Is there a more adapted play than Woyzeck, the story writer Georg Büchner bequeathed to the world as an unfinished and unsorted sheaf of paper on his death in 1837?
Regarded as the first “modern” drama by many, Büchner, who was 23 at the time and soon to die from typhus, ripped his story from a decade-old headline about Johann Christian Woyzeck, a barber and wigmaker who murdered his mistress. After a sensational trial lasting four years, which raised questions about the accused’s sanity, Woyzeck was sentenced to death and publicly beheaded in Leipzig in 1821.
Jealousy, murder and madness, with justice ultimately delivered. Perfect material for a juicy melodrama. But in Büchner’s sparely written scenes, which he scribbled in microscopically small handwriting, Woyzeckbecame something else entirely. His story of a hapless soldier variously experimented on, humiliated and betrayed became a play for the ages, the Ur-drama of the modern German theatre.
The play’s openness to interpretation and reshaping has proven irresistible to directors since it was first staged by Max Reinhardt just before World War I and among the dozens of ensuing interpretations are Alban Berg’s operatic adaptation, Wozzeck, composed in 1922. Ingmar Bergman translated and staged his own Woyzeck...