The final scene that Büchner never wrote

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors, Drama

‘Fierce, stubborn sympathy for a weak, doomed person can be seen everywhere in Georg Büchner’s writing. It was the Leitmotiv of all his literary activity, just as the defense of freedom and justice was the motive for his political action.’ So wrote the poet Eeva-Liisa Manner in her essay, ‘The dramatic and historical Woyzeck’, published in the literary periodical Parnasso in 1962. Her first translation of Büchner’s famous play was published in the same issue. Ever since then, this unfinished last play by Georg Büchner has refused to leave Manner in peace. Altogether she has published three different Finnish translations of the work, most recently in 1987. But she was not content to leave it at that, for she also wrote a conclusion to the incomplete play, providing her own interpretation of Woyzeck’s final scene.

Georg Büchner’s contemporaries felt that his life, too, had been left unfinished. He was only twenty-three years old when he died in 1837 – ‘Ein unvollendet Lied’ (‘an unfinished song’), as Georg Herwegh wrote in a memorial poem dedicated to Büchner in 1841. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Büchner was a dramatist who, with his first play, Danton’s Death, had shown great promise which his early death prevented him from fulfilling. At the time, no one could imagine that the ‘almost finished play’ found among the writer’s posthumous works would provide the stimulus for naturalistic, expressionistic, and epic theatre, or that it would serve as the basis for one of the most important operas of the following century.

The manuscript rested in the attic of Büchner’s parents until 1875, when an Austrian joumalist-author named Karl Emil Franzos published the play, first in part and, a couple of years later, in its entirety. The difficulty of deciphering the manuscript is reflected by the fact that he erroneously read the protagonist’s name as ‘Wozzeck’ and also gave the play the title, Wozzeck. Büchner had left the draft, or rather, drafts, of the play without a title. It was titled Wozzeck at his world premiere in 1913, one hundred years after the author’s birth. This spelling has survived in the title and libretto of Alban Berg’s opera, although the name was corrected to Woyzeck well before the opera was composed. The correct spelling of the name was assured when the murder case that had served as the basis for the play became known.

On June 21st, 1821, a forty-one year old barber named Johann Christian Woyzeck fatally wounded the widow of Dr Woost, a surgeon, on the staircase of her house in Leipzig. It was a crime of jealous passion, and when he was arrested, Woyzeck made no attempt to conceal his guilt. Rumors began to circulate that Woyzeck might have been subject to blackouts, and he therefore had to undergo two psychiatric examinations before sentence was passed in court. Clarus, the Saxon Justice of the Court, declared Woyzeck responsible and he was sentenced to death. Woyzeck was publicly executed in Leipzig on August 27th, 1824.

Legal debate continued, however, and Clarus’s reports on Woyzeck’s mental state were published in the periodical, Zeitschrift für Staatsarzneikunde in 1825-26. Büchner had already been familiar with the periodical at home, but he returned to Glarus’s reports when he was writing the first drafts of Woyzeck. Apparently, he also used other murder cases as source material, but it is clear that this case influenced his later manuscript drafts, in which he examines motives for the murder.

The different versions of Woyzeck have puzzled all those who have attempted to compile a publishable dramatic text from the incomplete fragments. The text material is not, however, as confusing as it is often claimed, for one can discern four distinct phases in the drafts. As a result, the internal order of the scenes can be determined rather clearly, although many editors have taken liberties in arranging them according to their own dramaturgical preferences.

If the text itself is unfinished, the world of Woyzeck is not complete, either, but is full of cracks and dizzying black holes. In it, each human being is an abyss, while the society with its institutions – the army, the university – is impenetrable. Woyzeck’s problem is language, which simply escapes from him: he can neither express himself nor interpret his environment. Nevertheless, this poor army barber whom everyone kicks around is the only one who keeps knocking on the door of language, the one who asks questions while others are satisfied with ready-made, conventional answers.

When one attempts to compile a ‘whole’ dramatic text out of Woyzeck , the greatest problem is the ending. In Büchner’s most complete draft, the murder and the events which follow it are entirely missing. One has to reconstruct them from earlier drafts, particularly from the first version, because it is the only one that includes the murder scene. Many dramatisations and text versions have ended with the protagonist drowning himself in the pond where he has hidden the knife after the murder – as deep as possible – and in which he washes himself clean of blood-stains. On the basis of existing texts, it is not possible to determine beyond dispute which scene the author had intended as the closing one of the play.

Eeva-Liisa Manner has embraced the view that, after the murder, Woyzeck is caught and brought into court. She continues from where Büchner left off, and portrays the courtroom scenes in The Othello of Sand Alley.

Only Büchner’s first draft contains the dark anti-fairy tale that precedes the murder. This gloomy fairy tale resounds, at its darkest, with ‘the cold, black tone’ whose lonely strain echoes through the whole sad song, as Eeva-Liisa Manner wrote in 1962. For her, the fairy tale was so important that she borrowed it in its entirety for The Othello of Sand Alley.

Woyzeck also contains a passing, but striking counterpoint to the dark tone of the fairy tale: the quickly suppressed positive change suggested by the relationship between Woyzeck and Marie, and Woyzeck’s striving for a life of human dignity. Without this counterpoint of human dignity, Woyzeck would never have become a fountainhead of modern tragedy, but merely a pessimistic satire on society. The tragedy of the play is born of the shattering of this counterpoint.

In Woyzeck, Büchner does not offer a conciliatory solution. Instead, the basic tension of the play is drawn from open conflict. The play depicts an upside-down world in which good is crushed and inhumanity wins. Whether this situation can ever be changed remains for the reader/onlooker to decide.

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint

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