In Georg Büchner’s play, Leonce and Lena, the protagonists, Leonce and Lena, face situations that seem both improbable and coincidental. In particular, both Leonce and Lena make the mutual decision to abandon their duties as noble-people and try to escape the marriage their parents arranged for them. Yet, they meet each other during their escape, fall in love with each other, and marry. Büchner’s use of situational and dramatic irony makes the audience question whether the two lovers coincidentally met, or whether fate determined the events of the play. It therefore seems necessary to determine what fate is, and what classifies as a coincidental event. Whether an event occurs due to circumstance or whether it happens due to some superior force, it will seem improbable. Thus, the difference seems to be that fate is inescapable. In Georg Büchner’s play, Leonce and Lena, fate is the inescapable dominating force that determines the events of the play.
Leonce and Lena are directly influenced by fate, and despite their efforts, will always be controlled by it. For example, in Act I, Leonce happens to meet a man named Valerio, who serves as a bon vivant, or rather, a person who enjoys life and all it has to offer. His presence and words seem to make Leonce form the plan to escape. After Leonce asks for Valerio’s profession, Valerio answers with, “Sir, my consuming occupation is to be thoroughly idle, I am uncommonly skilled at doing nothing, I have colossal endurance in the realm of laziness” (Act I, scene 1). Leonce promptly responds with a request for Valerio to come with him as Leonce attempts to escape his arranged marriage.
Almost at the same time at the other kingdom, Lena has a conversation with her governess, who seems very similar to Valerio in terms of her role in the play. Lena has absolutely no love for Leonce, but she does want to fall in love with someone:
Oh God, I could fall in love, of course I could. We’re so alone, after all, and grope in the dark for a hang to clasp until we die and our hands are loosed and laid out each on our separate chests. But why drive a nail through hands that never sought each other? What has my poor hand done to deserve it? This ring is like a viper’s sting.”
Evidently, she believes in marriage and wants to fall in love with someone, just not Leonce. In fact, she seems miserable, similar to Leonce, which makes the governess empathize with Lena. In fact, she says, “I can’t bear to see [Lena] like this. It can’t go on like this- it’s killing you. Perhaps, who knows! I have an idea. We’ll have to see. Come!” (Act I, scene 4). The governess seems to be partially responsible for Lena’s escape, just as Valerio is responsible for Leonce’s escape. Already, the similarity in situations seems too improbable actually occur. These two characters are meant to marry, both do not want to, so they run away with people who helped to give them the idea of escape. Their stories are already so similar, that Büchner seems to foreshadow the two meeting and, if the audience is lucky, falling in love.
On their way to Italy, Leonce and Valerio do in fact meet with the governess and Lena. When they do, Leonce seems to immediately fall in love with Lena. He dotes on her, saying romantic things, such as, “I’ll give half my life to prayer if you grant me but a single straw to clutch at and ride like a mighty stallion until the day I’m laid on straw myself . . . The earth has curled into a ball of fear, like a stricken child, and above its cradle the ghosts go marching” (Act II, scene 2). He pines for Lena and obviously already has fallen in love with her. Interestingly, she does not reciprocate, and the audience begins to wonder whether they are actually meant to be. Lena is already known to be a character who wants to act upon her feelings; if she does not love a man, she will not settle for him. In fact, she blatantly rejects Leonce by saying “No, leave me be!” and runs away (Act II, scene 4). Similarly, Valerio and the governess have a quarrel and do not get along at all. Their very heated exchange includes violent mudslinging and name-calling. So previously, Leonce and Lena were doubles, for wanting to avoid the marriage, and Valerio and the governess were doubles, for accompanying Leonce and Lena, respectively; however, now, it seems that a whole new doubling has occurred. Leonce and Lena do not get along, and Valerio and the governess do not get along, thus forming doubles with the two pairs of people.
So Büchner definitely seems to indicate that Leonce and Lena do have a connection with each other. And indeed, they eventually do fall in love and agree to marry. In the end, despite all of their efforts to avoid each other, they meet. In fact, at the end of the play, Leonce and Lena (who both do not know that they have fallen in love with the very person they were trying to avoid) disguise themselves as automatons and have Valerio introduce them to the kingdom to stage a wedding. They both think that they are rebelling against their parents, yet ironically, they have done what their parents wanted. Some might argue that the two marrying was simply due to chance, but the way Bchner made the events play out, it seems obvious that their marriage was inescapable. The two were victims of fate, and they ended up falling in love. Admittedly, it is not clear whether or not Lena actually has fallen in love with Leonce or not, or whether she weds him simply to rebel against her parents. At the end, when they finally discover each other’s true identities, Lena actually cries out, “I’ve been deceived!” (Act III, scene 3). Her actually thoughts are even more ambiguous because she has very little dialogue at all throughout the play. It is also unclear how they really fell in love. Before Leonce tells Valerio that he intends to marry Lena, the last scene was Leonce trying to drown himself because Lena rejected him. The audience never fully understands how the two fall in love.
But she agrees to marry him and they do in fact end up together at the wedding. Valerio becomes the Chief Minister, and the play ends. But it is still unclear how they fell in love and whether or not Lena really did feel happy about the marriage at the end. So antagonists who believe that the play was not based on fate could in fact argue that if they had not left their respective kingdoms, they might not have ended up together. This is an interesting question, because it is vague. Büchner almost seems to want the audience to ask themselves what would have happened if they did not flee. Perhaps that is why the playwright was ambiguous with how the two fell in love. So the point can be made that if the two had not escaped, they might not have married, because the only reason they did was due to their rebellious nature and their search for love. But on the other hand, it can also be argued that if they stayed, they would have ended up falling in love anyways, because the two were meant to be.
Regardless of which situation one chooses to believe in, it seems that they would have escaped because they were destined to. At the end, Lena says, “Oh chance!” Leonce says, “Oh providence!” (Act III, scene 3). Chance and providence are completely different things. It appears that Lena believes that the events that have transpired were chance, but Leonce corrects her by saying that it was divine intervention that must have led them there. The events were not ones that they could have avoided. They were meant to run away and they were predestined to fall in love and marry. It seems that Büchner wanted to emphasize the fact that they were destined lovers by making them similarly run away.
Again, antagonists could potentially argue that, because the entire play has an ironic plot, that things happened by chance. Essentially, the plot can be summarized with Leonce and Lena running away from their respective kingdoms to avoid each other, yet running into each other and then marrying. It seems that because it is so ironic that they would run away from each other, yet end up with each other, some might argue that their meeting was chance. Yet, it seems much more reasonable that they met by predetermined means. Leonce and Lena could have met by chance, but if they met by predetermined means, the play makes more sense. It gives a moral to the play as well, telling the audience that despite one’s efforts to escape fate, they will be subject to a predetermined path. But if Büchner establishes in the play that humans are subject to fate, why he uses satire comes into question.
Büchner obviously uses the play to mock the nobility and jest at their ineptitude to not only rule the kingdom, but also to do something as inane as complete a thought. In fact, King Peter seems like a complete nonsensical man, saying things that are patent statements which establish nothing:
My dear and faithful subjects, I wanted to herewith to declare and announce, to declare and announce . . . – for my son shall either marry, or not marry, either, or- you understand me surely. There is no third alternative. Man must think. Whenever I speak out loud like that, I never know who it really is, me or someone else, it frightens me. I am me. (Act I, Scene 2)
Peter addresses this to the Privy Council, whom adamantly agree that he is right, but does not seem to have announced anything. And at the end, Valerio, who has been appointed as the Chief Minister, announces that he will allow things in the current system to become chaotic, and he will help the poor. Leonce tells Lena that he will destroyed all of the clocks and calendars and that he would set up mirrors so that it is always summer.
Leonce is trying to run his new kingdom differently than his father, yet will run it just the same. Similar to his efforts to avoid marrying Lena, his struggle is futile, and he is likely to become similar to his father. Büchner obviously is mocking the royalty, and therefore, the cycle that comes from it. History will repeat itself, and the history that is repeating is not favorable. So Valerio’s statement at the end, to change the kingdom and help the poor and eliminate poverty, seems to contradict Leonce’s ideals. So it almost seems that Büchner is saying that things will play out as they are meant to, so fighting against it is futile.
Fate, the ever present and all-powerful force is thus, inescapable. So it seems that history repeating is also inescapable, meaning that the ridiculously unintelligent and inane rulers will be replaced by similar heirs. In terms of the play, Leonce even tries to change how he will rule the kingdom, but it ends up sounding like he would rule in the exact same way his father did. In fact, previously, when he made an effort to escape his arranged marriage, he only ended up marrying who he was already meant to be with. Evidently, these events were inescapable, thus establishing that they were predetermined things. So fate, the inescapable force that determines all actions of the play, truly is inescapable.
This entry was posted in Papers on Büchner's "Leonce and Lena" (first version). Bookmark the permalink.
Georg Büchner 1813-1837
(Full name Georg Karl Büchner) German playwright and novella writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Büchner from 1964 through 2001. For additional information on Büchner's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 26.
Büchner is known for the few works he composed during his brief life: the novella fragment Lenz (1839) and the plays Dantons Tod (1835; Danton's Death), Leonce und Lena (1838; Leonce and Lena), and Woyzeck (first published in 1879). In these works Büchner rejected the idealism of the Romantic movement, which dominated German letters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; instead, he sought to realistically depict what he saw as the hopelessness of life in a world where isolation, monotony, and suffering prevail and are perpetuated by deterministic historical and biological forces. This pessimistic view of life, along with the innovative techniques he used to obtain a sense of realism, gives Büchner a greater affinity with authors of the modern era than with those of the nineteenth century. Additionally, his link to several later developments in drama, among them Naturalism, the Theater of the Absurd, and Expressionism, has frequently been observed by scholars.
The eldest of six children, Büchner was born in Goddelau, Germany. His family moved in 1816 to nearby Darmstadt, the capital of the duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. During Büchner's school years his father, a physician, encouraged him to study the sciences, while his mother nurtured in him a love of literature and art. He left for France in 1831 to study medicine at the university in Strasbourg. At that time Strasbourg was a refuge for German liberals seeking asylum from the widespread political repression in the German states following the Napoleonic Wars. Because of a law requiring all Hessian students to attend a native institution for at least two years in order to receive a degree, however, Büchner returned to Hesse in 1833. He continued his studies at the university in Geissing and there become involved in radical politics. Early in 1834 he and some fellow students founded an underground revolutionary group, the Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte (“Society for the Rights of Man”), whose aim was to reform the Hessian government and social structure. Shortly thereafter Büchner wrote a seditious pamphlet in collaboration with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, an aging liberal devoted to revolutionary causes. The pamphlet, Der Hessische Landbote (1834; The Hessian Courier), was distributed secretly among Hessian peasants and workers by the society but had very little effect on them. (Indeed, many of the copies were handed over to the police.) After returning to his parents' home in Darmstadt while authorities conducted an investigation into the pamphlet's distributors, Büchner began to write his first play, Danton's Death, in the early months of 1835. Hoping the play's publication would help finance his escape from Germany before his impending arrest, Büchner sent the manuscript to Karl Gutzkow, a young German man of letters who succeeded in selling it to a publisher. Before he received payment for the play, however, Büchner was forced to flee the country. Subsequently, he renounced all revolutionary activity and resumed medical studies in Strasbourg, where, after writing a well-received dissertation, Sur le système nerveux du barbeau (“On the Nervous System of the Barbel”), he obtained his doctorate. During this time he also composed Leonce and Lena for a romantic comedy contest, wrote Lenz, and began work on Woyzeck and possibly on Pietro Aretino, a play that has since been lost. In late 1836 he moved to Switzerland, where he taught at the University of Zurich. Early the following year, Büchner became ill with typhus. He died in February 1837 at the age of twenty-four. Following Büchner's death, his family would not allow his manuscripts in their possession to be published. Moreover, Wilhelmine Jaegle, to whom Büchner was secretly engaged in Strasbourg and who initially cooperated with Gutzkow by sending him Leonce and Lena and Lenz for publication in his periodical Telegraf für Deutschland, eventually became unwilling to surrender the other writings by Büchner that she owned. She destroyed all of her copies of his writings before she died in 1880. The first significant and complete edition of Büchner's works did not appear until 1879, when Karl Emil Franzos issued Sämtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlaß after years of interviewing Büchner's acquaintances and collecting his manuscripts, letters, and papers. In the 1880s the popular German playwright Gerhard Hauptmann enthusiastically praised Büchner, and in 1902 and 1913, respectively, Danton's Death and Woyzeck were given their first stage productions.
In his early political pamphlet The Hessian Courier, Büchner and his co-author urged the lower classes to violently rise against the landed aristocracy, basing this exhortation on the grounds of radical socioeconomic reasoning for the period. The work had little tangible effect, although it has since been regarded as an original and innovative revolutionary manifesto. Büchner's first literary work, Danton's Death is frequently regarded as an expression of the author's subsequent disillusionment with radical politics. The play focuses on the last days of French Revolutionary leader Georges Jacques Danton, who, after the new regime had been established, became a proponent of peace and thus came into conflict with fellow insurrectionist Maximilien de Robespierre. Accusing Danton of trying to overthrow the government, Robespierre has him guillotined. Büchner depicts Danton as a passive hero who succumbs to the forces that oppose and torment him. These forces, ostensibly Robespierre and his adherents, are in the abstract a historical inevitability, what Büchner called in an often-quoted letter the “terrible fatalism of history.” While the dialogue of Danton's Death makes explicit Büchner's deterministic views, the themes of his later writings are more implicitly expressed. In the comedy Leonce and Lena, the title characters, the Prince of Popo and the Princess of Pepe, are unwilling victims of a mutually unsatisfying arranged marriage. They each attempt to escape their fate by running away, but they meet again, neither realizing the other's identity. Ultimately they fall in love and, when their identities are revealed, marry. Seemingly a derivative and light romantic comedy, Leonce and Lena features dark overtones of suicidal boredom, pessimism, and despair, themes that are also emphasized in Büchner's last, uncompleted play, Woyzeck. The title character of this later play is a poor young army private who, driven to madness by jealousy and his vision of a wretched and futile existence, murders his girlfriend and then commits suicide. Regarded as one of the first plays to portray a lower-class hero, Woyzeck is often perceived as a work of trenchant social criticism. The forces oppressing Woyzeck are represented by three grotesque figures from a higher social class, each deeply motivated by the repressed hopelessness and suffering that characterize the universe of Büchner's plays. These characters include the Captain, who continually berates Woyzeck; the Drum Major, who is having an affair with Woyzeck's girlfriend; and the Doctor, who uses the private as an experimental subject, feeding him nothing but peas in order to determine his minimal nutritional requirements. Büchner's only work of prose fiction, the novella fragment Lenz, is based upon an episode in the life of Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) playwright Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. This work portrays the gradual deterioration of Lenz's mind, culminating in his total mental collapse. To achieve realism in the story, Büchner employs a complex technique of shifting viewpoints to render each subtle nuance of Lenz's situation. Within a given paragraph, Büchner will often begin by describing a scene from the viewpoint of an objective third-person narrator, then abruptly switch to Lenz's sensory and psychological perspective, a method deemed very effective by critics.
Since the discovery of Büchner's works in the late nineteenth century, criticism has been for the most part positive, underscoring a shift in aesthetic sensibilities that has made his writings far more acceptable to modern literary tastes than those of Büchner's own time. While some commentators have pointed to the discursive, unrefined quality of his writings, arguing that they lack the polish achieved by more mature artists, most contend that Büchner attained a remarkable artistic and philosophical sophistication during his brief life. Woyzeck, despite its unfinished state, has generally been regarded as Büchner's masterpiece. Together with the somewhat more thematically transparent Danton's Death, this play is thought to evince Büchner's unique philosophical outlook, since recognized as a forerunner to twentieth-century Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. Equally noted by scholars are the aesthetic concerns and techniques displayed in these works. Büchner's forward-looking dramatic methods and theories, traced by a few commentators to the works of William Shakespeare and the Sturm und Drang playwrights, are more typically thought to anticipate techniques employed by twentieth-century playwrights, particularly Bertolt Brecht. Additionally, Büchner's novella Lenz has generally been considered a seminal piece of German prose fiction, and a work that demonstrates Büchner's break with the dominant literary aesthetics of his age. In an early part of the story, Lenz discusses his theories of art, attacking the idealism of the German Romantics. Lenz states, “I demand of art that it be life. … Let them try just once to immerse themselves in the life of humble people and then reproduce this again in all its movements, its implications, its subtle, scarcely discernible play of expression.” While some critics have argued that this statement merely summarizes Lenz's views on art, most critics accept it as also epitomizing Büchner's aesthetic precepts.