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Thoughts on a Tragedy

Richard McClelland


Georg Büchner,
in a new version by Jack Thorne

dir. Joe Murphy
The Old Vic
15th May-24th June 2017







When Georg Büchner died of typhus aged just twenty-three in 1837 he left the manuscript for his celebrated tragedy Woyzeck unfinished. The first text I read as an undergraduate student of German at the University of Sheffield, Woyzeck occupies a unique place in the German theatrical tradition – and my understanding of it. I recall being struck by the intense psychology of the text, and my fascination was intensified by knowledge of the prodigious playwright, whose untimely death in Zurich marks the culmination of a literary, scientific and political career driven by a proto-socialist sense of justice. Not only is Woyzeck the first proletarian tragic hero of the German stage, but also official reaction to Büchner’s engaging political treatise The Hessian Courier (1834, with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig), for example, which rails acerbically against social injustice in his home state of Hessen, resulted in him fleeing to Strasbourg and thence to Switzerland. Amongst his scattered writings, Woyzeck continues to prove an enigmatic text. Based on a true criminal case, the four sometimes illegible manuscripts that Büchner left behind were first published in heavily redacted form in 1879 and not staged until 1913. Since then, editors and directors have faced the question of how one should bring such fragmentation to the stage, and the text has produced numerous interpretations and reimaginings. Crucially, this fragmentation is not restricted to the text itself, but also to the figure of Woyzeck as we watch him disintegrate from an (admittedly incomplete) whole, becoming the victim – and potential perpetrator – of unspeakable crimes.

In the face of such fragmentation, what we do know from Büchner’s manuscript is this: Woyzeck, a young, working-class soldier, has a child out of wedlock with his lover Marie. To supplement his meagre income he not only takes on odd jobs for his gormless Captain, but also subsists on a diet of peas so that the exploitative Doctor can conduct an experiment on dietary effect on human health. (Büchner’s own scientific writings describe the nervous system of minnows). Woyzeck’s mental health deteriorates rapidly and he not only hears voices but also recounts a series of monstrous visions in which the sky is aflame. Meanwhile Marie, bored at home, attracts the attention of the leonine Drum Major, who flirts with and ultimately seduces her. Woyzeck, mentally destabilised by his exploitation and incited to jealousy by his superiors, confronts the Drum Major, only to be harangued, punched and left humiliated. His jealousy reaches its apogee, and he leads Marie outside of the town where he stabs her to death before disposing of the blade in a lake – but not before returning, blood-stained, for a dance at the local tavern. At the text’s close, Marie’s stabbing is described as a “beautiful death” and Woyzeck lives, playing horsey with his son. Or does he? In the first published version of the text the editor, Austrian novelist Karl Emil Franzos (1848-1904), has Woyzeck drown whilst disposing of the knife. In Büchner’s manuscripts what can be seen as the fragmentary start of a court scene survives. Indeed, the historical Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly executed in Leipzig in 1824 for murdering Christiane Woost in a fit of jealous rage.

Jack Thorne’s recent adaptation for the Old Vic, directed by Joe Murphy and starring John Boyega in his first stage role, opts for suicide as the final tragic act of the broken man. Transposing the action to 1981 West Berlin, Woyzeck’s status as a pariah amongst his fellow soldiers is intensified not only by his living off-base with his Irish girlfriend Marie above a (halal) slaughterhouse, but also by the mysterious ‘Belfast incident’ alluded to throughout the performance. As in Büchner’s original, he shaves his buffoonish Captain to make ends meet, and his fragile mental state is exacerbated by his involvement in the medical ‘Trial P’. The sexually voracious Andrews, the only fellow-officer who will still go on patrol with Woyzeck, and the substitute for the Drum Major, engages in a long-running affair with the Captain’s wife (a character invented for this production), and eventually seduces Marie, too.

These are fairly innocuous changes. Yet between all of this Thorne has fabricated a pseudo-Freudian backstory that goes some way to inverting the Oedipal myth, yet unfortunately never quite hits the mark. With echoes of Hitchcock’s Marnie, the young Woyzeck, passed from institution to institution, is one day collected by his mother only for her to force the child to watch her having sex with a punter. This leaves, it is implied, a deep psychological scar in the protagonist that is emphasised ceaselessly throughout the production, not least when the grown Woyzeck inexplicably feeds from his absent mother’s breast. Yet whilst Thorne does an admirable job of illustrating the societal exploitation that undoubtedly exacerbates Woyzeck’s psychological breakdown, one has to wonder why such a back-story was added. In the programme notes it is stated that Thorne and his collaborators had hoped to render the “alienating […] quite avant garde” original more accessible. It is true that a clear exposition of the mental state of a protagonist is a key factor in allowing an audience member to engage with their character, yet the milieu into which this version has been shoehorned offers ample opportunity for mental instability. Here we encounter Woyzeck as a soldier stationed in 1981 West Berlin having previously been in Belfast, an autobiography that could surely have been enough to sow the seeds of his eventual deterioration. One can only surmise then that none of Woyzeck’s traumatic experiences – a childhood spent in institutions, being stationed in Belfast during the Troubles, his mother – would have been enough to make Woyzeck’s downfall believable to the audience if featured individually. Perhaps these, too, would have been too abstract had they not been hammered home. The overall effect is disappointing: the sensationalising resort to childhood sexual trauma exaggerates the psychological and emphasises it over the societal, morphing the essence of Büchner’s tragedy in the name of “accessibility”.

Woyzeck is shown throughout to be the victim, yet in Thorne’s adaptation the number of victims is extended to include Marie in what – alongside the production’s wondrously claustrophobic staging – might be the only saving grace of the whole performance. In Büchner’s original, Marie remains something of a secondary character, whose betrayal of the man working himself to ruin to provide for her and their child is difficult to comprehend. Her story is one of flirtation, seduction and eventual death, but it is Woyzeck, exposed as he is to societal exploitation and without sound mind, who remains the primary victim of the tragedy. He murders Marie but Büchner is clear: society, not Woyzeck, is to blame.

Yet Thorne’s adaptation and Sarah Greene’s sensitive portrayal of Marie elevate her character to an equally tragic victimhood. At the start of the play, Marie and Woyzeck are represented as a young, playful couple eager to enjoy the excitements of the new and freedom from the old. In a poignantly ironic moment, Woyzeck takes Marie to the top of a multi-storey carpark, where from the sixth floor he hopes to show her the lights come on over East Berlin. “We’re free and they’re not,” he tells her. “Just being up here makes me feel sorry for them.” It’s clear, of course, that their freedom is just as non-existent and, as Woyzeck’s tragedy unfolds, so does Marie’s. A Catholic girl with a keen sense of duty and justice, she helps the Captain’s wife with her charitable work whilst being denigrated by her for “stink[ing] of meat”. She is shown to be the object of male sexual desire before moving to Berlin (Woyzeck stands out, then, for valuing her for reasons other than physical attraction: “Woyzeck seemed to see things [in my character] that other people didn’t,” she claims in the second half) and since settling in the divided city. Furthermore, she faces the brunt of the violence that increasingly marks Woyzeck’s behaviour as his breakdown intensifies. During one incident in their flat, Woyzeck’s anger results in him punching a hole in the wall, from which he then draws a handful of offal; Marie, watching aghast as he does so, exits the scene to comfort their crying child. Is it any wonder, we must ask, that she is seduced by the scheming Andrews? Eventually Woyzeck is made aware of the affair and, his jealousy egged on by his superiors, chokes Marie before turning his gun on himself at the climax of the production. From within the entangled mess of two bodies, each the equal victim of the tragedy, Boyega could be heard echoing Othello, spluttering, “I’m doing this because I love you.” And then, his melodramatic panting having abated, he beholds the corpse and states: “Now you’re mine […] beautiful and perfect,” a faint echo of Büchner’s original:

Policeman: A good death, a true death, a beautiful death, as beautiful as one could hope for. We haven’t had one like this for a long time. [Translation mine]

Amongst the applause I was left wanting more. A kind of accessibility has been attempted by closing down the possibilities that Büchner’s text leaves open, a move that patronises the audience and leaves more questions than it answers. Why the action had been transposed to a divided Berlin? Why did the Woyzeck who had once seen “something different” in Marie ultimately seek possession through death: jealousy? Societal exploitation? Or the impossibility of a healthy relationship borne of and perpetuated by his Oedipal desire for a spectral mother? And: if Büchner had only finished the play before his death, would we have been saved this troublingly ill-conceived re-working?


Richard McClelland [2] saw a production of Woyzeck at the Old Vic on Saturday 10th June 2017. He is lecturer in German at St. Hugh’s College and New College Oxford, where he researches contemporary Swiss literature and German-language theatre and performance.