Saturday, March 21, 2015

Woyzeck - Georg Büchner

I'm going to try very hard not to make this an ode to John Reddick, but it will be difficult because I can not fathom Büchner without him. (Also he dedicates this book to Sarah, who missed out last time by not yet existing...need I say more? Obviously he's the man.)

But to get back to Woyzeck, here is a play that is barely 30 pages long, with even more of Büchner's trademark brevity than usual. Before his play could be finished, while in Zurich, Büchner had contracted typhus and became a statistic in what had become an epidemic. What he left behind was a fragmented play in four folios without chronology or even a cast of characters. While this is an editor's nightmare, it is also the perfect opportunity to shine and Reddick brings to life the skeleton that Büchner left behind.

In a nutshell, Woyzeck is a play about a crime of passion; Woyzeck, suspecting his mistress is cheating on him, murders her in cold blood.  But of course, it is not that simple. Büchner is interested in a specific question: "Are people truly in control of their actions and therefore accountable for them? Or are they driven willy-nilly by inner compulsions and/or outer circumstance - by their elemental natures, by visions and illusions, by ambition or convention, by poverty and exploitations?" (Notes, pg.251)

Reddick cautions the reader to avoid the trap of viewing Woyzeck as a victim, but this is extremely hard to do for a variety of reasons.

The play opens with Woyzeck and his friend Andres cutting canes, presumably for corporal punishment. Both are the lowest ranking soldier and as such make up the dregs of society. Woyzeck supplements his minimal income by shaving his officers and taking part in a medical trial that involves exclusively eating peas.

Immediately we are aware that all is not right with our hero, he obviously suffers from paranoid delusions; his conversation is peppered with the fear of Freemasons and obscure biblical references. The opening line sets the tone:

Woyzeck: Yes, Andres: that streak there over the grass, that's where the head rolls in the evenings; someone picked it up once, thought it was a hedgehog. Three days and three nights, and he was lying in his coffin. Andres, it was the Freemasons, that's it, the Freemasons - quiet!

Reddick mentions in his notes that not all versions start with this scene, but rather start with the shaving scene which Reddick places at scene 6. The brilliance of opening the play with this scene is the foreshadowing of heads rolling and the streak of blood in the grass, a more sinister beginning and one that allows the viewer to appreciate Woyzeck on his own merit. Despite Woyzeck's many flaws, he is a requisite worker and faithful provider for his girlfriend and their small boy. As Andres and Woyzeck run off for role call we are subsequently introduced to the girlfriend, Marie.

Marie is brazenly leaning out the window making eyes at the good looking, strapping and more importantly sane drum-major who happens to be marching by. She's a self professed tart, but when the neighbor woman calls her out on her ogling, she screams "Bitch!" and slams the window closed and comforts her poor misunderstood victimhood by monologging with her young son before she delves into a poetry recitation on the joys of imbibing.

Marie: Don't fret little 'un....You're just a poor little tart's kid, and you makes your mum happy with your bastard face...

Poignant. While she is lost in her poetry recitation, Woyzeck knocks on the window, spouts a bunch of illegible paranoid mumbo-jumbo and then races away. Clearly she has picked a winner. But while Reddick posits that Marie is more of a victim in this story than Woyzeck...I find this hard to believe. She is a passive victim, if anything, sitting around making eyes at whoever walks by and whining to her toddler about how alcohol is the only palliate.

In the next scene, Woyzeck seems to be taking Marie out for a stroll, they pass an old man and his beggarly child dancing and perhaps (the stage directions are far from clear) singing in unison: "In this world shall none abide, All of us we have to die, And well we know it too!"

Another glimmer of what's to come. Another harsh juxtaposition between what's being said and the action taking place on the stage. As they meander through the stalls and street vendors, a man pontificates: "Observe the forward march of civilization. Everything is making giant strides. A horse, a monkey, a canary. The monkey's already a soldier, though that's not saying much - the bottom-most species of human kind!"

A preoccupation with Büchner is the frustrating lack of societal progress. While "giant strides" are made, often they are in no particular direction. As discussed in Danton's Death, the forward march of civilization is more akin to a tsunami at times than a precisely ordered drill command. And while this showman spouts off his philosophical treatise, Woyzeck and Marie seem oblivious to his insults and the scene itself becomes a foil for the drum-major to walk by and make reciprocal eyes at Marie.

Drum-Major: Hell's teeth! Spawn whole regiments of cavalry she could, breed drum-majors by the dozen!

I'm not going to recreate every scene here, as much as I'm tempted to....but I do want to peripherally comment on the fact that Marie is a terrible mother. And I think this is important because it's part of her character, a lazy, apathetic, self professed whore. She has virtually no good qualities besides the theoretical ability to breed drum-majors. As evidence I present 'the bedtime ritual':

Marie: Sleep lad, sleep! Shut your eyes tight, go on, tighter, keep 'em like that and stay quiet or the bogeyman'll get yer. [sings] Hey lass now shut up the house, A gypsy boy's coming at last, To lead you away by the hand, Off into gypsy land.

Obviously not a parenting style to emulate. But is this perhaps more foreshadowing? Is Woyzeck none other than the bogeyman, come to lead Marie rather than the child "off into gypsy land"?

Marie: Quiet child, shut your eyes, the sandman's coming! See him run along the wall? [She dazzles him with her mirror.] Keep 'em shut or he'll look in your eyes and turn you blind.

The second she finishes her version of a lullaby, who appears, like an aberration (or the sandman) but good old Woyzeck to drop of some of his pea money (we'll get to this later,) he notices the poor boy is hunched over and sweating and although he doesn't do anything, at least he comments on his son in a somewhat caring way, which is more than we can say for Marie, who is obviously suffering from depression. As Woyzeck leaves, Marie calls out "God bless you Franz," and then quietly monologues about the futility of suicide.

Scene 6. I said I wasn't going to do this, but it's just too good to not comment on absolutely everything. I think the reason that this scene would be a logical choice for the beginning scene is that we are given more context into Woyzeck's world, and as the curtain is pulled aside, it is a dreary, humiliating existence. While Woyzeck carefully shaves the face of his officer, his superior prattles away with one insulting comment after another, "God, you're so stupid, so abysmally stupid...", leads into a discussion on the regrettable choice of having a child out of wedlock.  Woyzeck defends himself by saying that without money, morality is a luxury. And the officer as an echo of Robespierre expounds on the benefits of virtue:

Officer:...But Woyzeck, virtue, virtue! How else could I ever cope with time?

The officer, manic and delusional pats Woyzeck on the back, tells him to run along and pays him his fee, which Woyzeck dutifully brings to Marie.

Ok, summarizing: Scene 7: the drum-major and Marie continue their flirtation with more explicit discussion of breeding little drum-majors like rabbits. Our drum-major is obviously a one trick pony, and while perhaps his lucidity and 'beard like a lion' are enough of a red-herring to make her believe she's found someone to hitch her lucky star to, in reality he is little more than a John looking for a fix. When he asks her if the devil is in her eyes, her response is: "Don't care if it is. What the hell." Marie lacks agency in a big way. While Marion at least was given a monologue to present her case, ie her nature ordained decent into prostitution, arguing that fidelity was an incommensurable paradigm for those euphemistically like an ocean, insatiably devouring everything only to demand more...Marie can't work up enough gumption to care one way or another.

Eventually the officer decides to up his game and openly goads Woyzeck by insinuating that Marie is being unfaithful. While Woyzeck is willing to endure one humiliation after another, this is going too far.  Marie is the only thing that he clings to and the seed that is sown finds itself germinating in rich paranoid soil.  When Woyzeck confront Marie, granted, in his crazed sort of oblique way, she shrugs and cockily responds "And what if I did?"

The next scene is an exhibit of the humiliation Woyzeck must continue to endure. Brought before a panel of doctors initially there to examine a cat which he is holding, he finds himself the object of observation after the cat runs away. The doctors poke and prod, observing what a diet exclusively comprised of peas can do to one's complexion.

Doctor: You animal, do you want me to waggle your ears? Are you trying the cat's trick? There gentlemen; what we have here is throw back to the ass, often brought about by excessive childhood exposure to women and a vulgar mother tongue. How much hair did your tender loving mother tear out for a keepsake then? Your hair has gone so thin these last few days; yes, gentlemen, it's the peas.

Goaded by his officer, goaded by Marie, and insulted by his circumstances, he has no solid footing to fall back on. As he clutches at the straws of his lucidity he is finally goaded by his insanity as the many voices in his head demand he kill Marie.

Even thus goaded, he still has the composure to make sure one last time that his suspicions are well founded. He asks around about the drum-major and finally confronts him only to be beaten and further humiliated. He buys the cheapest knife he can find, for two groschen, the same price he earns from his pea enterprise and hastens to away perform the act he is destined to carry out.

Reddick suggests Marie is the victim because she is the one "being done unto" rather than doing. But I find myself on the fence with this line of reasoning. For a man who talks about how the poor have no need for morality or virtue, when the woman he refuses to marry is unfaithful all of a sudden he demands justice for her lack of morality. This seems disingenuous. He is not a hero enacting justice, but rather a crazy man able to assuage all the voices that whisper epithets except that of rage. He can be humiliated by his superiors, but not his mistress, even the poor have standards and so like Phaedra or Theseus, he takes his place among the many felled by Venus.

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