Buchner’s Woyzeck is a particularly interesting work in regards to its historical relevance in the context of mental illness. Johann Christian Woyzeck, the man that Woyzeck the play is based on, was convicted of murdering his mistress in 1824. At the time that he was convicted, the issue of his sanity was raised. It took three years of deliberation to ultimately convict Woyzeck for the murder of Frau Woost. There was no doubt as to his having committed the crime, but his mental health was in serious question. Although it was believed that Woyzeck was indeed hallucinating and having psychotic episodes, the doctors examining him said that he was still capable of knowing right for wrong, and he was convicted. Buchner wrote about Woyzeck between 1835 and 1837. This would not have been an unusual case to write a play about because at the time Woyzeck’s case was widely talked about in the media and remained a mainstream interest for many years. Buchner’s Woyzeck was incredibly relevant to the time it was written in and even predates the court’s creation of the McNaughton Rule of 1843, which allowed for a possible verdict of not guilty by reason of mental defect.
Buchner’s work is particularly interesting because it tries to explain part of the “double nature” (pg 144) Woyzeck might have been experiencing during his psychotic episodes. Concepts of visible nature are mentioned throughout the play (animals, the water, the wind etc.…), but there is also another nature that Woyzeck seems to be aware of. His term “double nature” could be a reference to his different realities when he is sane and insane. One appears as real as the other, and both appear to have aspects that are out of Woyzeck’s control. When Woyzeck tells the doctor that he had to pee because nature was “calling” it could be argued that he felt the same sort of “call” from nature to stab Marie. One of the natures could be considered a religious nature. Throughout the play religion has an ever-increasing hold over Woyzeck. Woyzeck increasingly feels called by both the visible nature around him and his spiritual nature to kill Marie. It is implied that Marie is killed on Candlemas day (pg 150), which is also known as the purification of the Virgin Mary. This combined with messages like the voice in the open field (pg 148) can be thought of as his two natures aligning with the same calling that ultimately leads him to murder. This could be why the clerk at the end says it was a good, and beautiful murder. It was good and beautiful because it was driven by nature (visible and spiritual), therefore it was a murder from a higher power and not ultimately driven by a man. It implies that the murder was not committed by man’s free will, but by an unavoidable call from nature.
After reading about Johann Christian Woyzeck, I started to think of possible explanations for his moments of insanity. The most likely “diagnosis” I could come up with was that he suffered from alcohol-induced psychosis. Woyzeck was known to drink heavily, and the stress and mental trauma of being a soldier probably also contributed to his condition. Alcohol-induced psychosis is characterized by hallucinations and delusions occurring after chronic consumption of alcohol or withdrawal from alcohol. This would explain why Woyzeck has clear moments of insanity and glimpses of normalcy.
With this interpretation of Woyzeck’s condition, I would set the entire play in a present day mental care facility. In the first scene, Woyzeck would be brought into his room struggling against orderlies. In his struggle he smashes a mirror in his room. In his moments of clarity, Woyzeck would speak to the captain and doctor who would each be on stage for their respective scenes. But for his moments of insanity, Woyzeck would be on stage alone, and the voice of Marie and the drum major would come from voices off stage to imply that they are Woyzeck’s hallucinations. Woyzeck’s conversation with the Jew in order to purchase the knife would also be staged as a hallucination, and what Woyzeck thinks is the knife he bought is really a shard of a broken mirror he kept from the mirror he broke when he was first brought into the mental hospital. I would end the play with Marie’s death on page 152. The stage would be completely dark and you would only be able to hear a woman screaming, until the lights came on to show that Woyzeck did not kill Marie, but instead stabbed a nurse at the mental hospital with the shard of mirror he hide away in the first scene.
What do you think Woyzeck meant by double nature?
Do you think Buchner wrote the play with the belief that Woyzeck was not guilty due to his mental instability?
Do you think the general public at the time Woyzeck was written would have thought that Woyzeck was not guilty due to his mental instability?