Woyzeck is based on a true account of a poor man who was executed for stabbing his wife, Marie, to death. Buchner became fascinated with the case, so much so that he used it as inspiration for the play that would culminate his short literary career. Buchner's characters do not represent the actual historical figures upon which they were based, although their names and the basic outline of the story remain true to life. Many scholars consider the play the first modern drama, and mark it as the catalyst for countless theatrical movements, most notably Naturalism and the modern Theatre of the Absurd. Buchner's biting social commentary in the play, which stemmed from his own political disillusionment, anticipates Karl Marx's theories although it rejects the possibility of revolution or a classless utopia. Woyzeck exists almost as a genre in itself, which some have labeled "psychological realism."
Because Buchner died in 1837 before ever finishing Woyzeck, leaving behind four unpolished manuscripts, it is impossible to have a definitive version of the work. Scholars hotly debate issues such as which scenes to include, the order of the scenes, and especially the ending. Some versions of the play end with Woyzeck standing in the pond, others with him drowning, and still others with him returning to the town to embrace his child (as in the version analyzed here). Buchner intended the play to have a disjointed, fragmented quality, and scholars' piecing it together from fragments enhances this and supports the suggestion that it greatly influenced Brecht's style. Although each scene is structurally an independent unit, the scene where the Grandmother tells her 'black fairy tale' is often described as the play's thematic keystone. It encapsulates Buchner's deepest message, a pessimistic and tragic view of man's existence. As critic Maurice B. Benn puts it, the 'black fairy tale' and therefore Woyzeck, "is one of infinite disillusionment ending in the gloom of complete solitude." Another scholar, Carl Richard Mueller, describes Woyzeck affectionately as, "a series of stained-glass windows in a medieval cathedral," to say that each scene is self-contained but builds on the last to form the coherent whole. Mueller also emphasizes the scientific, sharp quality of Buchner's social criticism, quite different from Romantic affectations. One stylistic choice contributing to this bold, "dispassionate" approach is Buchner's use of caricature for every character save Woyzeck and Marie. He wastes no time in fleshing out characters that are ultimately there only to enhance or contrast the protagonists' traits.
Those who have staged Woyzeck in the theater have had to face the problem of how to retain the play's disjointedness while keeping the audience's understanding and interest. Those who succeeded generally removed blackouts between scenes, staged the play in the round, or as Ingmar Bergman famously did, even integrated the audience with the actors so that action never ceased. Austrian composer Alban Berg finished his opera version of the play, Wozzeck, in 1922, and it was first performed in 1925. In order to retain Buchner's disjointed, melancholic feel, Berg makes extensive use of atonality and rejects the standard forms of aria and trio in favor of abstract instrumental music. Wozzeck has since become a standard and widely performed work in the world of opera. In addition, many film versions of the play have been produced, most notably Werner Herzog's 1979 version starring Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.