Büchner was born on 17 October 1813 in Goddelau. He came from a family of medical men and studied natural science (zoology and comparative anatomy) in Strasbourg (1831-33). He continued his studies at the University of Giessen, where he assumed a leading role in underground political activity. He was obsessed with overthrowing the autocratic governments of German states, including that of his own Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.
In 1834 Büchner published Der Hessische Landbote ( The Hessian Courier), a pamphlet that urged peasants to revolt against their oppressors. The pamphlet was an appeal based on the peasants' economic plight and was intended to be incendiary:
"In this year of 1834 it seems as though the Bible is telling lies. It seems as though God had made peasants and artisans on the fifth day and the princes and nobles on the sixth; and as though the Lord had said to the latter: Have dominion over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, as though the peasents and common people were to be counted as creeping things...The peasant goes behind the plow, but the nobleman goes behind the peasant and drives him on as he does the oxen, he takes his corn and leaves him with the stubble...[the peasants'] sweat is the salt on the nobleman's table" (Büchner 231-2).
Written 33 years before Marx's Das Kapital, The Hessian Courier was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Most of the peasants who received the pamphlet were illiterate. Even worse, they immediately handed it over to police and several of the individuals who created and published the pamphlet were arrested. Büchner had his room searched, but responded to this action with such indignation that he was somewhat removed from suspicion. Some of those arrested, including Pastor Weidig, the radical clergyman who inserted his own ideas into Büchner's original text for the pamphlet, died in prison.
In a space of five weeks in early 1835, Büchner wrote the play Danton's Tod ( Danton's Death). It is a pseudo-historical drama centering around Georges Jacques Danton, a radical but pragmatic leader of the French Revolution. In March of the same year, Büchner fled to Strasbourg after learning of his imminent arrest. There he wrote the comedy Leonce und Lena and the prose-narrative Lenz .
In 1836 Büchner received a doctorate from the University of Zurich, on the strength of his dissertation The Nervous System of the Barbel . He also began work on Woyzeck; Büchner continued to write the play through January 1837. Büchner contracted typhus and died on 19 February 1837; he was 23.
Büchner wrote Woyzeck during 1836-37. His work on the play was incomplete at his death; the manuscripts, which still exist today, consist of several incomplete drafts. None of these drafts is a complete version of the drama, and each represents a different stage in the development of the play. After Büchner's death from typhus, the manuscripts went to his brother Ludwig, who kept them but made no attempt to investigate them.
The Woyzeck manuscripts went unpublished and unread until the 1870s, when Karl Emil Franzos recovered them from Ludwig and published his version of the play. Franzos faced a very difficult task in the interpretation of the manuscripts. Since the words had faded badly, he found it necessary to chemically treat the paper. This "solution" made work more difficult for future investigators but allowed Franzos to see the ink on the pages. Another barrier was Büchner's handwriting, which was scrawled and extremely small. These features will be noticed on the internet version of the manuscripts. Buchner's hasty writing actually caused Franzos to read the name of the main character as Woz zeck.
The most problematic aspect of the manuscripts was their incompleteness. Using scenes from the different manuscripts many different scene orderings could be chosen, with more than one of these being reasonable and logical. Franzos himself chose an untenable ordering. He also made several alterations to the text; some of these were silly but others were brilliant. He assumed that Büchner intended Wozzeck to drown after wading into the pool to find the knife though the author did not make this explicit. Scholars later assumed the opposite. But "after forty years of critical research we are brought back to Franzos' conception of the denouement of the drama" (Perle 80:34). Wozzeck's interjection "Ach, Marie" while he is being hounded by the Doctor was added by Franzos; Albert Camus described the interjection as "a stroke of genius" (Ibid., 35).
In 1909 Paul Landau edited a new version of the play in Georg Büchner's Collected Works . Landau used Franzos' reading of the words of the play, the only one available to him, but revised the ordering of the scenes. It was this version that Berg would use for his opera. (It seems that Berg believed he was using Franzos' version, and he convinced his official biographer Willi Reich of this.) The first new reading of the manuscripts appeared in 1920 with Witkowski's edition. Berg became aware of this publication and noted the spelling of Woyzeck's name. He decided to leave the spelling as Wozzeck for his opera, as the difference in sound with Büchner's spelling would be too harmful.
Wozzeck is 30 years old, is a militiaman and fusilier, and earns extra money for his mistress and child by acting as regimental servant of the Captain and by being subject of the Doctor's experiments.
Scene 1 - The Captain's room - Early morning
Wozzeck is shaving the captain, frightens him with his haste. Captain speculates about the nature of time and eternity in an absurd manner. Wozzeck hardly listens, Captain tells him he thinks too much and begins to make fun of him. The Captain then pontificates about morality, showing how little he understands of that subject in the process. He says to Wozzeck: "You have a child who is not blessed by the clergy." In response, Wozzeck informs the captain that Christ doesn't care whether or not certain words were said before a child is born. Wozzeck goes on to describe the hardship he and his kind face and how it is easy for those who are better off financially to criticize the poor on moral grounds. The Captain attempts to soothe him, as he has become quite agitated. He asks only that Wozzeck do things more slowly and methodically. They leave the stage.
Scene 2 - An open field outside town - Late afternoon
Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks in the bushes. Wozzeck says to Andres "This place is accursed!" Andres, in a starkly contrasting response, sings a hunting song. Wozzeck then describes what surrounds them in a disturbing manner. He stamps on the ground and states that it is hollow; he says "There's something underneath that's moving with us!" Andres asks him if he is crazy. The sun begins to set, and to Wozzeck it is a tremendous fire "from the earth to the sky." Night then falls, leaving the stage dark. Andres, frightened by Wozzeck's words, feigns calmness and says: "Night. We've got to get back." They leave.
Scene 3 - Marie's room - Evening
Marie stands at the window holding her child. Marie is swept up in the clamour of an approaching military band. She singles out and comments upon its leader, the Drum Majour, who evidently arouses her. Margret, Marie's neighbour, notices this and teases her: "You can stare through seven pairs of leather breeches." Marie slams her window, shutting out Margret and the band, and is alone with her child. She comforts the child and sings him a lullaby; he falls asleep. Marie is lost in thought. Wozzeck stops by the house and tells Marie about his day. He frightens her with his hallucinations and hardly acknowledges the presence of the child. He leaves abruptly. Marie, left alone with the child, is scared and rushes out of her room.
Scene 4 - The Doctor's Study - A sunny afternoon
The doctor has been experimenting on Wozzeck, manipulating his diet. The Doctor chastises Wozzeck for coughing in the street "Like a dog." (In Büchner's play, Woyzeck had pissed in the street, thus depriving the doctor of a urine sample. For his opera to be performed, Berg had to change the bodily function.) Wozzeck states that, though people have personalities that control their behaviors, their animal nature sometimes takes over. Doctor denies that there is anything the will cannot control and recites a platitude: "In man individuality is transfigured into freedom." After listing the components of Wozzeck's diet the Doctor loses his temper. He then reproaches himself, saying that anger is "unscientific" and then monitoring his own heart rate. Wozzeck once again begins to explain how he thinks human nature works, but then shifts and describes what life is like when nature has vanished. He goes on to exhibit several of his hallucinations to the Doctor. The Doctor is quite impressed with this and decides to increase Wozzeck's pay. He dreams of immortal fame gained on the strength of his experiements with Wozzeck. Finally, he has Wozzeck stick out his tongue for him to look at.
Scene 5 - Street before Marie's door - Evening twilight
Marie is admiring the Drum Major, who has returned to strut before her. The Drum Major compliments her and then attempts to embrace her. Marie resists him, but this only increases the Drum Major's determination to have her. Marie, seeing this, becomes passive and allows him to take her into the house.
Scene 1 - Marie's room - Early morning
Marie, with her child on her lap, admires the earrings given to her by the Drum Major in a piece of a broken mirror. The child stirs and Marie frightens him to make him still. She sings a folk song and then tells him that the flickering light reflecting from her mirror is the Sandman running on the wall. Wozzeck enters, surprising Marie, who instinctively covers her ears with her hands. Wozzeck asks what is glistening under her fingers. Marie says she found them. Wozzeck: "I've never found anything like that, two at a time." He then comments on the child, on how he sweats even when he sleeps: this is the predicament of the poor, who must forever work under the sun. Wozzeck gives Marie money for the house - his wages and money from the Captain and the Doctor - and leaves. Marie reproaches herself for her infidelity, then says that "everything goes to the devil, man and woman and child!"
Scene 2 - Street in the town - Day
The Doctor and the Captain meet eachother in the street. The Doctor is in a great hurry and the Captain warns him: "Such haste will run you into your grave." The Doctor decides to stay and talk to him and describes with glee a terminally ill patient. He then observes the Captain and horrifies him with a terrible prognosis: he is apoplectic and will likely be paralyzed, perhaps even in such a way that would make him fit for some inhuman experiments. The Captain begins to defend himself from the morbid Doctor but is overcome by a fit of coughing. This is enough for him: he becomes very self-pitying, depicting his own funeral procession. Wozzeck enters, hurrying past his superiors and saluting. The Doctor detains him, and, with the Captain, hints in various ways at Marie's infidelity. Wozzeck, gradually undertanding what they are saying, becomes enraged and rushes off. The other two watch him hurry; the Captain is again frightened by his haste, while the Doctor calls Wozzeck a "phenomenon."
Scene 3 - The street outside Marie's dwelling
Wozzeck, coming onto the scene, is greeted cheerfully by Marie. He stares at her and comments that he should be able to see her sin. He asks her about her contact with the Drum Major, but without naming him or accusing her. Marie feigns ignorance, so he accuses her outright. She becomes defiant, while admitting to the sexual encounter. Wozzeck comes up to her and raises his hand. Marie stuns him with her words: "Don't touch me! Better a knife in my body than a hand on me!" and then goes into her house. Wozzeck, alone, says "Man's an abyss. You get dizzy when you look down!" He leaves.
Scene 4 - Tavern Garden - Late Evening
Apprentices, soldiers, and servant girls crowd the Tavern, and some of them are dancing. Two apprentices, very drunk, are singing nonsensical songs. Marie and the Drum Major are there and together they dance a waltz. Wozzeck rushes in and sees them: "He! She! The devil!" He comments on the lechery of the two, becoming extremely upset, and is about to rush onto the dance floor when the song ends. The soldiers and the apprentices sing a hunting song while Andres sings a racy folk song. Afterwards, Wozzeck makes morbid comments to Andres and the latter asks him if he is drunk. "No such luck" says Wozzeck. One of the apprentices stands on a table and delivers a mock sermon that parodies religious institutions. The "idiot" approaches Wozzeck and says "Jolly. Jolly! But it smells of blood!" Wozzeck takes up the word "blood" and repeats it in anguish as the waltz begins again. He says "Everything's turning red before my eyes. They all seem to be tumbling over one another."
Scene 5 - Guard room in the barracks - Night
The soldiers, including Andres and Wozzeck, are sleeping. We hear the "wordless chorus of the sleeping soldiers." Wozzeck moans despairingly in his sleep and then wakes up. He tells Andres he cannot sleep; the other sodiers become silent at his words but do not wake up. Wozzeck describes what he is perceiving: recollections of the dancing at the tavern, a voice, and a knife flashing before his eyes. Andres tells him to sleep. Wozzeck prays "My Lord and God 'and lead us not into temptation, Amen!'" The chorus of the sleeping soldiers is heard again. The Drum Major enters noisily: he is very drunk and brags of the woman he has been spending time with. Andres asks who she is and the Drum Major says "Just ask Wozzeck there!" The Drum Major and Wozzeck fight, and it ends with the former grasping the latter by the throat. "Shall I leave enough breath for and old woman's fart!?" the Drum Major asks. He then stands up, mocks Wozzeck, says "I am a man, I am!" and crashes out the door. Wozzeck pulls himself to his feet and says "One after the other."
Scene 1 - Marie's room - Night - Room is candle-lit
Marie is alone with her child, sitting on the table and reading the bible. She reads a passage aloud; it is about Christ forgiving a woman taken into adultery. She remarks that Wozzeck has not been home for the past two days. Marie then reads about Mary Magdalene and begs "Savior! Thou hadst mercy upon her; have mercy upon me!"
Scene 2 - Forest path by a pond - Dusk
Marie enters with Wozzeck. She points out where the town is and says "It's still far, let's hurry!" Wozzeck tells her to sit down; she is anxious but she does. He tells her that soon her feet won't bother her anymore and remarks "It's quiet here. And so dark." He kisses her and says he would give anything to go on doing so; "But I may not." The moon rises, "like a bloody sword" says Wozzeck. He draws a knife, yells "Not I Marie! And no one else either!" and stabs her in the throat. Marie sinks down. Wozzeck looks at her and says "Dead!" He rushes away.
Scene 3 - A low tavern, dimly lit
Apprentices and girls, among them Margret, are dancing to a wild polka played on an out of tune piano. Wozzeck comments on the lechery and says that everyone there will be fetched by the devil. He sings a song and then grabs Margret. After dancing a few steps with her he sits her on his knee and tells her to sing. She sings about Schwabenland, where trailing dresses and pointed shoes are worn. Wozzeck interrupts her, saying that one can go to hell bare-footed. Margret notices the blood on his hand and others crowd around. They all see that Wozzeck has committed some violence; he says "What's it to you? Am I a murderer?" and rushes out.
Scene 4 - Forest path by the pond - Moonlit night
Wozzeck stumbles in and looks for the knife. He says "Everything silent and...dead!" "Murderer! Murderer" he cries; he then whispers "Someone called! No, 'twas me!" Wozzeck stumbles upon Marie's corpse and speaks to it, saying that Marie earned her red necklace with its sin. He finds the knife, the object of his return, and throws it into the pond. The moon comes out of the clouds, again blood-red. "But the moon betrays me!" Wozzeck says. He wades into the pool to get the knife and throw it in further. Not finding the knife he begins washing the blood from his body. The moon reflects in the water and turns it blood-red. Wozzeck becomes fully deranged: "I'm washing myself with blood! The water is blood!" He drowns. The Doctor and the Captain enter. They hear the noise of Wozzeck drowning. Captain: "It's the water in the pool. The water calls. It's a long time since anyone drowned." The two are frightened and hurry away.
Scene 5 - In front of Marie's house - Bright morning, sunshine
Children are playing, among them Marie's child, who is riding a hobby-horse. The other children gossip about what has happened and call to Marie's child: "You! Your mother is dead!" The child continues to ride his hobby-horse. The others leave to go see what's happening at the pond, where Marie's body lies. The child continues to play but, after noticing he is alone, rides off after the others.