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an unfinished prose narrative, two complete plays and a scramble of disconnected episodes in dialogue (undeciphered and unpublished until 1879) called Woyzeck.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 aristocracy, Buechner became convinced that all human action was futile, and that mankind was crushed “beneath the horrible fatalism of history.” This conviction, as Mr. Mueller rightly observes, is thoroughly implanted in all Buechner’s central characters; they are frozen into passive immobility, enmeshed in a web of internal and external forces. Danton, in that four-act death scene, Danton’s Death, is devoured by Robespierre, rendered impotent by his sense of universal chaos and human weakness: “What are we but puppets, manipulated on wires by unknown powers?” Prince Leonce, in that strange anti-romance, Leonce and Lena, is consumed by a soul-destroying indolence, one of those “who are unhappy, and incurably so, simply because they exist.” And Woyzeck is the archetypal victim, at the mercy of a cold, unfeeling world in which God is dead and man is slowly dying of a lingering disease.

This, of course, is the famous metaphysical Angst, the feeling behind so much modern art; and though Buechner occasionally borrowed the robes of Hamlet and Lear, it was his prophetic destiny to express Existential discontent many years in advance of the contemporary fashion, during a period of radiant optimism and exuberant expectation. Still, if Buechner’s art is international in its philosophical attitudes, it is peculiarly German in its style and tone. The contemporary French dramatist, for example, will usually make his nausea and despair an occasion for self-conscious theorizing, but Buechner is always at one with his suffering characters, and thereby invests them with febrile intensity and hallucinated visions. Only Dostoevsky, among non-German writers, strikes me as Buechner’s companion spirit, because Buechner’s characters are all afflicted with brain fever, and Lenz seems very much like an early sketch for Ivan Karamozov. On the other hand, Buechner has a great many followers among German artists, both literary and non-literary. To a certain type of German mind which found the Olympian idealism of Thomas Mann as fake as that of Schiller, Buechner’s ecstatic nihilism, his surreal images and his unremitting attacks on bourgeois morality were very congenial indeed.


Buechner, in short, was the literary saint of the Weimar Republic; one can detect his influence on the satirical drawings of Georg Grosz, the paintings of Max Ernst, the movies of G.W. Pabst, the music of Alban Berg and the plays of Frank Wedekind and Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, especially, admired Buechner and modelled his early plays on Buechner’s work, examining lower forms of life on an abandoned, second-rate planet where even hell is cold, and man freezes with loneliness. But the sex nausea, the highlighted despair and the sado-masochistic feelings which inform plays like Baal, Drums in the Night and In the Jungle of Cities are typical of a whole species of Weimar art in a Buechnerian tradition. For it is an art which focuses on the deterioration of human beings until they are revealed in all their naked insignificance or brutality—an art which forecasts the coming of the Nazis.

Buechner prophesied the Nazi pathology a hundred years in advance of the event in his masterpiece, Woyzeck; there he follows the progress of an anti-hero stripped of morals, ideals and civilized veneer. Woyzeck is based on an actual historical case, that of a Leipzig barber who had murdered his mistress in a fit of jealousy. At the time, a debate had ensued over whether the barber was mad. Buechner handles the problem by ignoring it completely. Woyzeck is certainly mad, but then so is the entire world. Manipulated by a cold-blooded society, and buffeted by his own uncontrollable impulses, Woyzeck seems human only in his ability to suffer; but in comparison with his tormentors, he is humanity itself. Frustrated and in-articulate, Woyzeck represents mankind in its crudest form—he is Natural Man, untaught, unmoral, incorrigible. Lectured by his condescending Captain on the need for virtue, Woyzeck replies: “People like us can’t be holy in this world—or the next. If we ever did get into heaven, they’d put us to work on the thunder.” To such born victims, morality is an extravagance and virtue a luxury—or as Brecht is to put it a century later: Erst kommt die Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.

Like Brecht’s, however, Buechner’s social judgment has a metaphysical foundation; it is not just the system but life itself which inspires Woyzeck’s misery. To Buechner, society is merely another form of nature, and in the state of Nature, man is simply another of the beasts. At the fairgrounds, Woyzeck observes his natural cousins in a monkey dressed as a man and a trained horse who “puts society to shame.” He becomes the experimental object of a proto-Nazi Doctor who feeds him on peas. And though the Doctor holds that natural man is superior to the animals because he can control his urine, Woyzeck urinates against a wall—like a dog. Even the Doctor’s Pelagian view of human freedom, ironically limited though it is, is contradicted by Woyzeck’s wayward flesh. The natural man is without control, and Nature itself is madness and disorder: “When Nature gives way,” observes Woyzeck, “the world gets dark and you have to feel around with your hands, and everything keeps slipping, like in a spider’s web.”

Buechner further evokes this sense of dislocation through the accidental, unconnected form of the play—Woyzeck moves blindly from episode to episode like the prey of a spider being dragged down its web. His frenzy increasing over his mistress’ infidelity, Woyzeck falls into a “beautiful aberratio” (as the Doctor gleefully calls it), and in the grip of a lucid, Shakespearean madness, he begins to visualize the sexual act—the act of Nature—in images of bestiality, foulness and defilement: “God, blow out the sun and let them roll on each other in their lechery! Man and woman and man and beast! They’ll do it in the light of the sun! They’ll do it in the palm of your hand like flies!” It is the language of Shakespeare’s Lear, perceiving the whole of life dominated by unrestrained appetite. It is the form of Nature (anarchy and madness) discovering the essence of Nature (lust and anger). And acting on this terrible perception, Woyzeck cuts his mistress’ throat. Later, trying to wash the blood from his hands, he falls into a lake—most versions have him drown at this point, though Mr. Mueller brings him back to stand trial—and as some children heartlessly fling the news (“Hey, your mother’s dead”) at the woman’s orphaned child, the cycle of inhumanity begins anew.


The play is exaggerated, but the exaggerations of German art have become the truths of German history: Woyzeck is the first concentration camp man. The play is all the more remarkable when we remember the date it was written, but Buechner’s capacity for standing apart from his own time has made him a part of ours. While his contemporaries grew drunk on the rich wine of Rousseau, he looked forward to a harrowing future of universal, social and personal disorder. The poet of isolation and ennul he chronicled the death of the world in images of startling power, foretelling the Second Coming in every line of his art: “The world is chaos. Nothingness is the world-god yet to be born.”

This Issue

June 1, 1963