Written in 1836-7, left incomplete at the death of its author, this short play has proven to be influential beyond its apparent modesty. Published in 1874 and first performed in 1913, “Woyzeck” is fresh, contemporary, problematic, challenging, universal and a powerful piece of theatre. Its fragmentary form and basis on real murder cases anticipates the documentary theatre of Piscator (and Brecht). The work of Piscator in 1920-30s Berlin anticipates such contemporary works as “The Laramie Project” and “Tot Mum” by Steven Soderbergh. “Tot Mum” uses verbatim transcripts and multi-media to present the story of a pending murder trial in the form of a CNN interview.
In documentary theatre, social issues are explored emphasising factual information over aesthetic considerations. “Woyzeck” is based on the murder by Johann Christian Woyzeck of his partner Johanna Christiane Woost in Leipzig in 1821. Woyzeck was found guilty but the sentence of death was not carried out for years as the court was not satisfied and deliberated over whether Woyzeck was in charge of his mental faculties at the time of the murder. In the age when people were shipped to Australia for the term of their natural life for stealing a loaf of bread, the court in Leipzig shows remarkable modern compassion and understanding making the case extraordinary in the context of German social justice in the post Napoleonic age. This is probably what attracted Buchner to the story. Buchner was a revolutionary medical student with strong views on social justice.
“Woyzeck” the play lends itself to multiple interpretation. At the heart of the work is Buchner’s dispassionate presentation of the “hero” as the most sensitive, aware, reflective, loving and ultimately brutal character in the play. The play asks us to confront the situation of a man driven to commit murder. Is it because he is mad, driven mad by circumstance and jealousy or the criminally insane experiments of the Doctor (foreshadowing that other great criminal Dr Josef Mengele)? Or is he an avenging angel? A class warrior? Or simply a psychopath? In today’s post truth/fake news/alternate fact environment “Woyzeck” offers no real answers other than it was ever thus.
The choice of Old Government House in Parramatta, a building contemporary to the events and writing of “Woyzeck”, as the architectural platform for your stage design is deliberate. In order to interpret the play we must confront the past to make sense of the present.