Why do Woyzeck and the Young Woman require a murderous vehicle to achieve their own deaths?

Why do Woyzeck and the Young Woman require a murderous vehicle to achieve their own deaths?

In both Woyzeck (1831), by Büchner, and Machinal (1928), by Sophie Treadwell, the playwrights tackle mariticide. The central characters in both plays, Woyzeck and the Young Woman, murder their partners before they die – though we can only assume Woyzeck has died, as not all versions lead to this inference. The version referred to within this essay will be that in which Woyzeck throws the knife further and further into the river and presumably dies. In both plays, disempowerment itself leads to one having to go through an extra stage in the process of death by forcing them to tie up any loose ends before they die, which in both cases is their spouse.

1830s Europe was a period of considerable political unrest due to the hangover effect of the French Revolution. Büchner’s state in Germany was rigidly run, giving it an oppressive social structure that was in favour of nobility and against those of a lower hierarchical status. Woyzeck is; illiterate, possibly simple-minded, has a lack of self-worth, and he has an unfaithful partner, all of which ultimately lead to his use of a murderous vehicle to achieve his own death. However, the radical social commentary of the play stems from the driving force that pushes a man to murder.

Treadwell also uses a radical format, though she does this to represent how the psychology and circumstances of women are underlying causes of the murders of men. Within Machinal, this is specifically highlighted by how the Young Woman must kill her husband in order to achieve her own death. Machinal, written at the height of first wave feminism in 1920s America, articulates the notion that gender is the production of behaviour. All the male characters are presented as ‘types’, they have an absence of name, except for George H. Jones. Instead, there are roles, and while personal communication is absent, instead there is routine. Treadwell writes in the form of American Expressionism, perhaps because of its capacity to represent a state of mind within both the staging and dialogue together. Expressionism can convey the feeling, mood, and state of mind of the character, rather than following a linear series of events. Her modernist style of writing, no doubt reflected through the ritualised speech and action in Machinal, shows the routinisation of people’s lives through set patterns of work and how language can be deployed as something other than a means of communication.

As well as being linked through mariticide, both plays are based on true stories, though the playwrights have approached this in different ways. The real story of Woyzeck is relatively similar to the play. The murder trial itself was in the 1820s; Dr J.C.A Clarus, the physician assigned to Woyzeck’s case, was responsible for his execution in 1824 due to his allegations that Woyzeck was sane, but many people disputed this. Almost ten years after the execution, another specialist confirmed Clarus’ suspicions and proved that Woyzeck was mentally stable. Büchner, despite keeping many of the details and quotes from the original documents, totally changed the perspective of the story, making Woyzeck undoubtedly mentally unstable instead.

Machinal is based on Ruth Snyder’s murder trial in 1927. The Young Woman’s story echoes many similarities with Snyder’s case. They both killed their husbands, who were abusive and manipulative in some way, and they were both executed by the electric chair following their trial. Unlike Büchner, Treadwell shifts the surface details in _Machinal,_making them differ to those in the Snyder case. Instead, she explores the subtext behind the trial, meaning that the Young Woman’s psyche is seen in much more depth than Woyzeck’s. Nonetheless, this does not change the fact that both characters require a murderous vehicle to achieve their own deaths.

George Steiner states that “ Woyzeck is the first real tragedy of low life. It repudiates… the assumption that tragic suffering is the sombre privilege of those who are in high places.” (Steiner, 1995, p. 274). Woyzeck is governed by poverty and the sheer unfairness in his society, to such an extent that he has no freedom of action left whatsoever. This is a real indictment of the society that Büchner is portraying and critiquing. Woyzeck is placed in a situation of personal conflict by the people who have power over him; he is criticised for being without meals by the Captain but is instructed by the Doctor to eat only peas. The Doctor also ridicules him for not being in control of his animalistic nature in Scene 9:

DOCTOR: I saw you, Woyzeck, you pissed in the street, pissed against the wall like a dog. And three groschen a day plus food. Woyzeck, it’s bad, the world is going bad, very bad.

WOYZECK: But Doctor, when nature calls…

DOCTOR: Nature calls, nature calls! Nature! Haven’t I proved that the musculus constrictor vesicae is subject to the will? Nature! Woyzeck, man is free. In man, Nature manifests itself as freedom. Couldn’t hold his urine!

(Büchner, 1996, p. 21)

Here, the Doctor is not only mocking Woyzeck for being unable to control his natural urges, but he is also speaking in Latin, knowing that Woyzeck does not understand him. This belittles Woyzeck and reminds him of his societal standing. Woyzeck does not earn enough in his army role and, therefore, must partake in the Doctor’s experiments in order to support his family. Through doing this, he places himself under the power of two unpleasant characters and even loses the right to urinate when he wants to. Woyzeck’s dehumanisation is amplified in Scene 15 when the Doctor says, “wiggle your ears a bit for the gentlemen”, “do I have to wiggle them for you?” and finally, “he’s turning into a donkey.” (Büchner, 1996, p. 34). Not only is Büchner showing how warped the hierarchical system is, but he is also representing how little Woyzeck is valued as he is lowered to the status of an animal. The Doctor also denies Woyzeck’s humanity by treating him in a way that is parallel to the performing horse earlier in the play. With all of this in consideration, it is no surprise that Woyzeck is not only mentally unstable, but arguably feels as though he no longer wants to live. However, because he is not allowed to make his own choices, it is possible that he does not feel as though he is able make the choice to commit suicide, forcing him to use a murderous vehicle to achieve his own death.

Marie’s infidelity is perhaps due to Woyzeck’s cowardly nature, as well as his inability to provide for his family. Michael Billington agrees, as he states that Woyzeck is “desperately poor, which is partly what precipitates the tragedy by driving his common law wife Marie into the arms of the Drum Major.” (Billington, 2002). Marie’s reasoning for her affair is also insinuated in Scene 5:

WOYZECK: What have you got there?

MARIE: Nothing.

WOYZECK: It’s shining between your fingers.

MARIE: An earring. I found it.

(Büchner, 1996, p. 14)

Woyzeck feels threatened at this moment, as Marie has not only proven her disloyalty to him, but she has also found someone who can provide for her. However, Woyzeck then goes on to say, “It’s all right, Marie.”, perhaps because, as Kenneth McLeish states, “there is only one source of warmth in his life: his lover Marie.” (McLeish, 1996, p. vii). At this point in the play, Woyzeck still feels as though Marie is the only thing in his life that he has any control over. Marie is all Woyzeck has, which drives him to acquire an exaggerated sense of sexual fidelity. Woyzeck has no other means to express or identify his own autonomy and has nowhere that he can exercise any control, hence why sexual jealousy drives him to use Marie as the murderous vehicle in which he is able to achieve his own death.

Although Marie’s murder is a ripple effect that stems from her infidelity, it is also a means by which Woyzeck can cut off any loose ties before he achieves his own death. Richard Gilman states that “Woyzeck, technically a murderer, is in truth a man crazed by the conditions of existence, the victim and hence the violent indicter of the way things are.” (Gilman, 2000, p. 33). If this is the case, then Woyzeck was inevitably bound to be a murderer because of his conditions, which forces the reader to take a critical look at the society Büchner is commenting on; a society that produces a murderer.

Arguably, Woyzeck is already mad at the start of the play. If this is the case, Woyzeck’s ability to articulate his feelings in Scene 22 is fascinating due to his illiteracy throughout the play. When Marie asks Woyzeck what he is saying, he replies with “Nothing.” (Büchner, 1996, p. 43). Although this could be seen as Woyzeck giving up on expressing his feelings to Marie, it reads as a real note of despair. During the moment before this, Woyzeck has achieved a level of articulacy that provides him with the capacity to find both a voice and a persona. Through this, he rejects what has been set out for him in his social role, but “Nothing” shows that he quickly denies it. Woyzeck has the ability to grow but does not wield a capacity to sustain that growth as he is driven to inarticulacy by society and is pushed to murder by the fact that he lacks any non-exploitative example. Thus, the murderous vehicle opens up an avenue for him to be able to achieve his own death.

Some believe that Woyzeck had intended to kill Marie from the moment he unveiled her infidelity, which can be taken from Scene 22 when he says, “When you’re cold you won’t feel cold anymore.” (Büchner, 1996, p. 43). Upon first reading, it does come across as though Woyzeck is saying that to Marie, but when reading with different intonation, it can be seen in a whole new light. It is apparent that Woyzeck has thoughts of killing himself earlier in the play, as stated by McLeish, “He contemplates suicide; he buys a knife.” (McLeish, 1996, p. viii). Perhaps in his statement, Woyzeck is not referring to Marie as “you”, but rather himself, thus insinuating that it is only after Marie dismisses him that he chooses to murder her. At the end of the play, Woyzeck states that he must throw the knife further into the river to remove the evidence, he uses the knife as an excuse to wade deeper into the water which presumably leads to his death. Therefore, by using Marie as a murderous vehicle, Woyzeck is able to achieve his own death.

Much like Woyzeck, the Young Woman uses her spouse as her murderous vehicle, but how she reaches this point of destruction is explored by Sophie Treadwell in a more psychologically demanding way. It is apparent that the Young Woman is in a warped and unhappy marriage to a manipulative, but wealthy, man, George H. Jones. Although the play was written at highly feminist time, women were still less respected than men. Treadwell amplifies this through the relationship between Husband and the Young Woman by exploring the ways in which she must conform to the conventionalised expectations placed upon her as a woman.

However, Jerry Dickey states that “modernism became a way for women to rethink their place in society” (Dickey, 1999, p. 45). The Young Woman most definitely does this, though perhaps not intentionally. She does not want a baby, her milk has not come through, and she has an affair; in society’s eyes, this would mean that she has failed as a woman. The conventional role women must conform to is projected in Episode Five – Prohibited. The moments in this scene depict the different phases of a woman’s life. When the character Woman says, “I know – I know” (Treadwell, 1993, p. 38), there is a sense of an unspoken ‘but’ that she, as a woman, cannot express. Treadwell compresses into one line the frustration women face when men tell them what to do.

The Young Woman’s tragedy lies within her inability to perform the role of a woman with conviction, as seen in both Episode Three – Honeymoon, through her physicality around her new husband, and in Episode Four – Maternal, where she repeats, “I’ll not submit” (Treadwell, 1993, p. 31). Throughout the play, there are echoes of the Young Woman wanting to end her life, and her inability to adhere to the expectations thrust upon her as a woman is perhaps partly what lead her to this mindset.

In Episode Six – Intimate, the Young Woman says to her lover, “I’ll never get – below the Rio Grande – I’ll never get out of here.” (Treadwell, 1993, p. 49). Treadwell’s use of hyphen’s separates the phrases; it is almost as if “below the Rio Grande” is said so that the Young Woman would seem as though she is talking on topic, but in reality, it could be argued that getting out of “here” is actually her referring to life. These feelings are also depicted in Episode Seven – Domestic:

HUSBAND: Breath is life. Life is breath.

YOUNG WOMAN: (suddenly). And what is death?

HUSBAND: (smartly). Just – no breath!

YOUNG WOMAN: (to herself). Just no breath.

(Treadwell, 1993, p. 56)

Here, the Young Woman is not only curious about death but has found comfort in the simplicity of what Husband views death to be. She later goes on to say that she wants to “go away”, perhaps hinting at her longing to die. When Husband asks what she would do, she says “Maybe I’d sleep”. Although this is referring to her earlier statement regarding her lack of sleep, this could also have an underlying meaning of eternal rest. However, the Young Woman would not commit suicide due to the illegality attached to it and her ties to the living world; therefore, she requires a murderous vehicle to achieve her own death.

Within the play, many characters view the Young Woman as mad, including Mother.

MOTHER: You’re crazy.


MOTHER: You’re crazy!

YOUNG WOMAN: Ma – if you tell me that again I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!

MOTHER: If that isn’t crazy!

YOUNG WOMAN: I’ll kill you – Maybe I am crazy.

(Treadwell, 1993, p. 19)

Nancy L. Nester argues that the Young Woman’s “fears of entrapment in a society which mechanically reproduces products and wives” is dismissed by her mother as she views “her language as nonsense and craziness.” (Nester, 1997, p. 19). Mother’s quick assumption that the Young Woman is mentally unstable because of her ability to question society, is another example of how the Young Woman perhaps does not belong in the world of the play. It is possible that this is because Mother was complicit in the structuring of the Young Woman’s existence in accordance with patriarchal rules, and her interrogation of those rules is what drives Mother to believe that her daughter is mad. Furthermore, if madness is a social construct, as some believe, then Mother is right. The Young Woman soon recognises that Mother will never understand her views, and therefore, as Nester neatly sums up, “provisionally accepts her mother’s characterization of her discourse” (Nester, 1997, p. 19), again emphasising her feelings of entrapment. These feelings are what drives the Young Woman to her longing to achieve her own death.

Nester refers to the Young Woman as “The mad protagonist” (Nester, 1997, p. 2). However, this is not necessarily the case. Although the Young Woman is perceived to be mad, her reasons for murdering Husband are just. Treadwell portrays Husband as a manipulative and spiteful man. This makes the audience question what they would do in the Young Woman’s position, and often conclude that they would follow her path. Treadwell cleverly navigates the murder and her “expressionist painting reveals the inner, rather than the outer, life” (Jones, 1994, p. 489) of the Young Woman. This makes the murder appear to be a logical and proper result of a marriage perverted by social forces.

The Young Woman, although desperately wanting to end her marriage, would not divorce Husband, as shown in Episode Eight – The Law:

JUDGE: If you just wanted to be free – why didn’t you divorce him?

YOUNG WOMAN: Oh I couldn’t do that! I couldn’t hurt him like that!

(Treadwell, 1993, p. 75)

The Young Woman feels as though it is more humane to kill her husband than it is to allow him to live a life with the shame attached to a woman-led divorce, as well as a life of a man whose wife would rather commit suicide than be with him. A divorced man was shunned by society; he was viewed as weak due to his inability to keep his woman. The Young Woman does not feel anything physically for Husband but has some emotional care for him because of their history. Therefore, in her view, killing him would not physically hurt him as much as a divorce would hurt his societal standing. The Young Woman is aware that being found guilty of murder will lead to her execution and, though initially denies it, she ultimately admits to the crime, “I did it! I did it! I did it!” (Treadwell, 1993, p. 75), thus indicating that she required a murderous vehicle to achieve her own death.

However, as explained by Julia A. Walker, “if she does experience freedom through death, it is at best an ironic freedom. For, even as she is led to her death, she is violated once again” (Walker, 2005), in reference to the Barber. Although the shaving of her hair is only to ensure the execution is successful, it is dehumanising nonetheless. Men surround the Young Woman in her final moments, showing that she is under the constraints of society even in death, begging the question of whether she will ever truly be free or not.

The Young Woman’s final words are “Somebody! Somebod— ” (Treadwell, 1993, p. 83). In her last breath, the patriarchal society forced upon her silences her voice once more. The cutting of the final letter leaves the audience asking why she did not have this freedom to speak, let alone the freedom to achieve her own death without using a murderous vehicle.

In the pamphlet that Büchner co-wrote, Hessian Courier, he commented on the iniquities of the social structure and the urgent need for a political response to them; in Woyzeck, Büchner provides a metaphor for these structures. Woyzeck’s ability to articulate his feelings at the end of the play shows his growth as a character, and although this leads to his death, it provides him with some sense of freedom. In Woyzeck’s case, the murderous vehicle was used not only to achieve his own death but also to sacrifice Marie at the altar of his own masculinity, giving him a sense of redemption as a man before he dies.

The Young Woman, although oppressed and restricted by patriarchal forces up until her final breath, finds some comfort in her death as it is the only thing that happens in the play that she truly wants. Her position in the play requires her to use a murderous vehicle before she is able to achieve her own death, and although this does not necessarily portray an air of freedom, it terminates the mechanistic life she would have otherwise suffered through.

Although _Machinal_is far more psychologically penetrating than Woyzeck, both plays investigate the moments before the murder rather than the murder itself by using short scene structures. The “episodic, fractured manor” (Dickey, 1999, p. 74) used in both plays creates a sequence of moments that are primarily charged with meaning, tension and action, representing life and history as it would naturally occur. The audience is then presented with the kind of partial information real life has. The playwrights’ use of modernist techniques creates the illusion that, although Woyzeck’s presumed death was accidental and the Young Woman’s death was as a result of her mariticide, the central characters commit suicide by using a murderous vehicle to achieve their own deaths.


Büchner, G., 1996. _Woyzeck._Translated by Gregory Motton ed. s.l.:Nick Hern Books.

Treadwell, S., 1993. _Machinal._Reprint ed. s.l.:Nick Hern Books.

Works Cited

Billington, M., 2002. The Guardian Online: Woyzeck Forever.[Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2002/sep/28/theatre.artsfeatures [Accessed 3 May 2019].

Dickey, J., 1999. The Expressionist Moment: Sophie Treadwell. In: B. Murphy, ed. _The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights._Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 45-74.

Gilman, R., 2000. _The Making of Modern Drama._Da Capo Paperback - reprinted ed. s.l.:Yale University Press.

Jones, J., 1994. In Defense of the Woman: Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal. /Modern Drama,/37(3), pp. 485-496.

McLeish, K., 1996. Woyzeck: What Happens in the Play . In: K. McLeish, ed. _Woyzeck._London: Nick Hern Books, p. vii.

Nester, N. L., 1997. The agoraphobic imagination: the protagonist who murders and the critics who praise her. /American Drama,/6(2), pp. 1-21.

Steiner, G., 1995. _The Death of Tragedy: Issue 4 of The Faber Library._Reprint ed. s.l.:Faber & Faber.

Walker, J. A., 2005. _Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre: Bodies, Voices, Words._Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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