Georg Buechner, the German dramatist, died in 1837, at the age of twenty-three, leaving behind him an inflammatory revolutionary manifesto, an unfinished prose narrative, two complete plays and a scramble of disconnected episodes in dialogue (undeciphered and unpublished until 1879) called Woyzeck. These facts are remarkable when we consider that Buechner is generally conceded to be one of the great seminal figures of dramatic literature: even in a century notable for untimely deaths and small leavings, his life seems terribly brief and his literary output extremely fragmentary. Still, the really astonishing thing about Buechner is neither the shortness of his career nor the meagerness of his production: it is the exceptionally modern quality of his temperament. Buechner admired Goethe; he adored Shakespeare; and he made a strong personal identification with that obsessed 18th-century dramatist, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, who became the feverish hero of Buechner’s uncompleted novel. But although the impact of all three writers can be felt on his work, Buechner seems to develop independently of literary conditioning. Like William Blake, he is one of those extraordinary prodigies who occasionally bursts into the sky of history—unexpected, unforeseen—and proceeds to cast his illumination over future generations.
Our own age, in fact, is so heavily indebted to Buechner that the temptation today is to treat him less like a unique artist than like a literary ancestor. In the introduction to his new edition of The Complete Plays and Prose, for example, Carl Richard Mueller discovers Buechner lurking behind every modern dramatic movement, and even calls Woyzeck “the great grandfather of Willy Loman”! From such great oaks do little acorns grow. Putting aside the question whether or not Buechner finds his apotheosis in Arthur Miller, we must admit Mr. Mueller’s claim that there is a kinship between Buechner’s plays and the plays of Naturalism, Expressionism, Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd—that is, from a purely philosophical standpoint. For Buechner, trained as a medical scientist, clearly anticipated the revolt of the modern drama against the earlier, more flamboyant Romanticism. Always sympathetic to humbler forms of life, Buechner was annoyed by Schiller, whose strutting heroes struck him as “nothing more than marionettes with sky-blue noses and affected pathos.” But he was antagonistic to all the larger claims made on suffering mankind, and especially angry against German idealism, which his character Lenz calls “the most humiliating of insults to human nature.” Once having scandalized a school chum with the pre-Nietszchean observation, “Christianity does not please me; it makes you pious, like a lamb,” Buechner went on to find all theoretical structures and moral systems patently false, since they were abhorrent to Nature. And Nature remained Buechner’s goddess, even as she came to seem an ugly, diseased old whore.
For Nature to Buechner was violent, accidental and ominous in the extreme—a jungle where man was caught in the underbrush to be torn apart by wild beasts. Thus, after a short spell as a radical social revolutionary, protesting against the greed and inhumanity of the German…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.