Scene 1: Open Countryside. The town in the distance.
In the play's opening scene, Woyzeck and his fellow military man, Andres, are cutting canes in the bushes. Throughout the scene, Woyzeck hallucinates and Andres sings folk songs. Woyzeck is convinced he hears sounds in the undergrowth. He points out a line on the grass and tells Andres it is the mark left by an executed prisoner's head when chopped off. Turning it into a sort of ghost story, he adds: "someone picked it up once, thought it was a hedgehog. Three days and three nights, and he was lying in his coffin." Woyzeck imagines that he hears a sound, and is convinced that it is the secretive Freemasons plotting in secret tunnels beneath them. Next he sees apocalyptic visions in the sky, exclaiming: "How bright it is! Flames are raging through the heavens and a distant roar like trumpets. It's getting nearer! Let's get away. Don't look back." He grabs Andres and pulls him into the bushes. Andres admits that he is scared and then hears a real sound: the military drums beating a tattoo in the distance. He tells Woyzeck that they must return to the town.
Scene 2: The town.
Marie is holding her child at the window and Margreth is at her respective window when the military tattoo marches by, led by the Drum-Major. Both women remark on how stalwart the Drum-Major is, and he salutes them. Seeing the "friendly sparkle in [Marie's] eye," Margreth teases her neighbor about being attracted to the Drum-Major. She teases Marie about having a child out of wedlock and insinuates that Marie wants to sleep with the Drum-Major, saying, "you can see clean through seven pairs of leather breeches!" Marie calls Margreth a "Bitch" and slams the window. Then she comforts her child by saying: "Don't fret, little 'un ... You're just a poor little tart's kid, and you makes your mum happy with your bastard face," and singing a folk song about having an illegitimate child. Woyzeck knocks at the window, but cannot come in because he must hurry to roll-call. Before leaving, he spouts hallucinatory thoughts to Marie's bewilderment: "Marie, it's happened again, lots of things. Is it not written: and behold, there rose up smoke from the land like smoke from a furnace? ... It followed right behind me as far as the town. Where's it going to end?" Then he rushes off. Marie exclaims, to herself and also perhaps to her child, how strange Woyzeck is acting. Specifically she notes: "He'll go beserk with all them thoughts of his." He did not even acknowledge his child when he stopped by. By the end of the scene it has fallen pitch black because the street lamp is not working. Marie remarks that it "gives [her] the shivers."
Scene 3: Stalls, lights, people.
Marie and Woyzeck are walking around a fair. The scene opens with a poor old man and child singing and dancing for money. Their song is pessimistic and nonchalant: "In this world shall none abide, / All of us we have to die, / And well we know it too!" Woyzeck pities them. Soon after, they come upon a Showman promoting his spectacle, which is implied to be a dancing monkey. He calls: "Consider the creature as God first made it; nothing, just nothing. Add civilization and see what you've got: walks upright, wears trousers and carries a cane." He goes on to claim: "It's all edication, he's got animal brains, or rather: brainy animality, he's not the pig-stupid sort like some people ... The monkey's already a soldier, though that's not saying much-the bottom-most species of human kind!" Woyzeck and Marie decide to go in to see the show. Just then the Sergeant and Drum-Major notice Marie and remark hungrily on her attractiveness. The former remarks on her beautiful black hair and eyes, and the latter boasts: "Spawn whole regiments of cavalry she could, breed drum-majors by the dozen!" They follow Marie (and Woyzeck) into the booth.
Scene 4: Inside the booth.
Inside the fair booth, Marie and Woyzeck watch the Showman's act with his special horse. The Showman calls the horse "a four-legged member of every known learned society and a professor at the university ... No pig-stupid individual, this one: he's a proper person. A 'uman he is, a 'uman being in animal form, but a beast, an animal all the same." As the Showman gives the horse cues, it responds by shaking its head and, at one point, "disgrac[ing] itself," after which the Showman lauds it as an example of "unspoilt nature." The Showman prepares to have the horse tell time and asks the audience for a watch, which the Sergeant produces. Marie exclaims: "Can't miss this!" and the Sergeant helps her into the front row.
Scenes 1-4 introduce several of the play's major trends and themes. The first, obvious even from the list of dramatis personae, is that Buchner develops only two characters in Woyzeck, the title character, and Marie. The other characters serve as two-dimensional foils that emphasize Woyzeck's humanity against those less human, and his passion against those dispassionate. In fact, Buchner does not bother to give most of them names, listing them instead by titles such as: Drum-Major, Officer, and Doctor.
From the very first stage direction, Buchner makes us aware that the reader or viewer should prepare to remove himself from society in order to look upon and judge it. We begin in an open field, the space of fantasy and natural freedom, but with the town specifically in view. As Buchner elucidates throughout the play, madness is never secluded, but always connected to the society that feeds it.
Buchner also wastes no time in introducing the theme of violence, for which the play is most famous. Woyzeck hallucinates about execution, connecting him to the violent and macabre as well as to the historical Woyzeck, who was tried and executed for Marie's murder. Since Woyzeck was never finished, we will never know whether Buchner would have ended his play with the fictional Woyzeck's execution-if so, this initial reference to decapitation would cement the historical and fictional Woyzeck's stories even further. In further reference to violence, when the play opens, Woyzeck and Andres are cutting canes. Since this would not be a typical task for two soldiers, Buchner has clearly taken pains to make sure that Woyzeck is holding a knife, the weapon he uses to kill Marie, from his introduction to the audience. The Woyzeck we meet in Scene 1 is harmless although hallucinating, and uses his knife for the non-threatening purpose of cutting canes. Therefore we know that forces act upon him to turn him into a murderer. The activity of cutting canes also highlights Woyzeck's economic role; he is not, as he affirms in a later scene, a cane-carrying gentleman. The first scenes also firmly establish Woyzeck's mental instability. He is hallucinating and raving, and seems especially deranged next to Andres, who calls up images of the normal and casual with his folk songs in the manner of a Shakespearean fool.
Woyzeck's vision in the sky begins the Biblical undertones that carry throughout the play. According to critic John Reddick, the hallucination reflects the Biblical description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, Woyzeck urges Andres 'not to look back' as Lot's wife made the mistake of doing. Ironically, of course, it is Woyzeck who should be warned about the effects of curiosity regarding others' wrongdoings. Woyzeck is convinced that the supernatural and frightening, in Biblical proportions, are following him at all times.
The initial meeting between Marie and the Drum-Major introduces the theme of sexuality. Both characters are sexualized immediately and continue to be for the remainder of the play. Marie, for example, holds her illegitimate child, a reminder of past sexual deviance, even as she flirts with the Drum-Major. In contrast, the character of the child is silent and innocent, unmarred by society in sharp contrast to his bawdy mother and mentally-unsound father. He represents the blank slate that each person is before society determines what kind of person he will become. Because of the child's illegitimacy and his parents' social class, not to mention their habits, he is doomed to become like them. Buchner develops this theme of human nature and free will in Scene 4, speaking largely through the character of the Showman. He uses a monkey to represent Woyzeck and all poor men, who are controlled by those more privileged than they when they would rather act on instinct. They may be monkeys, but they are not "pig-stupid" like the stunted, one-dimensional, pigheaded bourgeois exemplified by the characters of the Officer and Doctor. Buchner uses the horse as a symbol of the ideal human, noble because it is neither held back nor corrupted by society. Woyzeck is at once noble and pathetic for being so simple and instinctive. Marie is also compared to an animal, but by the Drum-Major. He views her in a purely animalistic manner, valuing her virility and the prospect of using her to "breed" over her beauty.