Regarded as the first modern play, Woyzeck — written in 1836 by Georg Büchner — certainly embraces the idiosyncrasies of modern writing as it has come to be known. The Undergraduate Theater Society at the University of Washington takes on the fever dream of Franz Woyzeck’s life, complete with the fragmented scenes, impending sense of the absurd, and social commentary that have established this play’s long-running reputation.
I made the mistake of going into Woyzeck knowing absolutely nothing about this actually really well-known play. My complete lack of background knowledge and context left me baffled by the performance. I spent at least the first half of the play trying to mentally stitch the scenes together and wondered whether or not they were even in chronological order, given the absence of transitions. I had difficulty understanding scenes as they unfolded because my thoughts were still trying to make sense of the ones I had seen prior, and it took several scenes before I could gather a working idea of the world director Elizabeth Schiffler was portraying.
But once I realized the fragmentation of the play was part of its charm, I was able to more acutely focus on what was going on in front of me. And I highly doubt my confusion was a great as Franz Woyzeck’s himself. The titular character, a poor soldier in presumably the 1800s, is battling a lot of nonsensical forces beyond his control that cause him to lose control.
Cast into a hopeless life of poverty, Franz — played by Kevin Lin — is at the hands of those better-off than him. He is berated and made malnourished by the doctor who should actually be caring for him, deemed immoral by the military captain, and loses his wife’s loyalty to a drum major in the military. He doesn’t have much, if any, say in the circumstances of his life and begins to lose his mental faculty as a result.
My struggle to make sense of the scenes just seemed to be an echo of Franz trying to make sense of his life. Throughout the play, he becomes visibly more ill and his mental state falls apart. Though Woyzeck opens with Franz having an apocalyptic hallucination, it’s the last half hour of the play that is truly frightening.
Watching the throes of Franz’s madness, I feared the inevitable violence that would ensue. And the deterioration of the character was heartbreaking to watch. Actor Kevin Lin’s movements became more and more jerky and his face more and more discolored as Franz’s world crumbled. I was wholly convinced that he had been driven mad.
The original play was famously left unfinished due to its writer’s young death, and I almost wish this rendition of the performance had been left unfinished too, as the ending is nearly too much to bear. No sense is regained and fragmentation gives way to things (i.e. lives) being cut short. I left the performance feeling that I had witnessed something absurd, but I’m also convinced that is exactly what Büchner and Schiffler intended.
Undergraduate Theater Society
November 21 - December 8