Saturday, December 21, 2013

Peace to the shacks!

No, this is not my Christmas blog. This text that I had intended to write back in January is devoted to Georg Büchner, a genius of the German language, who was born on October 23, two hundred years ago. The Büchner Year will be coming to an end soon; I must hurry up.

A recently discovered portrait of Georg Büchner at the age of twenty
Den 20. Januar ging Lenz durch's Gebirg. Die Gipfel und hohen Bergflächen im Schnee, die Thäler hinunter graues Gestein, grüne Flächen, Felsen und Tannen ... (On January 20, Lenz walked through the mountains. Peaks and high mountain-sides were snow-covered, down the valleys gray bedrock, green surfaces, rocks, and fir trees ...)

With these simple words sounding like a fanfare Georg Büchner introduces his novella Lenz. In just four years he wrote this novella and three plays: the drama Dantons Tod (Danton's Death), the comedy Leonce und Lena, and the tragedy Woyzeck. In his oeuvre Büchner pulled together information he had read, combined the texts, and worked out the highs and lows of human existence

- in the mental confusion of the poet Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz

- in the corruption of power in the antagonism between Danton and Robbespiere

- in ridiculing the nobility and celebrating the mystery of love in Leonce and Lena

- in the mental and physical sufferings of a tormented Woyzeck.

Büchner's plays are difficult to stage. The reason is that there is little action and the texts are dense. Red Baron has seen Leonce and Lena, Woyzeck, and even listened to Wozzeck, the opera by Alban Berg. Honoring Georg Büchner here in Freiburg director Robert Schubert staged Dantons Tod mostly abstaining from Regietheater (director's theater). Although Schubert rearranged some scenes he stuck to the original text and produced a remarkable performance.

Danton and Robbespiere on stage discussing the existence of God
(©Theater Freiburg/Der Spiegel).
Büchner not only was a master of the German language, he was a revolutionary and a scientist too as shown by an exhibition commemorating him at his birthplace Darmstadt.

Following Napoleon's fall the Restoration had suffocated all hopes of freedom in Germany. Only grudgingly did the re-installed princes agree to move from absolute to constitutional rule. Eventually they forced their versions of constitutions on their people. Seeing the misery of the peasants and taking up the feelings of the working population in the Grand Duchy of Hesse Büchner wrote his famous: Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen! (Peace to the shacks! War on the palaces!). This proclamation he had printed as an introduction to a pamphlet called Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Courier) criticizing the social and political grievances in Hesse. As a result he and his friends were wanted by the state police for incitement of the people. Büchner escaped to France and Switzerland where he died in Zürich at the age of just twenty-four.

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