Although it took Friedrich Nietzsche to reach its most notorious formulation, the sense that “God is dead” had already haunted German literature for most of the 19th century. In Friedrich Hölderlin’s philosophically informed, classically oriented poetry, while God is “near,” He remains “difficult to grasp,” but in the startling and formally prophetic dramatic fragments of Hölderlin’s contemporary, dramatist Georg Büchner, the problem runs in the other direction. Humankind is near, but not kind, and God is not so much difficult to grasp as disintegrated.
In the musical version of Büchner’s Woyzeck that opens next weekend, put on by Ensemble Theatre Company, singer/songwriter Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, have contributed a set of English-language songs to augment the enigmatic scenes that make up the original drama. In the process, they have Americanized this existential perception into “God’s Away on Business,” the title and the refrain of the show’s fifth song. In an interview accompanying the 2002 release of Blood Money, the album version of the project, Waits explained his understanding of the expression this way: “It’s just one of those things you say in order to explain the way that you feel in metaphor. I guess it feels sometimes in the world that God is away on business and he’s not coming back.”
This leaves the humans in charge, and it’s from this godless point of departure that the playwright Büchner built his drama. Franz Woyzeck is based on a historical figure, a German wigmaker also named Woyzeck who was executed after being convicted of murdering his girlfriend in a fit of jealous anger. Büchner, who himself died at the young age of 23, seized on this anecdote and turned it into a full-blown critique of the dehumanizing effects of militarism and bureaucracy. The Woyzeck of the play, like his real-life predecessor, is driven to murder by jealousy, but he is also a victim, having not only been systematically degraded as a result of his inferior social and economic status but also having been the subject of a mysterious series of medical experiments. With no hope of love or justice and a continuously deteriorating sense of self, Woyzeck spirals out of control, but not before condemning the system in which he has been trapped.
Unfinished and neglected at Büchner’s death in 1837, the play is now seen as having prefigured two key developments, naturalism and expressionism, that were not to become widespread until nearly a century later.
In this production, director Jonathan Fox is aiming for something distinctly different from what Robert Wilson did with the Waits music when it was first performed by a Danish company in 2002. Wilson, whose best-known work remains the postmodern milestone Einstein on the Beach, often employs abstract techniques such as geometric blocking and anti-natural movements to estrange the audience from the material. Critics were divided on the success of the Danish version, and Fox is aware of the challenges posed by this highly literary text. “It may be difficult to make this play work with any approach,” he said, adding, “these beautiful songs have the darkest lyrics you can imagine.”
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of what’s being done on this production is the way that Fox is using the five-piece band. They’ve been in rehearsal with the cast from the beginning, and they have created their own musical vocabulary alongside the actors. When the show opens on Saturday, April 18 (performances on Apr. 16-17 are previews), the musicians will be onstage, not in the pit, and the actors will sing and dance on the same level with them. It’s one of the season’s most ambitious productions, and here’s to seeing it succeed. God may be away on business, but that doesn’t mean the show can’t still go on.
Woyzeck will be at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic April 16-May 3. For tickets and information, visit etcsb.org or call (805) 965-5400.