In Georg Buechner’s time, the German state was akin to a well-oiled machine. Society and politics were systematically integrated in a way that required no thought from its subjects. They only had to take their place as a cog in the political machine. The autocrat was the absolute authority and the people followed his dictates like robots under command, yet in the end the autocrat becomes a mindless piece of the system as well. Buechner uses political satire in his play Leonce and Lena to address and criticize the autocratic German state that has devolved politics and society into an automata-like system.
Leonce and Lena takes place in the Kingdom of Bum and Piddle, the names of which satirizes the numerous little German states that Germany was divided into at the time. Often times the boundaries were arbitrary and the territories small, yet each kingdom had its own autocracy set up. In the scene that introduces the “almighty” ruler King Peter of the Kingdom of Bum, he is being dressed by his servants. While being dressed, King Peter is thinking aloud about his duty as autocrat to think for the people, as they “never think at all” (Buechner 82). Already Buechner characterizes the masses as mindless followers to the aristocrats. King Peter, after running around half naked, goes on to talk about free will and the system, saying “free will is a wide open issue down there” and “My entire system is ruined” (Buechner 82). While the scene itself is fairly comical, the issues talked about are not. Through the ramblings of the King Buechner reveals that the people have almost no free will, and the disarray of the King’s garments is analogous to his Kingdom. The system is flawed and the head of the system, whose will is law, has no idea what to do either. More often than once in the scene he asks his servants what he is doing. Though he claims to have to think for the people, his thoughts are in such confusion that it seems impossible that he can take care of himself, let alone the kingdom. Jumbled in his thoughts, he doesn’t even to seem to have a mind of his own. He is just going along with his duties of being king, and what defines his duties as king is predetermined by the political system in place. Acting simply as another component of the machine, King Peter is just going through the motions. For instance, his decision to have his son married is done out of royal duty to find an heir, and when he brings it up before the privy council he momentarily forgets what his own proposition was, making it clear he did not put much thought into this action. Indeed, he states “Whenever I speak out loud like that, I never know who it really is, me or someone else, it frightens me” (Buechner 83). No longer a person with a free will or a sense of self, he is like a robot programmed to carry out the will of the system.
If the king is subject to the political machine, then it is certain that his subjects in turn are even more so affected. When questioned by the king, nearly all of the answers given by his officials are meaningless regurgitations of what the king said. They don’t seem capable of deep thought and just mechanically give simple neutral responses to go along with what the king says. When the king addresses the Privy Council, the president says “it may be the case, but then again it may not be the case” which basically says nothing at all. The rest of the Privy Council then mechanically echoes the same thing.
Mechanical mimicry occurs elsewhere in the play as well. In the beginning of the play when Leonce is conversing with his tutor, he says, “It fills me with melancholy” to which the tutor responds “Quite right your Highness, such justified melancholy” (Buechner 79). Leonce expresses frustration that the tutor does not contradict him. The tutor automatically agrees with everything Leonce says. The same is true of the peasants being commanded by the schoolmaster to greet the royal procession properly. They are forced to make a show of being happy and to greet the nobles with a resounding “vivat!” Here, Buechner not only criticizes the unfair treatment of the peasants but also their unfailing compliance. The prefect says “It states in the official programme that all subjects without fail must voluntarily place themselves along the road wearing clean clothes, a contented expression and a well-fed air” (Buechner 101). Buechner uses a bit of irony here as the peasants are expected to “voluntarily” follow something they are basically “programmed” to do.
The official in charge of the programming, The Master of Ceremonies, equates the ladies to machines saying, “the ladies are glistening with so much sweat they look like mobile salt machines” (Buechner 103). In the same scene the President says “Your subjects will be ordered to share your emotions.” The exaggerated ridiculousness of these commands and what the peasants have to do highlight the absolute compliance of the peasants to the king and his government. Everyone is brainwashed to obey the system, and free will is non-existent. In a state like this, man might as well be an automatan.
Some may say that Leonce and Lena’s attempt to run away from the arranged marriage breaks free from the system. However, because they are part of the political machine, it is by fate, not coincidence, that they meet. Both go against the will of the state and find that they end up following the will of the state unintentionally. In the beginning Leonce shows the most free thought of any of the characters in the play. Yet in the end, all his thinking is futile and he succumbs to his fate as part of the system.
The way Buechner portrays Leonce’s assimilation into the political machine is very appropriate. Valerio’s plan to have Leonce marry Lena is to present them to the king as automata to marry in place of the supposedly lost Leonce and Lena. “Ladies and gentleman, you see before you two persons of opposite sex, a male and a female, a gentleman and a lady. Nothing but cunning clockwork, nothing but springs and pasteboard…They could even be turned into fully fledged members of proper society” (Buechner 105). The whole idea is rather outlandish, yet the king accepts these substitutes to “marry in effigy.” It does not matter that the people actually marry, so long as the act is fulfilled. Everything is like clockwork, and the people do not even need to be there so long as a cog is placed to carry out the action.
At the end of the play it is revealed that Leonce and Lena are the true prince and princess. While seemingly chance, it appears rather ludicrous that all that happened on pure coincidence. Their running away from each other only to meet and fall in love anyways is meant to show that the system is inescapable. It is everyone’s fate to fit into the machine. Leonce, in the end, takes over his father’s title and talks about his power over the subjects, calling them “puppets and playthings.” He seems to be the typical autocrat.
Valerio’s comment that the supposed automata could even become part of society is Buechner’s direct statement that people have so little free will in this system that automata could replace them and nothing would be amiss. In one of his letters to his fiancée, Buechner writes about the irresistible force of the system and human conformity to it saying,
“I’ve been studying the history of the French Revolution. I felt as though utterly crushed by the hideous fatalism of history. I find in human nature a terrible sameness, in human circumstances an ineluctable violence vouchsafed to all and to none…I’m an automaton, my soul has been taken from me…” (Buechner 195-196).
In the face of the unstoppable political machine, which has existed throughout history, Buechner feels that he has no choice but to submit to it, losing his free-will and humanity in the process. Thus he sees the same happening to society at large in Germany in which numerous political states function in nearly the same way.
All of this concerned Buechner and he chose to write political satire to express his concerns and criticism. Leonce and Lena mainly took the perspective of the nobles and ruling class and their part in the political system. He showed that even the autocrats were part of the system, which makes sense since there were so many small states that no one could head the whole political system. By exaggerating the mindlessness of the king’s subjects and imposing ridiculous demands on the peasantry, Buechner satirized the ruling class’s reign over the peasants. The lack of free will and blind following of the king depicted a soulless society of automata programmed as part of a cohesive system. Indeed, the peasants only get to say one whole word in the play: vivat, which means roughly, “Long live the king.” Buechner successfully portrayed a frightening society in which the qualities of human and automata could be mixed, functioning as part of the political machine, and no one would know the difference.