Play for today

It has been called 'the first real tragedy of life', the story of a simple soldier driven to madness and murder. That 'Woyzeck' survives is a miracle, says Tom Rosenthal. And after nearly 200 years it still has the power to shock
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It's hard to credit that a solution of ammonia sulphate and distilled water is the source of the first great Expressionist drama and one of the handful of revolutionary, Modernist operas that have found a permanent place in the international repertory.

It's hard to credit that a solution of ammonia sulphate and distilled water is the source of the first great Expressionist drama and one of the handful of revolutionary, Modernist operas that have found a permanent place in the international repertory.

Yet Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck is derived from Georg Büchner's Woyzeck and this fragmentary play, written in 1836, was excluded by Büchner's brother when he produced the posthumous Collected Works in 1850 on the perfectly reasonably grounds that the two, or possibly three, draft versions of the play had remained in a crumpled sheaf of paper found rolled up in Georg's overcoat at the time of his death.

That we have it today is due to an obscure, German-speaking, Polish-Jewish writer Karl Emil Franzos (1848-1904). Apart from being a versatile, but today little known, writer Franzos was the editor of the first collected edition of the writings of Georg Büchner, born in 1813 and dead, of typhus, in 1837 aged only 23. He was determined to include Woyzeck, applied his distinctly dangerous solution to the severely faded ink, managed to bring it up to a legible state and edited it so that it was first published in 1879. Thus Franzos had almost as profound an effect on the history of drama and opera as Max Brod had on fiction when he ignored Kafka's deathbed injunction to destroy all his manuscripts. But while Brod had only to practice common sense, Franzos, with his chemical solutions and powerful magnifying glass - Büchner's writing was also minuscule - actually performed a heroic and seminal task.

There can be few more unpromising operatic scenarios than Woyzeck. It tells the story of a semi-literate, almost simple-minded soldier in the Prussian Army. Given to paranoia, disturbing, even apocalyptic visions and almost Delphic utterances, Woyzeck is victimised by the idiot Captain to whom he is orderly and tormented by a sadistic army doctor who pays him a pittance to study the physiological effects of a constant diet of peas. He has a common-law wife, Marie, who has born him a son but is seduced by the swaggering, ultra-macho Drum-Major who beats him up. Woyzeck, half-crazed with love and jealousy, kills Marie and drowns himself.

While the whole of Büchner's oeuvre fits into a modest paperback and his two other, completed, plays Danton's Death and Leonce and Lena are remarkable by any standards, it is Woyzeck which was the truly revolutionary work. As George Steiner observed in The Death of Tragedy: "Woyzeck is the first real tragedy of life. It repudiates an assumption implicit in Greek, Elizabethan and neo-classic drama: the assumption that tragic suffering is the sombre privilege of those who are in high places."

Steiner draws some ingenious and entirely convincing parallels between Woyzeck and King Lear, notably their both being, in their worst moments, "maddened with sexual loathing". Büchner, according to Steiner, "saw, as had Shakespeare, that in the extremity of suffering, the mind seeks to loosen the bonds of rational syntax. Woyzeck's powers of speech fall drastically short of the depth of his anguish. That is the crux of the play" (My italics).

It was in fact Franzos who discovered from his analysis of Büchner's crabbed script that the central character is "Woyzeck" and not "Wozzeck" and for ease of reference the play will be known in this article as Woyzeck and Wozzeck will be used only for the opera. Of Woyzeck there is, also, no definitive text; nor is there even a definitive order for the 25 scenes. The play was inspired by a true life crime in which one Johann Christian Woyzeck was beheaded for killing his mistress while in a jealous rage. Ironically Woyzeck, a ne'er do well, was a civilian, an ex-soldier rejected by the Leipzig militia and he killed his mistress for having sex with soldiers. Büchner's father, a doctor, had contributed articles to the medical journal edited by Doctor JCA Clarus. When Woyzeck's defender pleaded his client's insanity, on the grounds of his hallucinations, Clarus was, remarkably for Leipzig in 1824, summoned to conduct a psychiatric examination of the prisoner. Clarus declared that he was not mentally unstable and Woyzeck was publicly executed on Leipzig's main square.

The case being so well known to Büchner and his family, it was a natural subject for the 22-year-old former medical student who immediately saw the power of the story, the conflict between the haves and the have nots, the torment of the inarticulate man perpetually humiliated by his superiors in status but not in intelligence.

What Büchner produced, for all its incompleteness, and doubts about the validity of the text, is the first great Expressionist drama, written a whole century before Expressionism became such a force in German theatre, painting and cinema. In Woyzeck as in Expressionist painting, as the great German art historian Wilhelm Worringer put it, reality was "transformed into a spectrally heightened and distorted actuality. Everything becomes weird and fantastic. Behind the visible appearance of things lurks its caricature...." In other words not everything in Woyzeck is as it seems, a complexity that deepens further when the German undergoes another transformation in English. The late Büchner scholar, JP Stern gave us a lapidary account of Büchner's vocabulary: "Words, everywhere in Büchner's work, are such strange, isolated objects: now like gaudy beads of poison, now like knives quivering in the target, now like scalpels dissecting living limbs, now again like gory wounds."

Stern's description itself is not unlike the words of a film script and it is not surprising that Woyzeck appealed not only to Alban Berg but to two widely different and outstanding film directors. After all, had Büchner lived a century later, he could easily have written the script for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Nosferatu.

In 1947 Georg Klaren directed the first film of Woyzeck (titled Wozzeck) in East Germany, then a country wracked by dreadful poverty and the abuses of Stalinist power and hierarchies. This particular cultural seed-bed has produced, given the primitive facilities of immediate post-war East German movie making, a dark, relatively free, but intellectually faithful version of Büchner's play which is, paradoxically, at once agitprop suitable for cowed Soviet audience and as savage a denunciation of the absurdities of all authority figures as one could find in the works of Brecht.

Klaren has framed the film in the autopsy lecture room where the play's Doctor has dealt with Woyzeck's post-execution corpse as callously as he has experimented on Woyzeck's body in life. Among the students in these scenes, added and written by Klaren, are not only future leaders of the medical profession, already sporting the fresh duelling scars needed for high social standing, but also the austere, un-scarred person of Georg Büchner - himself in real life a medical student. He is the only one to argue with the Doctor's preposterous vainglory and contempt for "untermenschen" like Woyzeck. Klaren makes other additions and changes which don't improve the play but emphasise the physical degradation and humiliation of Woyzeck. Woyzeck's nemesis, the Drum-Major, a Teutonic version of Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, is seen as the equivalent of an English Regimental Sergeant-Major who rules the common soldiers without the involvement of the Officers. He makes them do press-ups in the mud which covers the parade ground, and singles out Woyzeck for special abuse. In a flashback an anguished Woyzeck is made to run the gauntlet. Instead of the Drum-Major, after his seduction of Marie, beating up Woyzeck in the pub, he has him flogged on the barracks square for being late for roll call. These cruelties are not in the play, where the sadism is inflicted by the Captain and the Doctor and is restricted to extreme mental cruelty and insane medical experimentation. But it is still a remarkable film for its time and place and, as the first version of Woyzeck I ever saw, (as a teenager who had not even heard of the play), it left an indelible impression.

The other film is by Werner Herzog and was made in West Germany in 1979. Herzog had originally intended to cast as its hero Bruno S who had spent his entire early life in mental hospitals and whom he had used as Kaspar in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. In the end he changed his mind and switched to Klaus Kinski who, as Herzog has related, was afraid of the role. Herzog's film is low budget - £120,000 and 18 days shooting - but made in colour, beautifully photographed by Jürg Schmidt-Reitwein, and stands or falls by its Woyzeck. It is entirely faithfully to Büchner and Kinski is Woyzeck. The part might have been created for him, for his curious amalgam of sincerity, belligerence, physical durability, often almost Brando-like inarticulacy and that sheer dogged intelligence all bound together by a personality seemingly always on the edge of reason and madness. In Herzog's film Kinski seems to dwarf the rest of the play, something which rarely happens on stage. Woyzeck, simply because of its unfinished, fragmentary state is a true director's piece. There is no such thing as a "definitive" stage presentation. No two versions are ever alike. It's just been done at London's Gate Theatre in a well received, highly inventive staging and was recently at the Barbican where it was directed with characteristic, revolutionary brilliance by Robert Wilson with songs by Tom Waits.

London has also seen (in 1957) the celebrated Oscar Fritz Schuh Berlin production with sets by Caspar Neher and there was a notable Ingmar Bergman staging in Stockholm in 1969. It is not only in content that Woyzeck and Lear have something in common. Like Lear, Woyzeck is always, somewhere in the civilised world, in either rehearsal or production.

For students of the opera the most significant performance of the play took place on 5 May 1914 at the Residenzbuhne in Vienna. According to the invaluable Cambridge Opera Handbook, a young man, Paul Elbogen, attended the Viennese première and sat in a small chamber theatre a few rows away from Alban Berg whom he knew: "Indescribably excited and enthusiastic I stood up amidst wild applause, met Alban Berg a few steps behind me. He was deathly pale and perspiring profusely. 'What do you say?' he gasped, beside himself. 'Isn't it fantastic, incredible?' Then, already taking his leave 'Someone must set it to music'."

From the germination of the idea to the first night of Berg's opera took some 10 years, not because Berg was idle or slow but partly because of World War I and partly because Wozzeck the opera was not only revolutionary but quite seriously difficult. Berg (1885-1935) studied for many years under Schönberg, mostly writing songs including a sequence called The Altenberg Lieder, conducted by Schönberg in Vienna's Musikvereinsaal in 1913 to riots as violent as those caused by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in the same year. Berg was so shattered that he never even tried to get the song cycle performed again.

He was conscripted into the army which, understandably, he loathed - not least the private soldier's diet which doubtless prompted him to alter Woyzeck being fed by the Doctor on nothing but peas to the beans in the opera's libretto. The authorities recognised the mis-match and Berg was transferred to the War Office in Vienna where he remained deskbound till the end of the war. Once he was a civilian again he had little time for composition, having to do hack work to make a living; teaching, musical journalism, looking after the family estate, editing music guides, etc. In the circumstances to have finished the opera in short score form by October 1921 was heroic. Schönberg, who had disliked the idea of this particular choice of subject, only then read the score and was sufficiently impressed to recommend publication by his own publisher Universal Edition. While Berg's own pupil Fritz Klein prepared the piano score, Berg worked on a full score which he completed in April 1922 and had printed, at his own expense with borrowed money, in December 1922 since no commercial publisher would take it on. Only then did Universal take over publication but no one was interested in the performance.

But Berg had a critical success with his String Quartet at the Salzburg Festival of Contemporary Music in August 1923. The conductor Hermann Scherchen was in the audience and suggested that Berg should write an orchestral suite based on the Wozzeck music. This he did and Scherchen conducted it to great applause and critical success in Frankfurt in 1924. By then another great conductor, Erich Kleiber, who had had the piano score played to him during a visit to Vienna, decided, no matter what the difficulties, to put it on at the Berlin Opera House. At that time the Staatsoper in Berlin was in crisis and its General Administrator Max von Schillings was dismissed in 1925, some three weeks before Wozzeck was due to go on. Thus, on its success or failure, hung Kleiber's reputation as well as Berg's.

Berg's opera will never be popular; it never features on Classic FM; there are no easily hummable tunes; there are not even any set piece arias. Rather it is what Wagner defined as the gesamtkunstwerk, an amalgam of music and theatre, a synthesis of two art forms in which words, music, setting are inseparable and welded into a unity by a composer who has provided the words as well as the music. In Wozzeck's case Berg has re-arranged the scenes of the play in just as logical a sequence as the one Franzos wrought out of Büchner's manuscript. Neither version is "better" or "more authentic" than the other but Berg's is the one that is right for his musical treatment and interpretation. There are entire books devoted to the meaning and subtlety of Berg's music for Wozzeck. But if this makes the opera sound forbidding it should not. It is not, in even the best recording, easy listening. It has, in my view, to be seen as well as heard simply because it is superb theatre. Just as Büchner was the first author to create a tragedy around a humble man so Berg was the first operatic composer to do the same thing. In fact Wozzeck is more anti-hero than hero. He is brutalised and he is psychotic and like other great tragic heroes is shaped by people, situations and emotions he cannot control. All this is miraculously conveyed by Berg's intense, sometimes shattering, music in which the orchestra is probably more interpretatively forceful than even the best singer.

As others have pointed out there is a central paradox in Berg's having used so rigorous and formal a musical structure to set a play which depicts the mental collapse of its protagonist. "Why choose to depict mental instability through a musical structure that could hardly be more rational?" But in fact that is precisely why this is so great an opera. Any fool can depict growing madness in sound but that way cacophony lies and the total alienation of the audience. The success of Wozzeck is due in part to the inexorable drama of the plot and to the fact that various other lives, those of Marie, the Captain and the Doctor are also out of kilter, the music is always intuitive, subtle, controlled and, above all, apposite.

It is certainly difficult to play; the Berlin première of 1924 required an unprecedented 34 rehearsals and, until it became part of the standard repertory, all the premières around the world in the 1920s and 1930s required similar rehearsal schedules. But while it's difficult to learn, once learned it is not too difficult to play and it's certainly not difficult to listen to.

Its reception in Berlin was, to say the least, mixed. One critic described it as a "frontal attack by atonality on the time honoured fortress of Unter den Linden" [the home of the Berlin State Opera]: "The music of Alban Berg is truly frightful. Of the harmonic system built up over centuries not one stone is left on top of another. The nastiness and the lack of justification of the polyphony breaks even Schönberg's own world record. Who asks about melody, about emotion, about expression, forms, laws makes himself laughable ... the work is a catastrophe in our musical development."

The conductor of the Czech National Opera was in the audience and, having written that "It is a beautiful and powerful work, the most notable foreign opera since Strauss's Elektra", put it on two years later in Prague. Soon it was performed all over Europe and in Philadelphia by Stokowski.

By 1930 the Vienna performances were being attacked by right-wing political parties and as early as 1932 Kleiber gave his last performance of Wozzeck before resigning. Soon Berg's music was declared "degenerate" by the Nazis and never performed again in Germany or the other European countries controlled by the Nazis. The last live performance Berg heard was a concert production by Adrian Boult for the BBC at the Queen's Hall in March 1935, a few months before his death.

Wozzeck was revived internationally after World War II and finally came to Covent Garden in 1952 when Kleiber again conducted. The critics were, not unexpectedly, divided. The ever-reliable William Mann wrote that: "people like me who have not heard Wozzeck in the theatre before will remember that performance as one of the great operatic experiences of their lives ... It is a drama of low life, hallucination and sordidness, yet over the whole work offers an aura of nobility."

WR Anderson on the other hand was very unhappy: "the work remains for me the second most horrible in the world ... (the other being that revolting humbug Jenufa) ... this fumbling social document...." John Amis confessed that: "I felt as though I had lost about a quart of blood. Wozzeck is immensely lowering to the spirit without having the cleansing quality of catharsis ... I don't want my emotions dragged through sink and gutter."

Richard Jones's new production of Wozzeck for Welsh National Opera, which opens on Saturday at the new Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, has already been staged in Berlin at the Komische Oper. He has gone on record as saying that the opera is "about poverty, it's about militarism, and it's about soul sadness", a typically blunt and uncompromising viewpoint. As Jones had, in the early 1980s, directed the play, I asked which he preferred to work on and, sensibly enough, he evaded the question although he admitted that, assuming one had a good cast, in the play one can "choose one's own tempo. Obviously the play is more introverted. It can be spoken quietly ... you can create the sound for it. There aren't any stage directions by Büchner whereas Berg wrote immensely detailed stage directions for his opera." Jones regards the structure of the opera as "perfect". He appreciates the challenge of "resurrecting those characters ... you have however to be wary of the level of hallucination in the opera because you can't illustrate that hallucination which is in the music and you certainly can't exceed it. You can't reproduce the spiders, the mushrooms, or a ball of fire in the sky. You don't want to replicate on the stage what Berg has made clear in the music."

I asked Jones why he had taken on this peculiarly challenging work and he ruefully told me that a friend had told him that the best part of the job is being offered it in the first place. After that it's downhill all the way. "It has two themes in it which are fiendishly, notoriously difficult to put on a stage. It's always difficult to put the outside world on a stage. I think that both the themes of poverty and militarism are difficult to make potent in the theatre. I think poverty can often be represented in quite a culinary way, in Porgy and Bess or La Bohème where the audience can sympathise and identify and they're not really shocked. And with militarism, where we're getting all these daily images from Iraq and other places around the world, actors playing soldiers are often very ineffectual or half-baked so that it's very hard to make translations of the ideas of militarism and poverty - which are today over exposed in their imagery - that have any kind of energy or vitality that will make the audience engage with them. I think that's the main problem of directing Wozzeck so that it is shocking when he dies, so that it doesn't become like a piece of verismo, so that it doesn't become like a needless exhibition of suffering as it can become in, say, a Puccini opera ... You have to make a humanitarian statement with Wozzeck. You can't evade that."

I also asked him which of Berg's two operas he preferred. (His brilliant production of Lulu comes back to ENO in April) and he plumped firmly for Wozzeck, with the interesting judgement that in the play versus opera contest Lulu belongs firmly to Wedekind while Wozzeck belongs firmly to Berg. I too believe that the play, great work that it is, even seminal in the history of drama, is still, despite the efforts of the ingenious and heroic Franzos, both incomplete and fragmentary even though, as with Goya's so-called "sketches" for some of his most important canvasses, it gives off an aura of completeness, of dramatic rightness. Berg's opera, like Verdi's Otello is somehow more rounded, more carefully thought through, more convincing and inevitably more finished than the original.

George Steiner, as with his analysis of the play, is spot on with the opera: "Alban Berg's operatic version of Woyzeck is superb, both as music and drama. But it distorts Büchner's principal device. The music makes Woyzeck eloquent; a cunning orchestration gives speech to his soul. In the play, that soul is nearly mute and it is the lameness of Woyzeck's words which conveys his suffering."

In 1929 Berg gave a lecture on the musical technicalities of his opera, with illustrations provided by orchestra and singers. It is a lecture of luminous intelligence, from which one can, sadly, never quote enough.

He even makes issues of atonality and dissonance both interesting and clear for the layman. Explaining one of the dance themes, the Ländler, he says: "you will find some passages that might strike you as being 'dissonant' in a way that is different from that of the strictly atonal music - dissonant in a way similar to what results if a number of pieces in different keys were played at the same time, the sort of thing that you will have heard at fairgrounds."

But, above all, Berg in Wozzeck was, like Verdi and Janacek, a theatrical master who never forgot that opera is an imminently practical medium, an art created for entertainment. He ended his lecture with the usual thanks and the words: "I would ... like to ask a favour of you - that you forget everything that I've tried to explain about musical theory and aesthetics when you come on Tuesday, or later, to see a performance of Wozzeck on the stage of this theatre."

I know that when I see the production in Cardiff next week I will do as Berg asked and enjoy one of the most harrowing yet always compelling musical dramas of the last century.

'Wozzeck': Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (08700 40 2000), Saturday to 12 March and then touring