Category Archives: Theater

The Cost of Ignorance

Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck takes us through the tragic tale of Franz Woyzeck, a poor military barber. Although the story itself is fiction, the play’s version Woyzeck is based on the historical Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780-1824), a veteran who “killed his lover by stabbing her seven times with a broken sword blade” (Woyzeck, p. 133). Although commonly interpreted as the story of a man (i.e. Franz Woyzeck) who becomes the victim of social and economic forces, I argue Büchner’s “modern” drama should be equally characterized as a play that calls attention to the dangers of mental illness, specifically Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as a “psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood” (PTSD, Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs). Although the treatment of veterans has improved since Büchner’s time, war survivors still do not receive the treatment they deserve. My family has a lengthy history of military service and mental illness from conflict is something I have always felt passionate about. Although my father, a Vietnam veteran, is mentally healthy, my uncle who is also a Vietnam veteran has struggled with PTSD since his early twenties. Another uncle of mine recently returned from the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, though thankfully without mental distress. I believe Büchner utilizes a socially oppressed military veteran as his protagonist in order to critique the treatment of veterans and/or other mentally unstable patients during his time.

Woyzeck however, is also undoubtedly a damning social critique that does not shy away from its naturalistic roots. As we have learned in our readings and in class, naturalist plays are defined by their bland and ordinary settings, and most often pit the story’s protagonist against external forces determined by hereditary, social, and/or economic factors (Zarrilli, p. 273, Cash). As previously mentioned, in reading the play it becomes clears that Franz Woyzeck most definitely suffers from the latter two factors. Signs of mental illness however, are littered throughout the play. Woyzeck believes someone continually follows him and that something, or someone, is “out there,” even though other characters have not the slightest idea of who or what he is referring to (Woyzeck, p. 138). Marie states Franz is “out of his mind” when he attempts to personify her “sin so fat and wide” and in one of the optional scenes, the Doctor also tells Woyzeck that he is mad and must be taken to the “insane asylum” (Woyzeck, p. 143, 166-167). Woyzeck himself states that he has hallucinations and has “heard a terrible voice talking to [him]” (Woyzeck, p. 144-145). Furthermore, the Doctor continually toys with and uses Woyzeck as a test subject for his experiments. In my reading of the play, the Doctor became analogous to those medical “practioners” who perceive mental illness as an opportunity to be taken advantage of. Rather than running tests to help placate Woyzeck’s (mental) illnesses, the Doctor instead runs strange tests on the barbers such as only feeding him peas. It is no secret that many veterans suffering from PTSD and other mentally ill patients often do not receive proper care. I believe Büchner’s decision to utilize the Doctor as a figure that acts contrary to his intended purpose (i.e. he should heal not harm) is representative of past and modern day ignorance, or naivety, of mental illness.

Marie’s infidelity and her eventual murder however, serve as breaking points for Woyzeck. His wife’s sinful actions break his heart, while Woyzeck’s eruption of violence shatters his mind. Many veterans I have spoken with, including those in my family, have consistently told me their loved ones is the only thing that keeps them alive and happy. For Marie to sleep with another man and essentially destroy one of the few things Woyzeck has left to hold on to, his mental well being – fragile as it already was – easily breaks alongside his heart. The violent murder Woyzeck commits I argue depicts our protagonist cracking not only under social and economic pressure, but also mental pressure. After murdering his wife, Woyzeck then seems to adopt a state of mind that justifies his violent actions. At the inn he states, “That’s the way it is: the devil takes on and lets the other go” (Woyzeck, p. 153). Later, after returning to his wife’s body Woyzeck states, “They made you black, black! Now I’ve made you white” (Woyzeck, p. 154). Though it is impossible to determine whether or not the real life Woyzeck shared similar mental issues, I believe his theatrical counterpart serves as a way for Büchner to raise awareness to the issue of mental illness. Regardless of the translation, Woyzeck’s story represents the harmful effects of mental illness and the tragic costs of society’s failure to recognize and help aid those with related sicknesses.

Questions: Have there been any contemporary showings of Woyzeck that showcase mental illness as something the play is attempting to draw attention to? My reading of the play may be entirely misguided, however is there a reason in particular Büchner chose a war veteran for his protagonist, rather than selecting one of the other countless men who have murdered their wife? Finally, the Grandmother’s “fairy tale” (p. 151) seems a little out of place. Does the tale have a specific, known significance to it or did Büchner ever comment as to why it was put in the play in the first place?

Additional Sources:

Gender Fluidity and the Ambiguity of Sexual Orientation

Since the early 17th century, the state has had influence over theatre in many countries, whether it is strict censorship of play’s content or rules regarding actor’s costumes. In England, however, the censoring of ideas was not as strong as those seen in France during the 17th century. As Zarilli states, “English playwrights simply had to avoid inflammatory political and religious issues; they were not expected to reinforce the absolutist values of the regime [as in France]” (Zarilli, 206). The lack of censorship of “sexual suggestiveness and homoerotic ideas” allowed English playwrights to explore different perspectives regarding characters’ gender fluidity and sexual orientation, themes shown in Twelfth Night (Zarilli, 230). Further, “the freedom for actors to wear costumes of opposite genders and [different] classes in England” promoted gender-changing behavior (Zarilli, 206). During this period in England, homoerotic feelings were also not unusual especially because only men were permitted to act, young boys played female roles. As Zarilli puts it, “Male teachers often formed liaisons with male students, and a master might act on his desire for a male apprentice” (Zarilli, 228). The idea of censoring certain ideas in theatre is similarly seen when television first came out. “Many southern TV stations routinely cut national network feeds of Civil Right coverage, often pretending they were having technical difficulty” (Kovarik, 326). Authority in the South believed that censoring certain stations that promoted controversial ideas, similar to censoring certain plays, would prevent these ideas from implanting into people’s minds that may lead to chaos or violence.


This theme of gender fluidity and disguise is seen in the protagonist in Twelfth Night. Early in the play, we are introduced to Viola who was saved by a captain after a shipwreck. In order to make a living and provide for herself in a new environment, she decides to disguise herself as a boy to serve the Duke, Orsino, as she states, “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/For such a disguise as haply shall become” (1.2.54-56). This disguise allowed her to hide her true identity. However, her plan soon becomes problematic as she begins to fall for Orsino. Because of the rigid English societal norms in regards to homosexual relationship in this time, it may have been challenging for Viola to express her love to Orsino as a male. Viola disguises her identity as she responds to Olivia, “I am not who I am” (3.1.131). This idea of disguise and changing identities is similar to Ernest in the Importance of Being Ernest and actors in general when they put on a play for others. When people put on plays or go on social media, they are putting on a disguise and rarely are who they present themselves to be.


The ambiguity of sexual orientation is a theme related to gender fluidity and is shown in several characters. Characters seem not to be in love with people of a certain gender (male/female), but to specific characters or individuals. Orsino is a character in the play that does not fit our categorical views of homosexual or heterosexual. Though Orsino seems to be in love with females such Olivia and Viola, his attraction to Cesario, Viola in disguise, is very evident. At the end of the play, after Viola reveals her true identity, Orsino continues to hold onto his previous belief that Viola is a boy, saying, “Cesario, Come – /For so you shall be while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen, Orinso’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.370). Orsino’s inability to call Viola by her female name indicates that he may still be interested and attracted to Viola disguised as a boy. Another quote that further stresses Orsino’s love for Viola as a boy is when he refers to her saying, “boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times/Thou never shouldst love woman like to me” (5.1.268). It is unclear whether Orsino is in love with Viola, a woman, or with Viola as her male character, Cesario. It is probable that he is in love with Viola, the person, and disregards her gender. Another character whose sexual orientation is obscured is Sebastian, Viola’s twin. Although Sebastian falls in love with Olivia the moment they meet, once he reunites with Antonio, who saved him after the shipwreck, he states, “Antonio! Oh my dear Antonio, /How have the hours racked and tortured me/ Since I have lost thee!” (5.1.201). Although Sebastian may really care about Antonio as a friend, it is strange that missing Antonio for a couple of hours would torture Sebastian. The words ‘racked’ and ‘tortured’ emphasize Sebastian’s love towards Antonio to a different degree.


Some questions I have while reading through the play was what were the laws regarding gay and lesbian rights in England in the 17th century? Since homoerotic themes were not forbidden in plays, was the society more open about it? Also, what was Shakespeare’s sexual orientation, and whether he experience in the society affected how he shaped his characters?

Topic 4: Death and Mortality

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Beckett seeks to explore the topic of death and mortality. Death is something that is not taken very seriously in the play as Vladimir and Estragon constantly undermine the severity and gravity of it. This is evidenced when they are trying to figure out what to do and Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, to which Vladimir replies “Hmm. It’d give us an erection,” and Estragon excitedly responds “An erection!…Let’s hang ourselves immediately!” (1.231-236). The characters lack an understanding of the consequences of death and do not seem to be able to fathom the seriousness that comes with it. Estragon talks about death further in the play when he says “the best thing to do would be to kill me, like the other,” and then when Vladimir asks “what other?” Estragon replies “billions of others,” causing Vladimir to say “to every man his little cross. Till he dies. And is forgotten” (2.136-140). While most people fear death, Estragon seems to find comfort in it, calling it the ‘best thing.’ Meanwhile, Vladimir seems to have a greater comprehension of the sadness associated with death as he sadly speaks of passing away and being forgotten. While Estragon appears to value life very little and is indifferent towards death, Vladimir seeks to find meaning in his own life.  This is apparent after Pozzo asks him for help, causing Vladimir to go into a short speech about action, saying

“let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it…” (2.638-644).

Vladimir becomes excited and assigns meaning to his life after being relied upon. He feels that Pozzo needs him, and that is suddenly enough to break the cyclical inaction that Beckett is known for. This suggests that while Estragon is largely unfazed by the prospect of death, Vladimir finds a meaning for his life when he feels needed by others.

In Zarrilli chapter 8, one of the topics is the 1900s move away from naturalism/realism and towards symbolism. Waiting for Godot is an excellent example of this as a mid-1900s play that is flooded with symbolism. One could speculate for hours or even days about the true meaning of the play and what Samuel Beckett’s message or intentions were. Theatre Histories describes symbolism as urging audiences to look past the surface and literal appearance of a play in order to “discover more significant realities within” (page 358). The exploration of death and mortality is a great example of this because Beckett orchestrates lines that can seem silly on the surface, but actually can be a message about more significant realities. An example of this is the erection line from earlier that is absurd but actually is a reflection of a carefree and potentially naive attitude regarding mortality.

Is there any evolution of character in Godot like we saw with Nora in A Doll’s House?

The obvious question the play brings up: What is the meaning of Godot and what can we make of its portrayal in the play?

Is there anything comparable to Waiting for Godot in modern media?

How could the play function differently or similarly with the addition of female characters?