In literary critic George Steiner’s terms, tragedy by the 1830s had become a hopeless vehicle, an imitation of Shakespeare and the great classicists, and even otherwise brilliant writers—Byron and Coleridge, for instance—couldn’t find any way to turn it to effective use. In that view, the whole of European theatrical history is pretty much a wasteland between Racine and Ibsen (just try, even if you’re a theater buff, to name three dramas between Phèdre and A Doll’s House). Georg Büchner is the exception—a wunderkind if there ever was one, he wrote a dazzling, paradigm-shifting body of work in a feverish outpouring between age 21 and his death at 23. The plays went on to have an important, kind of subterranean influence on key movements in 20th-century German-language theater.
What Büchner came up with is a completely different vision for theater, something close to the free play of fantasy and intelligence. It seems to be completely different from film; it’s hard to transpose into the novel. Victor Price, Büchner’s translator and biographer, says it’s possible that Büchner may never have set foot in a theater. That seems hard to believe, but, whatever, I’m not the biographer—and it’s clear that Büchner had no idea of, or probably interest in, how to stage his works. The discovery of Büchner in the early 20th century meant a sea change in what was considered possible for theater, particularly in the German-speaking world. “Without Büchner there might have been no Brecht,” claimed Steiner. Lights up/lights down theater, theater that has no interest in roundedness or illusion, Artaud’s theater, theater that’s meant to be as quicksilver as thought itself, all originate in Büchner, but, really, we haven’t caught up to him—a 21-year-old writing his plays underneath his anatomy textbook, his brother standing as lookout for him when his father came to check up on his studies.
Everything about Büchner’s career reads like a schoolboy’s daydream. He was a recognizable, insufferable kind of teenager, precocious and energetic. At 20, he wrote a pamphlet urging the Hessian peasants to revolt against the landowners: “The peasant walks behind the plough; but the rich man walks behind peasant and plough.” His collaborators were arrested and Büchner likely would have been as well, but he fled to France. He was apparently an extraordinarily gifted scientist and was awarded a doctorate without having to undergo an oral exam. A schoolmate, startlingly honest when interviewed 60 years later, said,
We frankly didn’t care for this Georg Büchner. He constantly had a disdainful expression like a cat in a thunderstorm, held himself completely apart, had dealings only with a ragged genius fallen on evil days. It often happened on our way home from a tavern that we stopped in front of his lodging and gave him an ironic cheer. ‘Long live Georg Büchner, preserver of the balance of powers in Europe and the man who abolished the slave trade.’ Although his burning lamp proved that he was in, he pretended not to hear.
The work Büchner was engrossed in was a fervid mix of science, translation, liberal politics, prolific letter-writing to his parents and his fiancée, a novella (Lenz), and three plays, Danton’s Death, Leonce and Lena, and Woyzeck, which, between them, created an entirely new theatrical aesthetic. Then he caught typhus and died at age 23—“what we have is like a mockery of what was to come,” wrote Steiner, “had he lived the history of European drama probably would have been very different.” And then, over 40 years after his death, through a confluence of rediscoverers—including Frank Wedekind, the Spring Awakening author, and the novelist Karl Franzos, who copied out what he could comprehend of Büchner’s handwriting—Büchner was finally published. His plays were performed in the 1910s and ’20s and recognized as forebears of literary modernism and expressionism.
Büchner strikes me as having anticipated all the ferments of modernity and seen to the end of them. For him, it was completely clear what the direction of history was—it was the French Revolution and then the inevitable disillusionment of revolution. In the 1830s, Europe was in the throes of reaction—a mad, concerted effort to see the French Revolution as an aberration and to restore a placid pre-modern order—and Büchner was one of several writers, alongside Pushkin, Lermontov, and Stendhal, who understood very clearly that there was no turning back, that the French Revolution had unleashed a propulsive energy, with a fervor and a dynamic all its own. In Büchner there are no ideals, nobody is ever acting better than anybody else. Modernity is just a tumult. “I have the feeling of being annihilated by the atrocious fatalism of history,” he wrote to his fiancée. “I find an inescapable violence in human conditions.”
The mood 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 foul mood and is asked, “Did it rain at the executions?” All philosophical questions are worked out readily enough—“There are only Epicureans, coarse ones and fine ones,” declares Danton, a sentiment echoed by the prostitute Marion: “Enjoy yourself, that’s the best way to pray.” Sex is completely unshocking, atheism taken for granted, and boredom understood to be the really critical emotion, the great driver of history. In this, Büchner is out ahead of Baudelaire and the focus on boredom at the end of the 19th century—boredom is seen as the key element of the revolutionary dialectic, the crowds tiring of half-measures and sporadic executions and demanding ever-greater quantities of blood: “The people are a minotaur, they have to have their weekly dole of corpses,” is how the revolutionary Lacroix puts it. In Büchner’s vision, these are absolutely irresistible forces—boredom, cruelty, sensuality. The only drama in Danton’s Death is the struggle between the hero’s lofty boredom and his undignified urge towards self-preservation. (“Between ourselves, it’s wretched to have to die,” as Danton’s friend Desmoulins confesses to him, while another friend worries that Danton is “so lazy he’d rather be guillotined than make a speech.”) Büchner’s point is very clear and prescient: revolutionary impulses are insatiable and bloodshed can end only when the society has gone through its convulsions and shaken them out of its system.
I read Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Büchner’s plays close together and they do seem to be very much of a piece—these two ridiculously young writers with their abbreviated careers standing at the forefront of modernity and anticipating all the movements that were to come out of it. Jarry is a born troublemaker; Büchner is something else, a frustrated idealist, and his nihilism is all the more scorching. Consider these lines: “The world is chaos, nothingness is the world god yet to be born,” or “Something went wrong with us at the creation, something is missing—I can’t put a name to it but we won’t find it in each other’s guts.” What they both have—and this is what sets them apart from virtually every other playwright—is a complete indifference to any sort of half-measure or compromise, any contained theatrical world. “I know nothing about divisions or changes,” says Marion. “I’m all of a piece, just one big longing and clinging.” 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, innermost self, expressed as succinctly and often as violently as possible.
With Jarry, there’s a sense that the world is endlessly wicked and that the only possible integrity is to dive all the way into the pits of nihilism and see what strange redeeming beauty can be found on the other side. With Büchner, horror and wonderment are constantly juxtaposed—characters simply can’t 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 as they stab their sweethearts or send their school friends to the guillotine.
Büchner explains a great theatrical split. Brecht discovered Büchner and was deeply influenced by him, and the European (predominantly German-language) theater that follows Brecht is wry, detached, in liminal space, and deeply concerned with political and historical themes. Anglophone theater had no contact with Büchner. The eventual break from Shakespearean-style tragedy occurred through realism, domestic drama, and an intense focus on the individual—Chekhov’s model. Every so often an English-language playwright will write something that has an aspect of Büchner somewhere in it—Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, Craig Lucas’s Reckless, Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love; something collective, choral, shades chattering together—but it’s rare, it’s like a language we’re missing.
For one thing, Büchner’s theater tends to involve large casts—some two or three dozen named roles plus myriad extras—as he probably had no sense whatsoever of how expensive actors could be. And for another, Büchner’s plays have a certain shapelessness and a freeflow of language that call upon some heightened degree of attention from the audience. But it’s deeper than any of that. It’s like we somehow locked onto the idea that characters had to represent real people, and that the achievement of a character’s verisimilitude is therefore superior, a more expert display of craft. Büchner shows that they can be something else: thoughts, gestures.