Woyzeck on the Highveld (adapted from Woyzeck by Georg Büchner), Handspring Puppet Company, toured 6 September-12 November 2011

Woyzeck is a riddle. And the play is well named, as the riddle of Woyzeck is Woyzeck, its protagonist; or, more particularly, how it came that on a summer’s night in 1821, on the bank of a lake in Saxony, Friedrich Johann Franz Woyzeck stabbed a woman named Marie repeatedly until she died.

In a sense, though, this event was – as philosophers say – overdetermined. After all, the woman in question, his lover, had been unfaithful to him, a state of affairs recognised since time immemorial as just and sufficient cause for murder. What’s more, Woyzeck himself, in addition to his duties in the barracks, was taking part in a medical trial which required him to eat nothing but peas for months on end and urinate solely in the presence of his doctor. Clearly, we are talking about someone under a lot of stress. Moreover, his lover, Marie, was by all accounts a total slut. She did it for a living, so he ought to have known. But instead he was doing overtime and enduring continual humiliation in the workplace so as to support their child – in a society which never would have dreamt of ‘chasing up absentee dads’. In a word, he brought it upon himself.

Yet none of these explanations, lying ready to hand, seems enough to account for Woyzeck’s eventual course of action. One reason for this is that he is insane. It is not just that he talks to himself more than is normal even for a theatrical character – a trait still common in Saxony today. It is what he talks about: severed heads rolling down a hill at night, Freemasons gathering in underground caverns, secret messages in the patterns of toadstools. In the middle of a medical consultation, he interrupts:woyzeck [confidentially]. Doctor, have you ever seen any double nature? When the sun’s at noon and it’s like the whole world was going up in flames. That’s when a terrible voice spoke to me!

Another reason, though, is that Woyzeck, even at his maddest, seems to be giving voice to a general malaise shared by the other characters. ‘Woyzeck, I shudder when I think that the earth takes a whole day to rotate!’ says the Captain, whom Woyzeck is shaving. ‘And where’s it going to end? Woyzeck, the very sight of a millwheel depresses me.’ Marie, in a lucid moment, falls prey to a similar sense of futility:

marie [alone, after a pause]. I’m a bad person. I could kill myself. – Oh, what’s the use? We’re all going to the devil, all of us.

And when some street children ask an old granny for a story, the best she can manage is one about ‘a poor little boy who had no father or mother’, which begins:

Everything was dead, and there was nobody left in the whole wide world. Everything was dead, and he went away and searched day and night. And because there was nobody left on earth he thought he’d go up to heaven.

When we see the way the characters interact in Büchner’s play it is not hard to understand why they might feel alone, without purpose, in a dead world. The Captain spends his time either trying to prove his intellectual superiority or reproaching his overworked employee with a lack of ‘Tugend’ (virtue/decency). The Doctor is even worse. Unable to gauge anyone’s state of mind (including his own) except by taking their pulse, he hopes his experiments on Woyzeck will bring him fame and fortune, and gives him a raise for each new symptom of psychosis he exhibits. Marie sells her body to the Drum Major for a pair of earrings; Woyzeck’s best friend, Andres, can only communicate in folksongs; and Woyzeck’s last words to Marie, as he murders her, are ‘Why can’t you die?’ – as though speaking to a jam jar he couldn’t open.

This world, which at first seems so alien, where people measure, manipulate and trade in each another for profit, where morality and intelligence are loose ideas used to prove the poor have no less than they deserve, no doubt bears less resemblance to Germany in 1837, when Büchner died, leaving the play unfinished, than it does to London in 2011: a world of chuggers, P. R. consultants, cognitive neuroscientists, Torture Garden, and Melanie Phillips.

What the other characters grope towards in stories and idle thoughts is revealed to Woyzeck with the immediacy of perception. ‘Listen! It’s hollow – the whole place is hollow!’ he says to Andres as they are cutting sticks in the bushes. Then: ‘It’s silent now. Not a sound. Like the world was dead.’

If the world whose nature Woyzeck intuits is a close relation of our own, this is a further reason not to think he can easily be explained away.


Handspring, the South African puppet company which collaborated on War Horse, has been touring an adaptation of Woyzeck based in 1950s Johannesburg. In this version Woyzeck’s boss is a creepy pipe-smoking Englishman with pomaded hair, the Doctor a fat-necked Afrikaaner. The other characters are inhabitants of a black township on the outskirts of the city. The puppets, along with one human actor, perform in front of a screen onto which charcoal-drawn animations by William Kentridge are projected. These create a grim atmosphere. There is a repeated motif of workers in silhouette trudging over a hillock, one on crutches, another being pushed in a wheelbarrow.

The most memorable puppet is a performing rhino at the fairground where Woyzeck and Marie (here Maria) go with their child. Goaded on by the animal-tamer (acted by a human, Mncedisi Shabangu), it stands upright on its hind legs, draws a big penis on the blackboard, and raises its leg to pee in the direction of the audience. At a certain point, deciding it has had enough, it tricks the tamer into shooting it dead with a rifle and flies away.

Before long it reappears in the background, dry-humping a woman in the procession of silhouettes.

While the rhino is constructed along the skeletal lines familiar from War Horse, the other puppets here are more solid and less agile. They have no legs, so they appear to float, and their mouths do not open, meaning their faces can become quite dull to look at. The exception is Andres, whose mouth opens very wide indeed when he sings in an incomprehensible falsetto, at great length, accompanied by his accordion.

To begin with, the mechanics of the performance are well hidden behind the elevated stage, with just the occasional human scalp poking above the parapet. But as the evening progresses, the puppeteers become bolder, first standing at their full height, then eventually sallying out in front of the stage, two at a time, flanking the puppets in their charge. When they are dancing to techno music together with the muscular worker who seduces Maria, this is fair enough. But when all the puppet is doing is leaning forward a little now and then, as is too often the case with Woyzeck, the earnest-faced puppeteers poaching his limelight, sometimes even leaning across in front of him, become an irritating obstruction.

The animations are often used cleverly, now adding depth to an interior with a perspective drawing, now showing us the puppet’s eye view of what is going on, and at other times taking on a surreal life of their own. After Woyzeck spills some wine while waiting on the Captain at table, and has a mini nervous breakdown, there ensue abstract sequences of spillage, staining and overflow. Equally often, though, these Monty Python-esque flights of fancy, accompanied by Big Mouth on his accordion, bear no discernible relation to the action. After wracking your brains once over what a cloud turning into a magnet, then a bowl, a bone, and finally a magnet again – but this time with a spanner stuck to it – might possibly mean, you inevitably greet the next animation with foreboding. The effect is to make what is already a cryptic, almost fragmentary play tedious and episodic to boot.

But the main difficulty with this Woyzeck is that the context of apartheid transforms the way the drama is framed. In the original play Woyzeck tells the Captain that poor people do not have the luxury of being decent (‘tugendhaft’). Even today this idea has an air of paradox. In Woyzeck on the Highveld, on the other hand, he says, ‘If I was a white man, I could be virtuous’ – which is another matter entirely. For one thing, the English Captain would be all too ready to agree. For another, insofar as it refers to a system of oppression and prejudice, it is a system whose injustice is today universally condemned. ‘Updating’ Woyzeck to the context of 1950s South Africa unexpectedly gives Büchner’s prescient and subversive play the tame feel of a costume drama.

Gone is the vivid impression that everyone, no matter their position in the hierarchy, is tangled up in the same corrupting web. The characters in Woyzeck on the Highveld divide into white corruptors and black corrupted. Woyzeck himself becomes not a riddle but an irrelevance. What he says we knew already, and his one distinguishing feature is to be a failure by the standards of both blacks and whites. There remains his madness. But this is now an epiphenomenon: the random blatherings of a wrecked individual for whom thought and speech, like everything else, have proved ineffectual.


When he died at the age of twenty-three, Georg Büchner had written a novel, three plays, a revolutionary pamphlet and a scientific study of the carp, on the strength of which he was employed as a lecturer in anatomy by the University of Zürich. His most famous play, Danton’s Death, diagnoses the frenetic activity of this ill-fated revolutionary as masking a frank despair amounting almost to hatred of life – for its futility. ‘Life’s not worth the trouble we take to hold on to it,’ Danton tells friends urging him to flee Robespierre’s wrath. And he woos Julie with the beautiful, uncanny line, ‘Ich liebe dich wie das Grab.’ ‘I love you like the grave.’

Woyzeck is not principally a proletarian drama any more than Danton’s Death is principally about the French Revolution. Woyzeck, like Danton, is a man whose hyperactivity demands an explanation. ‘You rush through the world like an open razor!’ the Captain admonishes him (though in Handspring’s version he drifts through the world like a melancholy ghoul). Woyzeck, like Danton, comes to see life as something pointless we would be better off without (a thought provoked, but not embodied, by the interminable warblings of Big Mouth). ‘Why don’t you blow the sun out, God?’ he shouts at one point.

What drives Woyzeck to murder also drives him to return, almost immediately, to the scene of the crime. In the final moments of the play he throws the knife he used to kill Marie into the lake, then wades in after it. ‘It’s too close to the bank,’ he says to himself, throwing the knife again, and again wading after it. ‘Is there still blood on me? I must wash it off,’ he says to himself, and wades in further. But by now he is fooling no one. Woyzeck has discovered that there is a way out of this dead, hollow, purposeless world. All it takes is to walk into the water.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.