The Socially Constructed Prison (Revised)

Art has long been a means to present a social commentary to the masses, and Büchner’s
masterpiece “Leonce and Lena” seamlessly melds very important social issues into a comedic story. Büchner’s focus is to critique the monarchy through Leonce, a dramatic and existentialist prince, Peter, a thoughtful but mindless king, and Valerio, a sly and hedonistic drunkard. The play also serves as a warning for future ruling bodies. Büchner was quite an activist through hiswriting and he was even declared a criminal due to another work, “The Hessian Messenger”, in which he continues to attack the immobile and unproductive ruling system. Büchner develops a feeling of stagnation in his play “Leonce and Lena” and uses it to warn against future dangers of government without popular

The play’s main protagonist, Leonce, is a prince that isn’t interested in the
trivialities of life.

“A terrible idleness teems on every hand. –Idleness is thefount of all the vices. – The things people do out of sheer boredom! They study out of boredom; they pray out of boredom; they fall in love, get married and reproduce out of boredom; in the end they die out of boredom” (80).

This quote is from one of Leonce’s many monologues, in which he states his belief that the struggles and achievements in life areunnecessary in the end. In his opinion, life is about time wasting; therefore wasted time is not so bad of a thing. This mentality fits well with a Democritus quote: “Nothing exists except for atoms and empty space, everything else is opinion.” Büchner portrays him as a slightly depressed individual and one who should definitely not be allowed to lead: “My life gapes at me like a great white sheet of paper that I’m supposed to fill with writing, but I can’t manage even a single letter. My head is an empty dance hall, on its floor a few wiltedroses and crumpled ribbons” (86). This level of empty-headedness implies Büchner’s discontent with the central characteristic of a monarchy: that leadership is passed by blood rather than by ability. He postulates that this
system can lead to having the wrong person in power, which can be very bad for the people. When he is informed that he should be taking over the throne after he is married, he says: “I shall attend to everything save that which I shall ignore, which however will be decidedly less than if it were twice as much” (89). Leonce appears to be very unconcerned about the humongous responsibility of ruling which further adds to Büchner’s criticism of aloof monarchs. That he is to take over for his father, King Peter, would be a fearsome prospect had Peter himself not been so inept.

Peter is the definition of a distant ruler. He is scatterbrained beyond belief and
spends the majority of his time thinking about thinking. “Man must think, and I must think for my subjects, for they never think at all, they never think at all” (82). This comment seems very deep and even fatherly for a ruler to say in seriousness, but the staging has him running around like a madman while being dressed which implies a touch of insanity. Additionally, making the statement that his subjects never think at all is a direct insult and expresses Büchner’s view that the royalty is completely out of touch with the common men. During this monologue in Act I Scene II, Büchner makes the dressing of King Peter into a symbol for the ruling style of Büchner’s time: “Now it’s the turn of my
attributes, accidents, properties, and modifications: where is my shirt, where are my trousers? – Stop, how disgusting, free will is a wide open issue down there. Where is morality: where are my shirt-cuffs?” (82). Büchner directly states here that free will is being actively suppressed and that morality has been taken from the people by the rulers. Also, the fact that this all takes place during a dressing ritual implies an artificiality of the leaders. This idea could be Büchner’s belief that all of the attributes, accidents,
properties, and modifications that are accredited to a monarch are insincere and hollow actions meant only to keep the people from rebelling. However, Büchner carefully refrains from making Peter actually malicious towards the people, instead making him seem completely incompetent of ruling. This approach allows the play to be sold as a comedy, which would appeal to a larger group of people, while still displaying the monarchy as incapable of leading and caring for the people.

Valerio fills a role not unlike the Shakespearean fool, in that he seems to be the only
character who understands the absurdity of the situation. He is the only main character who is not of the royal machine. Leonce’s clever companion remarks: “No. The way to the madhouse is not so long, it’s easy to find, I know every footpath, side-road and highway. Already I can see [Leonce] heading that way…He’s mad, quite mad” (97). Valerio’s statement after yet another of Leonce’s melancholy monologues shows that he knows the system is faulty but he doesn’t seem to want to fix anything. In fact, Valerio is also a foil to Leonce because while he also sees that life is a series of pointless tasks, but
instead of despairing in that mentality, he enjoys activities that Leonce considers menial and time wasting. Valerio then appears to be rather hedonist, reinforced by the fact that he is quite often drunk which indicates a willingness to give in to vice. He is also the only person that takes advantage of the situation he finds himself in for his own personal benefit. “Listen, Prince, will you make me Chief Minister if, this very day and in the presence of your father, you are fully, formally, and officially spliced to this
nameless, ineffable wonder? Word of honour?” (100). The former drunkard Valerio was able to manipulate himself into a position of power through cunning and the use of the prince’s inability to control his whim to marry Lena, exactly whom Leonce had tried to avoid. Valerio manages to integrate himself into the political machine and expresses his plans to allow the kingdom to continue to run itself into the ground.

Büchner’s “Leonce and Lena” is a very obvious political critique, but it also serves as a
warning towards the future. A play with a comedic structure normally ends in marriage and rejoicing, however Büchner adds a short section to the end. Leonce first gives a short speech in which he says to the common folk who were at the castle to celebrate the wedding: “Your position is so pitiful that we should not wish at any price to make you withstand any more standing. Go home now, but don’t go forgetting your speeches, your sermons, your verses, for tomorrow we shall calmly and quietly do the whole farce again from beginning to end” (108). This casts a rather grim shadow over the ending, because it implies that the people will be no better off under Leonce than they were under King Peter. Büchner’s motive behind this particular monologue is to spread the suggestion that under the current style of government in which the people have no power under an absolute monarch will never allow for progress. The marriage and transfer of power to Leonce symbolizes a change of the play’s application from a critique of the present to a warning for the future.

Büchner was a very active political critic shown in “Leonce and Lena” as well as his
other works. One of his polemic texts, “The Hessian Messenger”, was particularly severe and resulted in his co-writer Ludwig Weidig being executed by the authorities. They present the argument that the peasants and burghers do all of the work and suffer great hardship so that the gentry can live comfortable lives in fancy houses. Logically, the answer to such a problem would be to replace those in power with a person who would be motivated to help lighten the burdens of the common folk. However, Büchner and Weidig reason that such a person does not exist who could do such in the current system: “any
honest man who joins a Council of State is unfailingly ousted. Even if an honest man were these days 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 his turn by a valet” (171). This idea of immediate corruption and control of even the most honest and benevolent men in government is mirrored in Büchner’s “Leonce and Lena” when Valerio becomes the Chief Minister and says: “That poor devil Valerio most humbly takes leave of His Ministerial Excellency Lord Valerio of Valerium” (101). Büchner argues that every member of the ruling class becomes a puppet to the customary order of
things and cannot, or will not, change.

The inability or absence of motivation for progress in “Leonce and Lena” leads to a forced feeling of stagnation in the kingdom. The general lethargy forces Leonce into movement, yet he ends up back where he began; symbolizing the inability to break from the cycle of bad government that Büchner wants to draw attention to in his comedy. Büchner uses the character Valerio to show that anyone can be corrupted when inducted into the political machine, a point also stressed in his other work “The Hessian Messenger”. King Peter embodies all of the flaws Büchner sees in his current governmental system in Germany. According to many political philosophers, it is not only the right but the duty of the people to rise up and overthrow an oppressive government. Büchner expresses this opinion
in his play “Leonce and Lena”, which is not only a critique of the system in place, but a warning to the future of Germany: If the cycle is not broken, the countless kingdoms that made up the German people would find themselves as the prisoners and puppets of their own leaders.


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.

–“The Hessian Messenger” Georg Büchner. Complete Plays,
Lenz and Other Writings. Trans. and ed. John Reddick. London: Penguin. 1993. 167-179.

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