Woyzeck German Naturalism

Despite the shortness of his literary career, Georg Buchner is said to have precipitated a wide variety of literary movements. The first and perhaps most directly influenced of these is Naturalism, a movement that spanned the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In a simple summation, Naturalism followed and elaborated upon realism. In fact, Buchner's manuscripts remained in obscurity until the prominent German Naturalist Gerhart Hauptmann brought them to light. Whereas the Realists took pains to represent a balanced view of life in terms of good and evil forces, Naturalists such as Hauptmann, Heinrich, Hart, Ibsen, and Brahm took a pessimistic, bleak view of human experience and existence. According to the Naturalist outlook, man is helpless against the forces of his environment, which inevitably lead him into disaster and despair. This fate befalls the two major Naturalist heroes: the intelligent, withdrawn man and the simple, very active man (Woyzeck). Accordingly, Naturalist writers were drawn to the themes of physical and mental illness, hypocrisy, and class struggle. In terms of political outlook, the Naturalists as a group became disillusioned with political action as they were unable to articulate a definitive stance.

As a movement, Naturalism is full of discrepancies and vagueness. Yet, one undeniable unifying trait of Naturalism is a belief in scientific determinism, the conviction that every event can be explained in terms of natural laws and reasoning. In espousing this theory, the Naturalists clearly took to heart the increasingly rapid scientific and medical advances of their time. If art must represent life, and science is becoming increasingly integrated with life, then in order to be effective, art must both deal with scientific topics and adopt a scientific methodology. It is easy to see how Buchner's writing anticipated and inspired such a movement. He was a career scientist by profession and a playwright by hobby, although his scientific discoveries were quickly rendered obsolete by those that followed. Buchner exemplified the sort of artistic detachment that the Naturalists adopted and upon which they elaborated. Following from this, scientific determinism implies that because things happen according to predetermined laws, man is helpless to change his lot. In part, this pessimistic determinism was a reaction against Romantic ideals, which glorified man's imagination as the key to transcending his fate as well as the sadness of existence.

Considering that Naturalists were so dispassionate in their tone and so science-focused, it is worth asking why they would continue to produce art at all. The answer is that science and art are not at odds in Naturalist theory; rather, a scientific outlook allows the artist to understand the senselessness and bleakness of the world, and his role is to elucidate the beauty therein. In addition, for all its scientific focus, Naturalism still found a place and a need for the metaphysical as embodied not only in the artistic but also the religious. In terms of dramatic style, many Naturalists based their works on true historical events (as Buchner did with Woyzeck and Lenz). Rather than simplify, they tended to present an exhaustive portrait of characters' reactions and experiences, often resulting in stylistically exhaustive or "epic" works. Because of this characteristic, Naturalistic 'cross-sections of life' often lacked an overwhelming message, something that the earlier Buchner works certainly has. John Osborne summarizes the hard-to-define movement of German Naturalism as follows: "It combines, often in a perplexing way, such features as the traditionally German distaste for social and political reality ... A distrust of the rational, on the one hand, with a commitment to precise, scientific observation and mimesis, on the other." Although the German Naturalists were characterized more by their lack of agreement than a definitive purpose, they found unity in their willingness to explore and push against the idealism preceding them and the rapid, scientific and rational changes constantly in action around them.