Desperate for money to support his fledgling family, an army officer submits to medical experimentation for cash. As the experiments drive him to the edge, Georg Büchner’s eponymous play asks “Is there really any difference between man and beast?” This Chicago premiere of Tom Waits’ alt-chamber opera features a new orchestration by acclaimed jazz pianist Carl Kennedy.
Supported by The MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
Production Design Funding Provided by Clayton & Rachel Mobley
Based on the Play by Georg Büchner
Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
Original Concept by Robert Wilson
Original Text Version by Anne Christin Rommen and Wolfgang Wiens
“A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into.”
– George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ (1937)
When a company is granted the rights to perform the Tom Waits version of WOYZECK, you receive two documents: one, a “score” which is nothing more than a collection of lyrics and chords, and two, a fuzzy PDF of the script used for the 2000 production of the show in Copenhagen, with each double page spread printed in English and Danish. The order of the songs in the score do not match the order they’re listed in the script. Similarly, the order of the scenes in this script do not match any other extant adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play. The entire package is a mess of scraps, of notes, of words in different languages; in short, a mass of contradictions.
This is as it should be. For it reflects the fractured mind of Franz Woyzeck, a man whose perception of the world is utterly shattered from the moment we meet him. And it reflects the distorted mind of Büchner who, just six months after writing his play (in microscopic handwriting) would die of syphilis whilst in medical school in Zurich. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Büchner put all of his many sides – a poet, a doctor, a revolutionary – into his title character.
WOYZECK is either pile of fragments that we’ll never know the order of, with various editors trying to “help” put things in order… or it’s light years ahead of its time, as a non-linear jigsaw puzzle of a play. The portrait of a man created regardless of the order in which the scenes are played.
Michael Patterson, in his introduction to a translation of WOYZECK published by Methuen in 1979, wrote of this structure:
“Where the structure of the traditional drama reinforced a sense of inevitability by presenting events leading inexorably from exposition to catastrophe, the episodic structure points to the arbitrary nature of events. In Brecht this contains the anti-tragic implications that the events are unnecessary and subject to change, while in Büchner the very arbitrariness cruelly reinforces the tragic sense. In WOYZECK we experience the desolation of tragedy without being cushioned from its force by the sense of inner necessity that a linear structure would lend.”
As an actor, you cannot play the arc of any of the characters in this play. There really is no arc. It’s a collection of events as remembered by Woyzeck that build in their absurdity and lack of cohesion: this is shocking for an audience that is used to linear, realistic narratives. Everything that the audience sees is from the point of view of Woyzeck. The play starts with the murder of Marie, and this sequence is returned to each time a new character is introduced. Nothing that happens needs to be justified by an explanation in a rational world.
WOYZECK was also ahead of its time in that is perhaps the first play that has a working class protagonist who isn’t a servant. Figaro, he ain’t. Often WOYZECK relies heavily on its military setting. Designer Brad Caleb Lee and I took our cue from the opening scene in the Tom Waits version – with the circus – to focus on the animalistic side of humanity. We wanted to investigate the question: “What is the difference between a human and an animal, between man and beast?” And surely, when you look at the behaviour of all the characters in this play, they all act like animals. Words don’t really help them to communicate. (They rely more on music and song than anything else.) We wanted to see how distorted the effect would be to have the actors dressed as animals, moving and mimicking those animals but without the need for any accuracy or realism.
Distortion was the key word that guided me in my work with orchestrator Carl Kennedy. Carl and I talked about musical distortion: how sounds could be altered in pitch and articulation, in the way in which they could be made. We wondered if the use of out-of-tune instruments and voices could show the distorted mind of Woyzeck. We also wanted to find a way to blur the lines between instrumentalist and singer, asking our band to sing as something of a chorus, and asking our singers to play homemade percussion instruments fashioned out of found objects, inspired by items mentioned in the text. It was only later that we discovered that Tom Waits, in his own work, has built similar found object instruments.
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