In the words of literary critic George Steiner, the tragedy of the 1830s had become a hopeless vehicle, an imitation of Shakespeare and the great classics, and even other brilliant writers – Byron and Coleridge, for example – could find no way to transform it into an effective work. use. From this point of view, the whole history of European theater is more or less a wasteland between Racine and Ibsen (try, even if you are a theater buff, to name three dramas between Phaedrus and A doll’s house). Georg Büchner is the exception – a prodigy if there ever was one, he wrote a dazzling and revolutionary work in a feverish outpouring between the age of 21 and his death at 23. influence on key movements in German-language theater of the 20th century.
What Büchner proposed is a completely different vision of theatre, something close to the free play of fantasy and intelligence. It seems to be completely different from the movie; it is difficult to transpose into the novel. Victor Price, Büchner’s translator and biographer, says it’s possible that Büchner never set foot in a theater. It seems hard to believe, but, anyway, I am not the biographer – and it is clear that Büchner had no idea, or probably no interest, in how to stage his works. Büchner’s discovery at the start of the 20th century meant a sea change in what was considered possible for theatre, especially in the German-speaking world. “Without Büchner, there might have been no Brecht,” Steiner said. The theater illuminates/illuminates, the theater that is not interested in roundness or illusion, the theater of Artaud, the theater that wants to be as lively as thought itself, all come from Büchner, but, really, we haven’t caught up with him – a 21-year-old writing his parts under his anatomy textbook, his brother watching him when his father came to check on his studies.
Everything about Büchner’s career reads like a schoolboy daydream. He was a recognizable, insufferable, precocious and energetic teenager. At the age of 20, he wrote a pamphlet urging the Hessian peasants to revolt against the landowners: “The peasant walks behind the plow; but the rich man walks behind the peasant and the plough. His associates were arrested and Büchner probably would have been too, but he fled to France. He was apparently an extraordinarily gifted scientist and earned a doctorate without having to take an oral exam. A classmate, surprisingly honest when interviewed 60 years later, said:
We frankly did not like this Georg Büchner. He constantly had a dismissive expression like a cat in a thunderstorm, kept himself completely aloof, dealt only with a tattered genius who had fallen on bad days. It often happened on the way back from a tavern that we would stop in front of his lodgings and give him ironic cheers. “Long live Georg Büchner, preserver of the balance of power in Europe and the man who abolished the slave trade.” Although his lighted lamp proved that he was inside, he pretended not to hear.
The work in which Büchner was absorbed was a fervent mixture of science, translation, liberal politics, prolific writing of letters to his parents and to his fiancée, a short story (Lenz), and three rooms, The Death of Danton, Léonce and Léna, and Woyzeck, who, between them, created a whole new theatrical aesthetic. Then he caught typhus and died aged 23 – “what we have is like a parody of what was to come”, wrote Steiner, “if he had lived, the history of European drama would probably have been very different” . And then, more than 40 years after his death, thanks to a confluence of rediscoverers, including Frank Wedekind, the spring awakening author, and novelist Karl Franzos, who copied what he could understand from Büchner’s writing – Büchner was finally published. His plays were performed in the 1910s and 20s and recognized as the ancestors of literary modernism and expressionism.
Büchner seems to me to have anticipated all the ferments of modernity and to have seen the end of it. For him, the direction of history was quite clear: it was the French Revolution, then the inevitable disillusionment of the revolution. In the 1830s, Europe was in the throes of reaction – a mad and concerted effort to see the French Revolution as an aberration and to restore a placid pre-modern order – and Büchner was one of many writers, alongside of Pushkin, Lermontov and Stendhal, who understood very well that there was no turning back, that the French Revolution had unleashed a propulsive energy, with a fervor and a dynamic all its own. At Büchner, there are no ideals, no one ever acts better than anyone else. Modernity is just a tumult. “I have the feeling of being devastated by the atrocious fatalism of the story”, he wrote to his fiancée. “I find an inescapable violence in human conditions.”
The atmosphere is extremely cynical and very funny – I knew I was in the presence of something special in the opening scene of Danton’s death Büchner’s first play, when Desmoulins returns home in a bad mood and is asked: “Did the executions please?” All philosophical questions are worked out quite easily: “There are only epicureans, the fat and the beautiful”, declares Danton, a sentiment echoed by the prostitute Marion: “Have fun, it’s the best way to pray . Sex is completely non-shocking, atheism taken for granted and boredom understood as the truly critical emotion, the great driving force behind the story. In this, Büchner precedes Baudelaire and the emphasis on boredom at the end of the 19th century – boredom is considered the key element of the revolutionary dialectic, the crowds growing tired of half measures and sporadic executions and requiring ever larger quantities. of blood: “The people are a minotaur, they must have their weekly batch of corpses,” said the revolutionary Lacroix. In Büchner’s vision, these are absolutely irresistible forces: boredom, cruelty, sensuality. The only tragedy Danton’s death is the struggle between the hero’s lofty boredom and his unworthy desire to preserve himself. (“Between us, it’s miserable to have to die”, as Danton’s friend Desmoulins confesses to him, while another friend worries that Danton is “so lazy that he’d rather be guillotined than do a speech”.) Büchner’s point is very clear and prescient: revolutionary impulses are insatiable and the bloodshed can only cease when society has gone through its convulsions and shaken them out of its system.
I read Alfred Jarry Ubu King and Büchner’s plays sit side by side and seem to fit together well — these two ridiculously young writers with shortened careers standing at the forefront of modernity and anticipating all the movements that will come out of it. Jarry is a born troublemaker; Büchner is something else, a frustrated idealist, and his nihilism is all the more burning. Consider these lines: “The world is chaos, nothingness is the unborn god of the world” or “Something went wrong with us at creation, something is missing – I can’t name it, but we won’t. find it in the guts of the other. What they both have – and this is what sets them apart from virtually all other playwrights – is a complete indifference to any sort of half-measure or compromise, to any contained theatrical form. world. “I don’t know anything about divisions or changes,” says Marion. “I’m all in one piece, just a great desire and attachment.” And so there’s no room for characters, for scenes in any normal sense of the word, for people to express anything other than their truest, deepest selves, expressed as succinctly and often as violently as possible.
With Jarry, you get the feeling that the world is infinitely evil and that the only integrity possible is to dive to the bottom of nihilism and see what strange redeeming beauty can be found on the other side. In Büchner, horror and wonder are constantly juxtaposed – the characters simply cannot bring themselves to believe their surroundings or what their circumstances compel them to do and maintain a rich sense of the absurd, a detachment and humor, even if they stab their lovers or send their schoolmates to the guillotine.
Büchner explains a great theatrical divide. Brecht discovered Büchner and was deeply influenced by him, and the European (mostly German-language) theater that follows Brecht is ironic, detached, in liminal space, and deeply preoccupied with political and historical themes. The Anglophone theater had no contact with Büchner. The eventual break with Shakespearean-style tragedy occurred through realism, domestic drama, and an intense focus on the individual – Chekhov’s model. Every now and then an English-language playwright will write something that has a Büchner aspect to it somewhere—Tennessee Williams’s Real Path, by Craig Lucas Reckless, by Mike Bartlett Earthquakes in London, Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s love; something collective, choral, nuances that chat together, but it’s rare, it’s like a language that we miss.
For one thing, Büchner’s theater tended to involve big actors—about two or three dozen named roles plus a myriad of extras—because he probably had no idea how much the actors cost. And on the other hand, Büchner’s plays have a certain formlessness and a free flow of language that call for a certain degree of attention from the audience. But it’s deeper than all that. It’s like we’ve kind of locked ourselves into the idea that the characters should represent real people, and that the realization of a character’s verisimilitude is therefore superior, a more expert display of craftsmanship. Büchner shows that they can be something else: thoughts, gestures.