Born October 17,
1813 in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, Georg Büchner
was educated in a private school and at Darmstadt Gymnasium.
His father, a doctor in the service of the Grand Duke, did not
approve of Georg's literary endeavors so he encouraged the boy
to focus on other, more scientific pursuits. As a young man,
Georg studied zoology and comparative anatomy in Strassburg where
he first came into contact with a group of politically radical
students. There, he secretly became engaged to Minna Jaeglé,
the daughter of the pastor with whom he was lodging.
After returning to Hesse to continue his studies at the University
of Giessen, Büchner suffered an attack of meningitis. Having
been influenced by the radical students with whom he associated
in Strassburg, he decided to help found the revolutionary "Society
of Human Rights." In 1834, along with political agitator
Pastor Weidig, he wrote and distributed an illegal pamphlet entitled
"The Hessian Courier" which has since come to be considered
one of the most brilliant political brochures in the German language.
Büchner was quickly denounced as the author of the pamphlet,
but a lack of evidence and his own confident assertion of innocence
delayed his arrest and allowed him to return home to Darmstadt.
During a period of five weeks in 1835, Büchner secretly
wrote Danton's Death, a tragedy depicting the activist
Danton's disillusionment with the French Revolution. In March
of that year, he fled to Strassburg to avoid arrest and never
returned to Germany or engaged in political activities again.
In 1836, he wrote a romantic comedy entitled Leonce and
Lena for a literary competition, but he submitted it too
late and it was returned unread. Constructed within a comic,
fairy-tale framework, the play takes on serious issues, investigating
the limits placed on human freedom by social and moral conventions.
That same year, he probably began work on his unfinished masterpiece
Woyzeck which tells the story of a Slavic soldier who,
persecuted by his Prussian superiors, finally determines to take
his own life and murder the wife who has betrayed him. The play
is most likely based on a real incident as there are records
of a barber named Woyzeck who was tried and sentenced to death
for murder in the 1820s. Years after Büchner's death, the
play would be turned into an opera by modernist Allan Berg.
Büchner eventually became Doctor of philosophy at Zurich
University and was appointed Lecturer on Natural Sciences after
a trial lecture on the cranial nerves of fish. His literary works
include an unfinished novel Lenz, translations of two
of Victor Hugo's plays, the non-extant play Pietro Aretino
destroyed by the woman he loved because of its unorthodoxies,
one short romantic comedy (Leonce and Lena), one full-length
tragedy (Danton's Death), and one great fragment (Woyzeck).
His philosphy of character betrays his own struggles coming of
age in Germany during the revolutionary rumblings of the 1830s
and his inability to achieve literary success during his short
lifetime. "Individuals," he wrote, "are so much
surf on a wave, greatness the sheerest accident, the strength
of genius a puppet play--a child's struggle against an iron law."
On February 19, 1837, just as Woyzeck was nearing completion,
Georg Büchner died of Typhus after a 17 day battle with
the illness. He was not yet twenty-four years old. It would be
almost 60 years before the first of Büchner's plays (Leonce
and Lena) was performed before a German audience--and almost
100 years before his plays were translated into English. It is
a tribute to his genius that his plays have not only survived,
but have grown more important, more relevant with the passage
of time. Today, he is considered a forerunner of both naturalism
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