‘From Büchner to Beckett’

by Alfred Schwarz Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1978. $18.00

 

Edith Kern

 

From Büchner to Beckett is an impressive study, most of all, because of the wealth of information it contains on nineteenth-century German drama and the theories held by its practitioners. Professor Schwarz moves with ease from the writings of rather obscure academic critics of that period (e.g. Hermann Hettner) to such well-known playwrightcritics as Hebbel, Otto Ludwig, and Georg Büchner. He takes his reader on an intellectual whirlwind tour (and sometimes the speed is dizzying) to the works and critical writings of Tolstoy, Arthur Miller, Ibsen, Strindberg, T. S. Eliot, Hoffmannsthal, Shaw, Brecht, lonesco, Camus and Stoppard—to mention but a few. We are rewarded with interesting insights and, on occasions, startling comparisons such as that between Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Woyzeck (1830) is rightly recognized by Professor Schwarz as prefiguring some of the characteristics of our contemporary theatre. As for Beckett, we have to content ourselves with scant and very general references until we reach the last chapter of this volume, and we are not fully convinced even then why its title should juxtapose Büchner and Beckett as if they were the beginning and end of ‘modernity.’ Beckett, in fact, might just as easily be linked with medieval theatre.

 

Professor Schwarz asserts forcefully that modernity started in the theatre in the early part of the nineteenth century and continued until ‘the postwar burst of dramatic activity . . . slowed to a virtual standstill.’ But used in so broad a way, such critical terms as ‘modernity’ and ‘tragedy’ lose their significance and one cannot but wonder by what criteria playwrights of different nationalities and different times were included in this volume and why others are omitted. Although Alfred Schwarz professes not to be concerned with any delimitation of genre, he tacitly adheres to a specific definition of tragedy when he asserts that he is ‘tracing the continuing life of the genre in the modern theatre.’ We must gather that he believes such ‘modern’ and ‘tragic’ theatre to be ‘historical’ and ‘social,’ since he speaks of Büchner as having been ‘at the threshold of the modern social drama’ and reminds us of the playwright’s statement that ‘the dramatic poet is . . . nothing but a historian.’ Professor Schwarz is at his best when he distinguishes between the historical drama of nineteenth-century German playwrights and that of Shakespeare. What had been to Shakespeare a historical plot from which characters could be moulded in bold relief became in itself a force that confronted the actor: the nineteenth century turned history into an antagonist. But the critic fails to define with equal clarity the ‘revolution of principles’ (or shouldn’t we speak of ‘revolutions’?) in more recent theatre, proclaimed by T. S. Eliot. As it is the alleged intent of this study to be ‘a stocktaking of the forms of tragedy—a morphology of the genre’—one is startled that it juxtaposes the works of Büchner (not to mention others) and Beckett without clearly assessing the radical changes that have taken place since Büchner’s historical, social drama. Can we truly speak, in the same breath as it were, of tragedy, Christian drama, existential theatre, verse drama, social drama, and include for good measure Camus’ novel The outsider? To establish a ‘morphology’ of tragedy more is needed, I believe, than a quote from Ionesco’s Notes and counter-notes that ‘to become fully conscious of the atrocious and to laugh at it is to master the atrocious.’ We cannot help but ask what it is that permits Professor Schwarz to speak of Büchner’s historical /social drama and the plays of Ionesco and Beckett as belonging to the same genre.