Georg Büchner
Far Ahead of His Time

“Woyzeck”, director: Stefan Pucher, Zurich Schauspielhaus
“Woyzeck”, director: Stefan Pucher, Zurich Schauspielhaus | Photo (detail): © Tanja Dorendorf / T+T Fotografie

17 October 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Georg Büchner. The poet of the “pre-March” era and how the theatre has responded to him today.

What we know of his works was written in less than four years. In the time between 1834 and 1837, he completed his medical studies, took his doctorate with a dissertation on the cranial nerves of the barbel and was obliged to flee the henchmen of the Hessian corporative state because of his social revolutionary pamphlet The Hessian Courier (Der Hessische Landbote). Georg Büchner was a restless writer. No other œuvre that is universally regarded as world literature has been created in so short a space of time.

Among these works is the revolutionary drama Danton’s Death (Danton’s Tod), in which Büchner took verbatim passages from historical works by Adolph Thiers and François-Auguste Mignet. The work was read for the first time in early 1835 in the flat of the Frankfurt journalist, dramatist and Büchner patron Karl Gutzkow. What those present could not know was that this soirée was the birth of documentary theatre. Büchner himself could not be present. For three months there had already been a warrant out for his arrest. It read: “The hereunder described student of medicine from Darmstadt has sought to escape judicial investigation of his indirect participation in treasonous activities by removing himself from his fatherland”. And that his forehead was “very domed”.


At this time the fugitive had already fled to Strasbourg, carrying with him the novella Lenz, a poetically stunning glacial river of a book about a mentally disturbed artist. On the run Büchner was also to write the comedy Leonce and Lena (Leonce und Lena) and Woyzeck, the ballad of a hounded borderliner, in which the scenes follow one another in such rapid succession that you could think you were reading a film script. Büchner’s literary writings were far ahead of their time and still represent a challenge to the theatre today. Leonce and Lena, for instance, presents itself as a fairy-tale-like game, but beneath the sugary romance it conceals a nihilistic swan song on the possibility of romantic love.

It is not easy to penetrate to the core of Leonce and Lena. It is therefore interesting to see what happens to Büchner’s work on stage, now that the man’s biographical data have suggested a more intense engagement with the work. The echo at first was subdued. As always, the exceptions prove the rule. In Düsseldorf Falk Richter soon sampled Büchner’s complete works and inserted texts of his own. And in Heidelberg at the beginning of 2013, there was the premier of the stage version of The Hessian Courier. Such projects are rather rare. It was also surprising that the director Nina Mattenklotz consistently mapped the text to the current situation and used it as a manual for a still to be realized rebellion against the unjust distribution of wealth.


If you were to hear “Friede den Hütten, Krieg den Palästen” (Peace to the cottages, war on the palaces!), you could not help thinking the essay Time for Outrage (Empört Euch) of the French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, the protests in the European capitals and the popular uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt and Syria. But you can also sense ambivalence in Büchner’s cry, which already sets the tone of his famous “Fatalism Letter” (Fatalismusbrief): “I find in human nature a terrible sameness, and in human relationships an immutable force”.

A few months after writing the The Hessian Courier, Büchner put this resigned tone in the mouth of the protagonist of his first dramatic work. There the unspoken question is why fight for human rights if those for whom you fight go on “lying, murdering and stealing”. And Danton might have added: I see this in myself. It is not least this self-doubt that has made Danton’s Death such a relevant play it is being performed by many theatres in this anniversary year.


It is different in the case of Leonce and Lena. Directors rarely attempt this nihilistic romance with its caustictheatres have shown themselves to be reserved or else decided from the outset for the musical version by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. On stage this often seems to be an evasion of Büchner, the modernity of whose Woyzeck is still to be discovered.

A central question in this connection is whether the fragmentary character of the handwritten sequence of scenes handed down to us is in fact the result of hasty writing on the run, or rather Büchner’s method of representing the world as he sees it: as a hodgepodge of actions and interests, which lacks an overarching whole. If we see Büchner’s montage technique as a form of sampling, a method which pop literature in our century has taken up again, it is no wonder that Stefan Pucher has recently succeeded in mounting so cogent a production of Woyzeck at the Zurich Schauspielhaus. Two brothers in spirit have found one another.

We cannot know what the young Büchner would have achieved had he been able to continue on his path of re-ordering the dramaturgy of narrative. In the three crucial years of his poetic life he so expended himself that he died in Zurich exile before completing his twenty-fourth year. He was buried near the Schauspielhaus in the Krautgartenfriedhof, or Herb Garden Cemetery. Today it is the site of the Kunsthaus Zurich. In 1875 his remains were disinterred and reburied on the Germania Hill, high above the city.