Topic 7- Philosophy, Insanity, and Religion

The play, Woyzeck, by Georg Buchner is a very interesting play about Franz Woyzeck, a troubled infantryman who ends up murdering his partner, Marie, because of her infidelity and his own insanity. Woyzeck appears to be an examination of humankind through the philosophical lenses of naturalism, determinism, and nihilism. The play darts from setting to setting with a plethora of different characters, citing lines from the Bible throughout. The manic movement from scene to scene and verbiage of the characters speaks to Woyzeck’s deteriorating mental state.

At the start of the play, Woyzeck describes his hallucinations about an apocalypse: “Look how bright it is! There’s fire raging around the sky, and a noise coming down like trumpets… Quiet, it’s all quiet, like the world was dead” (Buchner, 4.1). The imagery of animals when the Carnival Barker is advertising his performance speaks to Charles Darwin’s naturalism. The Carnival Barker says about the monkey, “Look at this creature as God made it: he’s nothing, nothing at all. Now see the effect of art: he walks upright, wears a coat and pants, carries a sword! Ho! Take a bow!” (4.3). The monkey is a metaphor for man; Society and culture have turned humans into spectacle. Buchner is making a statement similar to Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” and is using Charles Darwin’s idea of naturalism to do so. Man is helpless to the forces of nature and the environment, and it is only nature to seek progress and at least appear to evolve. The use of a nihilistic language in the play contributes to the deterministic feeling of helplessness that Woyzeck seems to suffer from. Woyzeck claims, “On and on, on and on. Spin around, roll around. Why doesn’t God blow out the sun so that everything can roll around in lust, man and woman, man and beast…” (4.11). Even Grandmother tells a dark story of a poor child with absolutely nothing who searches for meaning but eventually discovers the universe as an overturned pot, “[the child] wanted to go up to the heavens, and the moon was looking at it so friendly… the moon was a piece of rotten wood and then it went to the sun… the sun was a wilted sunflower… [the stars] were little golden flies…” (1.14).

References to the Bible serve as a contrast to the nihilistic attitudes. The Carnival Barker claims, “It is written: man, be natural; you were created from dust, sand, dirt.” (4.3). Marie leafs through the Bible later in the play before she is killed, searching for references to adultery. Woyzeck references passages of the Bible relating to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and pain as a symbol for the love of God. Woyzeck’s mental state seems to deteriorate further as the play continues on, culminating in his murder of Marie.

1. How does Woyzeck relate to other plays that we’ve read that also include themes of Naturalism and Nihilism?
2. Is the play also a critique of capitalism?
3. The use of imagery of the Carnival Barker and the animals were very fascinating to me. What further significance do they have?
4. Why is the play so frenetic in its switching from scene to scene?