Woyzeck: Brief Synopsis and Background

Woyzeck is a stage play written by Georg Büchner. He left the work incomplete at his death, but it has been variously and posthumously finished by a variety of authors, editors and translators. Woyzeck has become one of the most performed and influential plays in the German theatre repertory.

Büchner probably began writing the play between June and September 1836. It remained in a fragmentary state at the time of his early death in 1837. Woyzeck was first published in 1879 in a heavily reworked version by Karl Emil Franzos. It received its first performance on November 8 1913 at the Residenztheater, Munich.

Woyzeck concerns the dehumanising effects of doctors, the military, and women on a young man’s life. It is often seen as ‘working class’ tragedy. The play is loosely based on the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker who murdered Christiane Woost, a widow with whom he had been living, in a fit of jealousy in 1821 and was subsequently publicly decapitated.

Franz Woyzeck, a lowly soldier stationed in a provincial German town, is the father of an illegitimate child by his mistress Marie. Woyzeck earns extra money for his family by performing menial jobs for the Captain and agreeing to take part in medical experiments conducted by the Doctor. As one of these experiments, the Doctor tells Woyzeck he must eat nothing but peas. It is obvious that Woyzeck’s mental health is breaking down and he begins to experience a series of apocalyptic visions. Meanwhile, Marie grows tired of Woyzeck and turns her attentions to a handsome drum major, who in an ambiguous scene taking place in Marie’s bedroom, arguably rapes her.

With his jealous suspicions growing, Woyzeck confronts the drum major, who beats him up and humiliates him. Finally, Woyzeck stabs Marie to death by a pond. While a third act trial is claimed by some to have been part of the original conception, the fragment as left by Büchner ends with Woyzeck disposing of the knife in the pond, and most renditions (including Werner Herzog’s movie) extrapolate this with him drowning while trying to clean himself of the blood after having dumped the knife in deep waters.

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