First published here in January 2010.
Maurice Benn’s study of the work of Georg Büchner suggests that Büchner may have been familiar with Schopenhauer’s philosophy (The World as Will and Representation having been published in 1818, twenty years before the composition of Woyzeck in 1837, while Schopenhauer was still alive). “The world is chaos. Nothingness its due messiah,” goes a line in Danton’s Death, a line which echoes Schopenhauer’s metaphysics (as well as the final line of WWR itself).
Büchner demonstrated “a pessimism deeper and darker than any to be found in the previous history of German thought with the possible exception of Schopenhauer,” Benn notes (61), but I wish to point out in connection with Woyzeck the play’s structural relationship to time, space and causality — the three qualities which constitute the perception of the empirical world, according to the philosopher. The notorious structural difficulties of the play, unsolved by Büchner, stem from a deviation from the classical form which still inheres in Danton’s Death and even Leonce and Lena. This classical form bears resemblances to the idea of the wellmade tragedy as it came down from Aristotle in antiquity, but in Woyzeck the unities are entirely shattered: locations and times shift with an arbitrary rapidity. And not merely that: the great personages, kings and queens, of classical tragedy, even of Shakespearean tragedy, are absent from Büchner’s collection of soldiers, bourgeois professionals and criminals.
Woyzeck, in which we find the first tentative steps towards the modern tragedy, suggests an attempt at the aesthetic project in Schopenhauer to deny the highly-structured empirical mirror of the well-told story or the well-made plot: an empiricism, according to Schopenhauer, which necessarily denies a recognition of the Will or thing-in-itself. By the first half of the nineteenth century, the status of Reason as a controlling factor in the government of men had been seriously compromised by the bloody failures of the French Revolution to provide that democratic egalitarianism promised by the leaders of that revolution.
It may, perhaps, have been a reactionary turn of the theatre in the face of that failure towards the well-made domestic plays of the Victorian era: it was the era of Sardou and a little later Pinero, highly-constructed plots that were based most immovably in time, space and logical causality. It should also be noted that Schopenhauer preferred the tragedies of Shakespeare to those of the ancient Greeks, and one must note too that the stories of Shakespeare’s plays are often extraordinarily ill-built from the point-of-view of logical development. Hamlet constructs a bewilderingly incomplete series of family, personal and political relationships, only to have nearly all of the characters die at the end from a combination of arbitrary chance, accident and spite. In nearly all the Shakespeare tragedies, everyone dies at the end: death as a deus ex machina to cut off, if not tie up, any loose ends of the plot. This is, from a classical view, poor storytelling. And additional proof, if any were needed, that it is not the story that drives the Shakespearean tragedy, but the language.
The desire of some contemporary theatre practitioners to put “a good story” on the stage (by which they seem to mean a narrative that follows a logical plot development and persuasive if commonplace psychological characterization) demonstrates a refusal to consider the drama as an avenue to exploring the catastrophic expression of the noumenal reality within the phenomenal world. Indeed, the phrase “getting lost in a story” is more than just a desire for a blinding enchantment: it is a fetishization of the phenomenal. This is of an entirely different nature than the contemplation of the noumenal that forms the center of Schopenhauer’s aesthetic experience: for it is catastrophe that is contemplated, rather than an easy curiosity served. The contemporary wellmade story brings blindness rather than knowledge.
Charles Lamb, in his book The Theatre of Howard Barker, suggests a different approach. Lamb took up the study of Barker’s work upon noticing that traditional rehearsal practices seemed not to serve these contemporary tragedies. Barker’s texts, like that of Woyzeck, are rich in catastrophic, irrational moments; the attempt to approach them from within traditional storytelling did not serve the work. “This gave me the idea of reversing the procedure,” Lamb wrote: “Instead of working through the scene and elucidating it with a set of a priori ‘rational’ assumptions, what would happen if one started with the irrational moment? If, instead of treating it as a wholly inscrutable aberration [within the narrative], one posited it as the key to everything else?” (Lamb 2) This would mean that, in dramatic time, irrational and catastrophic events would radiate outward, stretching from the irrational moment to the more “rational” stage events that surrounded them, instead of directing those “rational” events towards the catastrophes that shattered empirical time within the drama — catastrophes that suggested and described the noumena that existed beneath and behind the phenomenal world.
Story in the drama and the theatre serves the same purpose as tonality in music or figurative, representational plastic arts: they root the aesthetic experience in the empirical world, rather than suggesting the noumenal. It is a necessity of the metaphysical, Schopenhauerian tragedy to smash the insistently empirical nature of the realistic or naturalistic play, a play which keeps us firmly a part of the world of blind suffering. It provides no knowledge: only ignorance.