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?

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