysis of the drafts, see Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch, pp. 98-103 [in German] and John Reddick, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole, pp. 291-302 [in English].
Like Büchner’s short story Lenz, Woyzeck is notable for its use of parataxis. Parataxis is the placing together of sentences, clauses or phrases without using conjunctive words, e.g. ‘Hurry up, it’s getting late’. Here is an example of parataxis from the very beginning of Woyzeck, draft H4:
‘Ja Andres; den Streif da über das Gras hin, da rollt Abends den Kopf, es hob ihn einmal einer auf, er meint es wär ein Igel.’; Yes Andres; the strip over the grass there, the head rolls there in the evenings, someone picked it up, he thought it was a hedgehog.’
(H4, 1. Source: Woyzeck. Studienausgabe, ed. by Burghard Dedner (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999), p. 145. Not available on gutenberg.spiegel.de).
Büchner’s use of parataxis in Woyzeck creates an antilinear, fragmented dramatic form, which anticipates the work of Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett in the 20th century.
The play does not say why Woyzeck murders Marie. Because a clear moral framework is lacking, Woyzeck contravenes the genre of tragedy, which clearly distinguishes between good (noble) and evil (base, villainous) actions. In Woyzeck traditional moral explanations are called into question, for example in Woyzeck’s conversation with the Hauptmann (Captain) in H4, 5.
Büchner’s Woyzeck suffers as a result of his position in society, although he is not quite as destitute and desperate as the historical Johann Christian Woyzeck. Woyzeck murders Marie from sexual jealousy like Shakespeare’s Othello; although Marie’s infidelity, unlike Desdemona’s, is real enough. But Marie is so low down in the social scale that she envies high-class prostitutes (‘Madamen’).
One of the central themes of this play is: to what extent is Woyzeck morally accountable for his actions? Dr Clarus’s report had emphasised Woyzeck’s accountability (Zurechnungsfähigkeit). In Büchner’s play, however, when the Doctor reprimands Woyzeck for urinating against a wall, Woyzeck replies:
Aber, Herr Doktor, wenn einem die Natur kommt.
But Doctor, Sir, if nature comes at you.
Here Woyzeck excuses himself by implying that people are at the mercy of human nature, although when Marie sleeps with the Drum Major (Tambourmajor) Woyzeck fails to excuse her. The question of moral accountability is related to the question of what distinguishes human beings from animals. This problem is implied by the intelligent horse in the fairground scene.
The terse language of the play is perfectly suited to a world where mental imbalance and cruelty seem virtually omnipresent. The Hauptmann (Captain) has depression (he becomes melancholic when he sees a mill wheel); the Doctor seems delusional and sadistic; and the Tambourmajor is a vicious brute. The hopelessness of the play is encapsulated in the Grandmother’s tale to the children. And yet it is hard not to love Woyzeck and Marie.
Woyzeck had a decisive influence on modern German drama in the 20th century, and especially on the work of Georg Kaiser, Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller.
The Austrian composer Alban Berg composed an opera inspired by the play: Wozzeck (first performed 1925).
The director Werner Herzog made a film version of Woyzeck in 1979 starring Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes.
Elizabeth Boa, ‘Whores and Hetairas. Sexual Politics in the Works of Büchner and Wedekind’, in Tradition and Innovation: 14 Essays, ed. by Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1990), pp. 161-81
James Crighton, Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner’s Lenz and Woyzeck (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1998)
Kerry Dunne, ‘Woyzeck’s Marie “Ein schlecht Mensch”? The Construction of Female Sexuality in Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Seminar 26:4 (1990), 294-308
Robert Gillett, ‘Ave Marie: Büchner’s Woyzeck and the Problem of the Tragic Female’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 92-102
Richard T. Gray, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment in Büchner’s Woyzeck’, German Quarterly 61:1 (1988), 78-96
Richard T. Gray, Stations of the Divided Subject (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), Chapter 5 on Woyzeck
James M. Harding, ‘The Preclusions of Progress: Woyzeck's Challenge to Materialism and Social Change’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 29:1 (1993), 28-42
Dorothy James, ‘The “Interesting Case” of Büchner’s Woyzeck’, in Patterns of Change: German Drama and the European Tradition: Essays in Honour of Ronald Peacock, ed. by Dorothy James and Sylvia Ranawake (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), pp. 103-19
Svend Erik Larsen, ‘The Symbol of the Knife in Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Orbis Litterarum 40 (1985), 258-81
Laura Martin, ‘“Schlechtes Mensch/Gutes Opfer”: The Role of Marie in Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck’, German Life and Letters 50:4 (1997), 429-44
John A. McCarthy, ‘Some Aspects of Imagery in Büchner's Woyzeck’, Modern Language Notes 91:3 (1976) 543-51
Ken Mills, ‘Moon, Madness and Murder: The Motivation of Woyzeck’s Killing of Marie’, German Life and Letters 41:4 (1988), 430-36
Paul Peters, ‘Wozzeck/Woyzeck: Büchner versus Berg’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 38:3 (2002), 241-60
John Reddick, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
David G. Richards, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck: A History of its Criticism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)
Peter Schwartz, ‘“Guckt euch selbst an!” Büchner’s Woyzeck and the Pericope Adulterae’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 79-91
Peter D. Smith, Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780-1955 (Oxford: Legenda, 2000), Chapter on Woyzeck
Joseph H. Stodder, ‘Influences of Othello on Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Modern Language Review 69 (1974), 115-20
Andrew Webber, ‘Büchner, Woyzeck’, in Landmarks in German Drama, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2002)
Recommended German Editions of Woyzeck
Georg Büchner, Woyzeck. Studienausgabe, ed. by Burghard Dedner (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999)
Georg Büchner, Werke und Briefe. Münchner Ausgabe, ed. by Karl Pörnbacher, Gerhard Schaub, Hans-Joachim Simm and Edda Ziegler (Munich: Carl Hanser / Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988)
Further Reading in German
Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch. Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2009)
Woyzeck in German; click on a word for the English translation