Soldiering On: Wozzeck’s Transformation of Tragedy
English / Language Arts, Literature, Creative Writing, Drama, Humanities, Philosophy
- To increase students’ familiarity with Wozzeck’s characters and story
- To deepen students’ understanding of historical literary conventions, particularly the archetype of the “tragic hero”
- To foster students’ critical and creative thinking
- To prompt students’ curiosity about the Met’s production of Wozzeck
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck is a work that seems determined to go against the grain. Critics often call it the “first working-class tragedy,” a distinction that may be true but which minimizes the myriad ways the work flouts the conventions of the tragic form. Together, Wozzeck’s psychosis and the utter meaninglessness of his death create a singular treatment of tragedy, one which offered Alban Berg the perfect vehicle for his atonal Expressionist style. In this exercise, students will study the “tragic” elements of Wozzeck, reading selections by historical theorists, analyzing excerpts from the libretto, and thinking critically about the opera’s story and musical language. By completing the exercise, students will gain a nuanced understanding of the conventions of tragedy as well as Wozzeck’s unusual treatment of this literary form. Students will:
- Become familiar with various theories of tragedy
- Analyze Büchner’s play and Berg’s opera to see how they transform and defy the expectations of this genre
- Study a collection of excerpts from Berg’s opera to determine what these selections tell us about tragic characters in general and Wozzeck in particular
- Re-imagine the opera according to different theoretical viewpoints
In this activity, students will have several opportunities to become familiar with the plot of Wozzeck and its transformation of tragedy. They will analyze characters, identify themes, and study excerpts from the libretto. They will also closely read a selection of historical theories of tragedy and analyze Wozzeck based on their findings. The lesson will close with an activity that encourages students to express their understanding of tragic drama both analytically and creatively.
Begin the class by writing the following headline on the board:
MORE STUDENTS QUARANTINED IN MEASLES TRAGEDY.
Ask students to speculate on the story behind the headline. What happened to the students? What caused this problem? What may the outcome be?
Distribute the first page of the reproducible handouts, entitled “Ripped from the Headlines,” and give students a few moments to reflect on the various headlines. Then elicit responses from students on what the stories behind the headlines might be (bonus points if they can identify the literary or artistic works the headlines caricature). Finally, ask students to identify the word that all of the headlines have in common (tragic/tragedy).
Prompt students with the question, "What does ‘tragic’ mean? What makes these examples tragic?” Students will likely respond that something is tragic if it is very sad. Point out that although the word “tragic” is frequently used that way, “tragedy” is also a specific literary genre and not merely an event causing suffering or destruction. (In fact, all of the examples on the handout are drawn from works identified as “tragedies”: Othello, Julius Caesar, La Bohème, Hamlet, and Oedipus Rex, respectively.) The word tragedy comes from the ancient Greek tragoidia, which has been used since at least the fifth century bce to refer to a type of drama that explores matters of solemn import: the causes of suffering, the nature of guilt, and the absence of justice.
Following this introductory reflection, let students know they will be closely reading a selection of primary sources from across history that discuss the literary genre of tragedy. In particular, all of these excerpts attempt to answer the question “What is tragedy?” or “What should tragedy be?” Divide students into groups and assign each group one of the excerpts, distributing the corresponding “Viewpoint” sheet from the next section of the reproducible handouts (entitled “What is Tragedy?”). Also distribute the reproducible page “Drama in a Tragic Key,” a broad overview of the tragic form that will help students analyze their historical reading.
Allow students ample time to read their excerpts and discuss in groups how their assigned author defines tragedy. Afterwards, reconvene the class and have each group summarize their findings.
It’s now time to turn to the plot of Wozzeck. Distribute the synopsis provided in this guide and ask for volunteers to take turns reading it aloud. Before launching into the reading, ask students to listen to the synopsis analytically, keeping in mind the various elements of tragedy that they have been studying.
Following the reading, ask students to summarize the main events of the opera. Who is the main character? What happens to him? What is his relationship to the other characters in the opera? How does the opera end? You may wish to distribute the “Who’s Whoin Wozzeck”chart to aid students’ comprehension.
Continue your discussion by asking students to identify some ways Berg’s Wozzeck does NOT follow their author’s description of tragedy. Students will have time to explore this question in more detail later in the lesson, but their initial observations may include the following:
- Wozzeck is not a noble character.
- He is a member of the servant class, and thus is not a suitable subject for tragedy.
- The action does not occur over the space of a single day.
- The settings are not unified.
- The opera does not propose any kind of catharsis or offer moral renewal.
- Wozzeck’s speech is not elegant or in an elevated style.
Continue your exploration by asking students to draw conclusions on the overarching themes of the story. Potential answers may include (but will not be limited to) the following:
Poverty | Psychosis | Humiliation | Powerlessness |
Injustice | The meaninglessness of our own suffering | The randomness of death
Now let’s delve into the text and music of Berg’s Wozzeck. Each of the following excerpts provides a view into the ways this tragedy differs from the conventions of the genre. Play the musical selections one at a time while students follow along with the texts and translations, available in the next section of the reproducible handouts. Space is provided for students to write down observations about what they notice in the text and music. (You may want to play each selection twice—once for students to gain a general sense of the music and the dramatic situation, and a second time to give them a chance to take notes.) After they’ve written down what they hear, ask students to share their observations with the class; you may want to list the characteristics they’ve noted on the board. Repeat for each of the five listening selections. A listening guide is provided for your reference below.
In this selection, taken from the opening moments of the opera, we are introduced to Wozzeck and the Captain, the military officer to whom he is assigned as personal servant. The Captain complains because Wozzeck is shaving him too quickly; he does not want his schedule thrown off. The Captain pronounces his lines with increasing pettiness, with spiky orchestral accompaniments provided by a series of small instrumental ensembles. By the time the Captain begins harping about the length of 30 years, he has exploded into full cattiness, accompanied by the forceful counterpoint of high strings. Wozzeck responds on a monotone, “Yes sir, Mr. Captain.”
The scene continues as the Captain finds a new bone to pick with Wozzeck: his child born out of wedlock. The Captain tosses around a few half-phrases about morality, but he comes across as more blustery than pious. Wozzeck replies with the first of his two lengthy statements in this scene, replying that God will be merciful and including an actual quotation from the Bible. The Captain is livid with this response, punctuating his angry retorts (“where does the Bible say that?”) with notes at the top of his range, accompanied by accented brass. In Wozzeck’s second lengthy reply, the musical texture immediately collapses into a unison note in the low cellos as Wozzeck pronounces his motto “Wir arme Leut” (“we poor people”), which will recur several times over the course of the opera. Wozzeck’s discourse on the plight of the poor is the most lyrical and plaintive music heard thus far. But as the scene draws to a close and Wozzeck imagines his downtrodden existence even in heaven, the texture becomes more ominous.
Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks in an open field when loud chords in the brass signal a sudden change in Wozzeck’s mental state. “This place is cursed,” he wails, his words underscored by rapidly oscillating chords in the brass. A new musical texture, with solo cellos and violas, begins as Wozzeck is overtaken with visions. The music creates an atmosphere of uncertainty. By the time Wozzeck bursts into full melody, his vision has taken a fatal turn.
In the final moments before Marie’s murder, the moon rises blood red. Berg sets the scene with an extremely quiet unison note in the orchestra. But soon Marie’s fear sets off a nervous response in the orchestra as well, with tremolos in the strings and panicky flourishes in the woodwinds. As Wozzeck murders her, the timpani intone a single note. There is a hysterical outburst in the orchestra, which then returns to a more static state as Wozzeck observes that she is “todt”—“dead.”
Though not the final scene of the opera, this excerpt portrays Wozzeck’s ignominious end. He has lapsed into full psychosis, and while searching for the knife he abandoned, he seems not to fully understand the source of Marie’s injuries. His mind careens from thought to thought—from the bloody knife to the “bloody” moon to murder—as he obsesses over hiding the knife and washing the blood from his hands. As your students listen, invite them to pay particular attention to how Berg’s music represents Wozzeck’s disjointed mental state.
Ask students to comment on their findings, focusing on the character of Wozzeck. You may prompt them with the following questions:
- What do we know about Wozzeck’s background? What kind of person is he?
- How much agency does Wozzeck possess over his own destiny?
- Does Wozzeck experience a turning point in his fate?
- How did the opera’s two deaths make you feel?
Have students reconvene in their groups. Their first task is to decide whether or not their assigned author would consider Wozzeck a tragedy. In what ways does Wozzeck follow the conventions of tragedy described by their author? In what ways do the plot and characters of Wozzeck break these conventions? Each group should come to a consensus that they can share with the class. For specific evidence to support their view, they may draw on the dialogue provided in the five excerpts, their impressions of the music, and the synopsis and “Who’s Who” chart.
Next, students will collaborate to develop a proposal to “fix” the story of Wozzeck to make it conform to a “proper” understanding of tragedy (according to the viewpoint of their assigned author). Any of the story’s elements are eligible for transformation: Wozzeck’s occupation, his relationships with the other characters in the opera, the event(s) that bring(s) about his downfall, his downfall itself, the portrayal of his death, and so on. Space for students to record their conclusions is provided on the final page of the reproducible handout under the heading “Wozzeck: There, I Fixed It.”
As a final wrap-up discussion, ask for volunteers from each group to explain their “corrected” operas in front of the class. Ask students to consider whether these stories would make for satisfying operas. Do they think these stories would have communicated the same themes as Berg’s Wozzeck? Do they think Berg’s musical style would have been an appropriate vehicle for these stories?
As a take-home activity, have students flesh out their ideas for their “corrected” operas by writing the dialogue for a brief scene. Using the notes on their “There, I Fixed It” handouts and the libretto excerpts studied earlier in the lesson, students should rewrite the dialogue in one of these sample scenes. Their adaptations may be as strict or as loose as their conceptions allow.