This activity requires no preparation other than attendance at the Live in HD transmission of Wozzeck.
- To review and synthesize students’ understanding of Wozzeck
- To encourage students to consider ethical issues raised by the opera
- To apply students’ understanding of the contemporary justice system to the plot of Berg’s opera
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they like? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? This discussion should be an opportunity for students to review their performance activity sheets and express their thoughts about the visual design of the Met production, the singers’ performances, and Wozzeck’s music and story.
The Question of Wozzeck’s Criminal Culpability
At the end of Berg’s opera, as well as in the version of Büchner’s play that Berg knew, Wozzeck drowns in a pond, overtaken by his manic desire to find the murder weapon he abandoned there. But in the historical record, the real-life Johann Christian Woyzeck was taken into custody and confessed to stabbing his mistress seven times. His subsequent court case was marked by medical controversy, as experts debated his defense’s argument that he was innocent by reason of insanity. Dr. Johann Christian August Clarus, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Leipzig, provided the decisive testimony, determining that Woyzeck was sane at the time of the murder. (It is important to note that Clarus was a strong advocate of the belief that human beings have total control over their emotions through reason.) Woyzeck was found guilty and executed on August 27, 1824.
In this exercise, have students imagine that Berg’s opera does not feature Wozzeck’s death. They will then debate his guilt using the format of a mock trial. Assign part of the class to the prosecution and an equal number of students to the defense. Other students may take the roles of the defendant, witnesses, and judge. Give each group time to plan their legal strategies, using the opera’s dialogue and events as evidence. Based on the evidence gathered, the mock trial should explore and answer questions such as the following:
- What motivated Wozzeck to kill?
- What is the evidence of his mental state in general?
- What can we know about his mental state at the time of Marie’s murder?
- Is Wozzeck capable of distinguishing right from wrong? How do we know this?
- Is Wozzeck capable of controlling his behavior?
- If Wozzeck is found to be legally insane, what should the trial’s outcome be? Why?
Your mock trial may be quite informal, with basic regulations devised by students. Alternatively, you may draw on the wealth of mock trial instructions available on the internet, which offer varying levels of complexity. Through this exercise, students will better understand, articulate, and engage with the ethical and legal issues raised by Wozzeck’s story; practice flexible, critical thinking; and sharpen their skills of logical argument and persuasion.