“Wozzeck,” the play, the opera and a multitude of stage and film adaptations, will always be with us.
The story centers on a beleaguered young man who struggles with life at the bottom of the social order. He’s driven to insanity and murder by persistent degradation and humiliation. In short, Wozzeck (pronounced Votzeck) suffers in a society that relishes bullying. Look no further than “Joker,” a current film about the plight of an alienated outsider
The Wozzeck phenomenon began in 1837 with a short play by young German playwright Georg Büchner. Concerned with the pressures put on individuals by social and moral conventions, Büchner wrote extensively on the theme of alienation. He died before he finished “Wozzeck,” but its power resurfaced in late-century productions.
About a century later, the German composer Alban Berg saw a production and immediately decided on an opera. Like Büchner’s multi-scene play, the opera unspools in short episodes, introducing the main characters, the humiliations and Wozzeck’s descent into madness.
The original story was based on an actual crime committed in 1821 in Leipzig. It was the topic of conversation in the Büchner household. In a frenzy of jealousy, the newspapers reported, Johann Woyzeck killed his mistress. His case ignited legal controversy primarily because it was the first to employ medical forensics as testimony. A Dr. J. Ch. A. Clarus briefly examined the accused and proclaimed him completely sane, and Johann Woyzeck was found guilty and publicly beheaded.
In Büchner’s satire and Berg’s sardonic opera, it is not Wozzeck (baritone Peter Mattei) who is insane, but the people who hold power over him: a military Captain (buffo tenor Gerhard Siegel), a creepy Doctor (buffo bass Christian Van Horn), and a lascivious Drum Major (tenor Christopher Ventris). Wozzeck’s mistress and mother of his out-of-wedlock child, Marie (soprano Elza van den Heever), is another duplicitous character who disparages Wozzeck.
The play is seen as a turning point in German naturalism and expressionism. The opera is considered a 20th century masterpiece in expressionism. And over time, both works have grown more relevant. The social systems in which we live haven’t changed all that much. Hierarchies and the human quest for status all have staying power in art, literature and drama.
After his experiences in World War I, Berg transformed Büchner’s tragedy into art. In a 1918 letter to his wife, Berg wrote: “There is a bit of me in Wozzeck’s character, since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, humiliated.”
Every production is different, from a bare bone set to the Met’s new hyper-expressionistic production conceived by William Kentridge. Interweaving stage movement with bold graphics and flickering projections, Kentridge has envisioned Wozzeck’s increasing insanity.
In contrast, I recall a minimalist production of Büchner’s play at Fort Lewis College back in 1997. Presented by Fourth Wall Student Productions in the Black Box Theatre, the students unfurled the 1837 work in stark simplicity. Directed by senior T.C. Casanova, the play featured sophomore Alex Oliszewski as Wozzeck.
Yes, I remember it well, and since then, Oliszewski graduated with a master’s degree from Arizona State University. He’s now an associate professor in Ohio State University’s large theater department. His specialty is in media and systems design. You can view his productions on the OSU website: theatre.@OSH.edu.
As I said, “Wozzeck” will always be with us.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.