Woyzeck Part II: Modern Implications

Georg Büchner’s illustrious play, Woyzeck, articulates Büchner’s views on human existence/psychology, the notion of religious faith, as well as the future of mankind following the revolutions of the late nineteenth century. Although Büchner died at the young age of 23, he lived during a tumultuous time period in a European continent that was experiencing radical changes in human philosophy and class structure. Büchner studied the central nervous system of barbel fish, and came to the conclusion that not everything could be determined through observation, and that pure progression does not necessarily define human nature. He wrote Woyzeck at a provocative time: governing systems throughout the Western world feared the sweeping fervor of the Age of Revolution, and humans were experiencing intense suffering in the context of war. Indeed, Woyzeck represents a confirmation of Georg Hegel’s notion that the world operates in a series of cyclical theses, and the prospect of a proletarian revolution constituted a major turnover. Woyzeck, in addition, contains elements of Karl Marx’s theory of human motivation: Franz Woyzeck was easily manipulated by financial incentives, despite the fact that the Doctor’s experiments resulted in Woyzeck’s prolonged mental suffering and hallucinations.


Woyzeck poses a naturalistic interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution (though Büchner in fact wrote before Darwin). Büchner compares the classes of human society to naturalistic animals. In particular, Franz Woyzeck’s position as a soldier is likened to a monkey: “The monkey is already a soldier – that’s not much, it’s the lowest level of the human race!” (Büchner’s Major Works 139). In so doing, Büchner articulates an ironic take on progress: the carnival barker claims that everything progresses, yet the monkey is already Franz’s equivalent. The lower class is also compared to rabbits and other frequently hunted animals. Büchner seems to be commenting on the debilitating position of the lower class in contemporary society. Whereas the lower class is equated to impulsive primates and game animals, the upper class is depicted as a magnificent horse. Despite the anatomical difference, the horse still succumbs to its natural instincts. This exchange poses the question of controlling our natural instincts (Freud’s id).


Woyzeck also grapples with the role of religion in contemporary human culture. Marie and Woyzeck make frequent references to biblical passages, with Marie often asking for God’s forgiveness and Woyzeck citing passages that reference the apocalypse. My interpretation of the play presents Franz Woyzeck as a Christ figure: he is inherently good, but endures incessant, undeserved suffering. Unfortunately, his suffering leads to mental anguish and the eventual murder of Marie, indicating a possible renunciation of faith. This concept may speak to Büchner’s general pessimism towards humanity given the historical context in which he wrote. This reminds me of Beckett’s portrayal of faith/humanity in Waiting for Godot.


Bill Kovarik describes how the mechanization of human intellect in the form of computers presented various problems and fears to the human populace. Just as the industrial revolution featured the mechanization of labor in manufacturing units, the advent of the computer mechanized intellect. Early advocates of computing, including Franklin Roosevelt’s science advisor Vannevar Bush, linked computing to democracy: he sought to utilize computers in such a way as to extend human wisdom and raise the standards of living for the lower class. According to Bush, “in a free country, in a democracy, this [path taken] is the path that public opinion wishes to have pursued, whether it leads to new cures for man’s ills, or new sources of a raised standard of living” (Kovarik 276). Some dissidents to this mindset asserted that reliance on computers would result in a totalitarian future of mankind, and computers may even come to replace human intellect. Novels and popular media such as George Orwell’s 1984 depicted computers as destructive and as a potential source of human nature’s decline. Perhaps one can draw a connection between the rapid growth of computing technology and Woyzeck. The proliferation of industrial and computing technologies led to the emergence of an oppressive bourgeoisie and a working-class proletariat. Proletarian workers such as Franz Woyzeck suffered intensely under an unjust social structure, and may have been driven to desperation via financial incentives.


In Laura Ginters’s essay, she seeks to outline modern renditions of Woyzeck, as well as their implications for society today. Ginters states that Woyzeck is frequently performed around the world today, due to the fact that the protagonist of the play is an oppressed, disenfranchised member of the lowest sector of society (Ginters 241). The play’s themes can certainly be applied to the plight of modern oppressed groups, such as African-Americans or immigrants. Whereas some renditions feature visually stimulating art design, others are more austere in their use of spectacle. It seems as though the play can be flexibly adapted to modern stages. Ginters describes recreations of Woyzeck that center on Marie, present Woyzeck as a tragic hero, and depict Marie and Woyzeck as African-American. The mere fact that modern directors are adapting the play speaks to Woyzeck’s social media capabilities.


In terms of drawing parallels in Woyzeck to situations today, I can envision presenting the protagonists as members of an oppressed group. African-Americans, for example, suffer from institutionalized racism, as well as a social structure that may, in some circumstances, view them as inferior. I would specifically highlight the exchange between Woyzeck and the captain in Büchner’s original play in a modern rendition:


Woyzeck: “Just try to raise your own kind on morality in this world. After all, we’re flesh and blood. The likes of us are wretched in this world and in the next…”

Captain: “Woyzeck, you have no virtue, you’re not a virtuous person. Flesh and blood?”

(Büchner’s Major Works 142).


Woyzeck is stating that the present class hierarchy has no sense of morality: the poorer members of society are just as ‘human’ as the wealthy class, yet they are persecuted. The captain counters by telling Woyzeck that he is not virtuous because he is not wealthy. I relate this notion to the struggle of movements aimed at obtaining rights for African-Americans, such as the “Black Lives Matter’ movement.


Image: http://stmedia.startribune.com/images/ows_144002532180502.jpg



  • How would you choose to recreate Woyzeck if you were to stage it today? Would you have Woyzeck succumb to his pressures, or overcome them?
  • How do you view Woyzeck’s commentary on human nature compared to Ibsen’s portrayal of Darwinist notions in A Doll’s House?
  • Would Büchner be more optimistic or pessimistic regarding the level of technology we rely on today?