A Bleak Paradise: Georg Büchner‘s “Leonce and Lena” (Revised)

Impoverished peasants without a voice, an increasingly socially, politically, and economically oppressed working class, wealthy nobility garbed in fine silks and satins perched high in their castles; such was the societal landscape of Germany in the years 1815 to 1848. These years, deemed Pre-March, were the those leading up to the failed German Revolution. Following the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, the association of German princes that comprised the German Confederation sought to once again establish the pre-revolutionary system of power previously exercised in Germany. These autocratic authority figures aimed to suppress the political activities of their subjects and distribute all forms of power into the hands of the few nobility. Georg Büchner was an activist whose political stance aligned with that of the German bourgeois, and his writing serves as a definite reflection of his nationalistic and liberal way of thinking. Büchner‘s “Leonce and Lena,” published during the Pre-March years, served as a revolutionary warning for the people of the German Confederation regarding the bleak future of Germany, should omnipotent yet idle monarchial rulers such as Leonce and King Peter be in power.

Leonce is established as a privileged prince who neither wants nor works for anything. He is an existentialist with an irresponsible philosophical position on life. “What bliss to be someone else for once! If only for a single minute! – My God, how the fellow runs! If only I knew of a single thing in the world that could still make me run” (Büchner, Leonce, 80).  At the play’s opening Leonce’s idealist mentality is unappealing and relatively annoying to the reader. However, Leonce’s consistent use of puns and his act of running away from his planned marriage serve as evidence of spontaneity and a certain degree of free will. His resistance to his father’s wishes makes the reader not entirely unsympathetic to Leonce’s character. “Kindly inform his supreme Willynillyness that I shall attend to everything save that which I shall ignore, which however will be decidedly less than if it were twice as much…Lazzaroni, Valerio, let’s be lazzaroni! It’s Italy we’ll go to!” (Büchner, Leonce, 91). The reader relates to and ultimately craves such sparks of spontaneity and resistance from the characters of the play. It is these moments that reflect the nationalistic and liberal thinking of the German revolutionaries and that promote an active and upwardly motile political system.

Though Leonce experiences a brief moment of redemption during his period of defiance, by the play’s close he ultimately establishes himself as a model successor to his father. Büchner indicates that under the rulers of the time, Germany was in a stagnant state, moving in no direction at all. This is most evident at the end of the play. Following Leonce’s return to the Kingdom of Bum with Princess Lena, his bride to be, he proclaims, “’We’ll have all the clocks in the kingdom destroyed, all calendars banned, then measure the hours and months by the flower-clock alone, by the rhythms of blossom and fruit…in summer we’ll have the warmth of Capri and Ischia…’”; Valerio, his hedonistic sidekick then adds, “’…we shall all lie down in the shade and pray God for macaroni, melons and figs….’” (Büchner, Leonce, 107). The future that they describe indicates that they are content with the establishment of a classical paradise. When Leonce is ultimately granted the title of King, his plans for the future mirror the present state of the country under the rule of his father, King Peter.

The root of the political problem addressed by Büchner in “Leonce and Lena” is the fact that the German Confederation ignores the needs of its people. Leconce’s father, King Peter of Bum, epitomizes such ignorance. King Peter speaks in a confused, nonsensical manner and manages to address everything about nothing whatsoever. “What does this knot in my handkerchief mean? …What did I desire to remind myself? … Yes, that’s it, that’s it – I wanted to remind myself of my people” (Büchner, Leonce, 83). King Peter, a reflection of the princes of the German Confederation, had forgotten his people. The people in whose hands rested all political, economic, and social power, did not intend to improve the wellbeing of their subjects. Instead, Büchner argues, they served as self-righteous political figureheads content with their personal state of being and thus not motivated to further progress German society. In fact, King Peter recognizes the oppressed state of his subjects but believes such inferiority to be the natural working order of society: Thus, he does not concern himself with responding to their needs. “Man must think, and I must think for my subjects, for they never think at all, they never think at
all” (Büchner, Leonce, 82).

Some may argue that the play does not serve as any sort of warning, but that it is merely a parody of nobility. It is true that “Leonce and Lena” mocks monarchial figures in what initially appears to be an innocent manner. However, if one looks at the historical context, the play’s radical political statement becomes evident. The future of Germany is bleak if it remains under the control of idle idealists like those represented by Leonce and King Peter. Büchner, a known political activist of the period, published a number of other literary works critiquing Germany’s damaged political system.

“The Hessian Messenger,” explicitly criticizes the monarchial figures of the German Confederation. At its opening, “The Hessian Messenger” is set up as a pamphlet in which Büchner warns the reader, “The aim of this pamphlet is to convey the truth to the people of Hessen, but they that speak the truth are hanged; yes, even they that read the truth may well suffer punishment from perfidious judges” (Büchner, Messenger, 167). In this politically radical and forward-thinking text of the time, Büchner verbally obliterates the German monarchial political system in a direct and entirely non-discrete manner representing the German Confederation as the Grand Duke of Hessen.

Even if an honest man were to become and remain a minister, the way things are in Germany he could only be a puppet manipulated by the prince, himself a ridiculous puppet manipulated in turn by a valet or coachman or the coachman’s wife and her lover or the coachman’s stepbrother or all of them together…Woe upon you, you idolaters! You are like the heathen who worship the crocodile that tears them limb from limb. (Büchner, Messenger, 172)

In a milder manner of attack, Büchner sends the reader the same warning in “Leonce and Lena.”

The peasants of “Leonce and Lena” have no voice, and therefore the political unrest of the bourgeois is not nearly as evident as it is in “The Hessian Messenger.” However, the policies and culture promoted by Leonce and King Peter are the same as those of the Grand Duke of Hessen, indicating that Büchner is not only mocking such a political system, but also warning the peasant class of the impending societal doom that awaits Germany if action is not taken to remove such “idle idolaters” from political power.

As discussed above, Büchner‘s “Leonce and Lena” served as a warning to the German people that cultural destruction would ensue, should non-democratic monarchial rulers such as Leonce and King Peter remain in power. While this political message of the play was not as strongly conveyed in “Leonce and Lena” as it was in Büchner’s “The Hessian Messenger,” the same warning exists: if action is not taken to restore power to the bourgeois, Germany will enter a period of stagnation and the working class will be continually oppressed. The clock-less, eternally summer, Italian reminiscent country of which Leonce spoke was far from the forward-thinking, progressive society desired by Germany’s working class. Büchner’s warning in “Leonce and Lena” restates in literary terms the the revolutionary call-to-arms in his “The Hessian Messenger.” “You have labored all your life digging the soil, now you shall dig your tyrants’ grave. You built their fortresses, now you shall destroy them and build the house of freedom” (Büchner, Messenger, 178). The political unrest would soon boil over and liberal-minded people would attempt to reform the monarchy in the German Revolution. “’Lord, destroy the rods of our oppressors and let Thy kingdom come unto us, the kingdom of justice. Amen’” (Büchner, Messenger, 179). Büchner passed away in 1837, ten years before the attempted German Revolution. As a strong voice against the political structure under the German Confederation could Büchner’s presence and participation have made a difference in the outcome of the Revolution of 1848?

 

 

Works Cited

 

Büchner, Georg. “Leonce and Lena.” Georg Büchner. Complete Plays, Lenz and Other

Writings. Trans. and Ed. John Reddick. London: Penguin. 1993. 75-108. Print.

—. “The Hessian Messenger.” 167-179. Print.

 

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