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Plays

A307 Drama: Woyzeck (BBC / The Open University, 1977)

This post continues my work on sixteen co-productions between The Open University and the BBC which were made for television transmission as part of the course materials supporting the work of distance-learning undergraduate students on the A307 Drama course which ran annually from 1977 to 1981.

The first in my series of posts on A307 discussed the course’s aims and modus operandi before looking at a production of the second half of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. My second post considered a condensed production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the third a production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and the fourth looked at the controversy surrounding Genet’s The Balcony which meant that it was never, in fact, transmitted on television as part of the course.

In this post I consider another production which caught the unforgiving eye of Aubrey Singer, the Controller of BBC2 who had declared that The Balcony could not be transmitted without a substantial re-make of the brothel scenes, which The Open University refused to agree to. Alongside his pronouncements on The Balcony, Singer decreed that Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck ought to be re-edited and, in addition, removed from the Sunday schedule. Woyzeck was switched to a supposedly child-free early Saturday morning slot, rather than the regular Sunday one, but the offending scenes (which included what was considered to be an ‘overlong’ stabbing scene which had made too effective audio use of a cabbage and ‘over-intense’ breathing by a woman in a fully-clothed love scene between Marie and the Drum-Major) were never edited out (John Izbicki, ‘BBC Ban Sex in £20,000 Play for TV University’, The Daily Telegraph, 14 May 1977).

The production opens with a caption conveying some important background information on the playwright and the play – namely, that Büchner had died young, leaving Woyzeck in fragments, and that the version of the play transmitted, although shortened to fit into the 50-minute transmission slot, had been reconstructed from the playwright’s original manuscripts in order to ‘accord more closely with Büchner’s intentions and to make the text more suitable for television production’ (‘A307 Broadcast Notes’, BFI Library, Special Collections, JSG/20/9). It was the director-producer John Selwyn Gilbert, working with The Open University philosopher and German specialist Susan Khin Zaw, who had determined the necessary re-ordering of the scenes of the play and accordingly adapted an existing translation of the German text by Victor Price (which had been commissioned by and produced on the BBC Third Programme and published by Oxford University Press a few years earlier in 1971). Interestingly, Price himself approved the re-ordering of the scenes which served to improve on the order which was commonly accepted from Alban Berg’s 1925 opera Wozzeck (source: interview with John Selwyn Gilbert).

Andres and Woyzeck © The Open University

Andres and Woyzeck © The Open University

The play itself opens with the character of the Showman (who doubles here as a Narrator, played by David Wood), giving a little information about the play’s first performance in 1913 and its timing and setting (‘a garrison town in Germany’, ‘Open Country, outside the town’: p. 1A of the camera script held in the Open University Archive, ref. A307/06; all other page references in brackets refer to this script unless otherwise indicated). The play proper opens with a low-angle shot in which we see the two soldiers Franz Woyzeck (David Collings) and his friend Andres (Colin Farrell – but not, of course, the contemporary Irish actor!) piling logs into a cart: Andres sings whilst seeming to tolerate, but not engage with, Woyzeck’s palpable fear that there is something untoward about this place (see adjacent image).

The next scene introduces Marie (played by Cyd Hayman), Woyzeck’s common-law wife and mother of their nearly two-year-old child (played as a baby in this production by one of the director’s own children). By candlelight she sews and sings wistfully and – when Woyzeck enters – the lack of enthusiasm in her opening words, ‘Oh, it’s you, Franz’, perhaps betray the fact, which becomes clearer as the play progresses, that she is not very much in love with him. He voices his fears that there is something troubling afoot in the world. She tries to calm him but he exits in a rush and in a subsequent soliloquy, part of which she addresses to their baby, she worries that he is losing his mind: ‘I can’t stand this. It makes me shudder’ (p. 5).

Marie admires herself and her earrings © The Open University

Marie admires herself and her earrings © The Open University

The pair are next seen at a fair where the Showman – now in character – entertains the crowd, including Woyzeck and Marie, and two new characters, the Drum-Major (David Calder) and Sergeant (Michael da Costa) who both, in earthy terms, admire her beauty from afar. When she tries to push past the Drum-Major in order to see the Showman’s next trick better he bars her way with his stick and pulls her close, whispering in her ear. One can only assume what words were exchanged from the next scene in which – after a lingering close-up on her feverish baby – she excitedly admires a pair of new earrings in a piece of broken mirror, wondering aloud about whether they are really gold and asserting that she, albeit a pauper, is as fine as any other woman of greater means (see adjacent image). She sings, distractedly soothes the baby’s cries and continues to gaze at her image with evident pleasure. Her reverie is broken when Woyzeck enters and catches her out in her lie that she found an earring by seeing that she, in fact, wears a pair. ‘Are you saying I’m a whore?’, she cries (p. 11), at which he ceases his questioning, gives her the money he has earned from his daily toil and exits. In soliloquy she hints at the provenance of the earrings: ‘I am a whore, just the same. Oh, I could kill myself. What’s the use? We’re all going to hell, man, woman, child’ (p. 12).

The Showman facilitates the transition to the next scene by functioning again as Narrator, informing the viewer that Woyzeck is next seen shaving the Captain (John Bryans), a task he does every day to earn extra income to support his family. They talk at length about life and morality, Woyzeck asserting that poor folk, like him, don’t have much morality: ‘we take it as it comes. But if I was a gentleman […] then I’d have morals all right’ (p. 16).

Marie commits adultery with the Drum-Major © The Open University

Marie commits adultery with the Drum-Major © The Open University

Then, as commentary on his statement about the relative morality of the poor and those higher up the social hierarchy, the camera cuts to Marie and the Drum-Major in a passionate embrace against a wall, the camera lingering on her face, which is framed with the gold earrings from the previous scene, as she cries out in prolonged ecstasy. (This was one of the scenes – a still from which is offered on the right – which so offended Singer.) She falls to the floor, declaring ‘I’m the proudest woman alive’ (p. 17) but the scene soon turns a little dangerous, with her laughing at his puffed up confidence and he, in a comment on her enthusiasm for sex, joking that he will ‘set up a stud for drum majors’ (p. 18).

Having heard a suggestion of Marie’s infidelity from the Captain, Woyzeck raves at her, shouting ‘Whore’. Later seeing proof of his suspicions when Marie and the Drum-Major embrace in a dark corner of a tavern, he becomes frenzied, hearing voices which urge him to ‘Stab the she-wolf dead. Stab. The. She-Wolf. Dead’ (p. 33).

The Doctor examines Woyzeck © The Open University

The Doctor examines Woyzeck © The Open University

Soon we begin to understand what else may lie behind Woyzeck’s delirious state of mind when, as can be seen in the image to the left, a Doctor (Peter Copley) examines him before his colleagues, declaring that ‘For three months this man has eaten nothing but peas. Note the effect, feel for yourselves. What an irregular pulse – and the eyes!’ (p. 36).

And so, driven by both passionate jealousy and delirium from the doctor’s medical experiment, Woyzeck takes Marie beyond the town to a jetty by a pond. The outdoor scene is indicated by a dark purple cyclorama and the pond by the sound of splashing water, an economy of set which is typical of earlier scenes where just one or two props signify the location (for example, a bed and a candle for Marie’s room, a stethoscope and a diagram of the human body for the Doctor’s office, etc). She tries to embrace him but he resists; instead he stabs her repeatedly with a knife he has purchased for the deed. (This is the second scene which offended the sensibilities of Singer owing to its length and the repeated, evocative sound of knife entering cabbage).

The image from this scene, reproduced below, captures eloquently the way in the director uses the frame made by the camera to make meaning in this play: only the middle section of the bodies of Marie and Woyzeck are shown as he approaches her with the knife, highlighting both how the higher social classes in this play (the Drum-Major and the Doctor, for example) view the poorer class as expendable bodies, to be bought and used for sexual gratification and medical experimentation, and also how – in the personal, marital drama – Woyzeck is driven to murder by the thought and sight of Marie giving her body to another man.

It is here worth remembering that the role of the director-producer in these BBC-Open University co-productions went beyond the studio: the four BBC television producers on the Course Team were considered to be on an intellectual and pedagogical footing with the academics, a state of affairs which led to a harmonious and extremely creative working relationship. Indeed, Nick Levinson, one of the other producers on A307, notes how, on this course especially, producers were given a much freer rein in the creation of programmes than with, say, more documentary-style programmes, owing to the fact that once the play was cut or condensed (as appropriate) and the camera script finalised, the academics would stand back, understanding the role of the television producer in this kind of dramatic programme to be akin to the director in the theatre (source: interview with Nick Levinson).

Woyzeck approaches Marie with a dagger © The Open University

Woyzeck approaches Marie with a dagger © The Open University

Furthermore, and importantly, each television production was accompanied by a few pages of ‘Broadcast Notes’ (cited above) which considered how the television producer had reworked the stage play for the television medium, in order to underline how the television production was just one — and not the definitive — interpretation of the play through performance. Accompanying the transmission of Woyzeck were notes written by John Selwyn Gilbert which discussed the play’s editorial history, his production choices and offering a number of questions for students to think about during the transmission (such as ‘Is this a play about an adulteress, a jealous husband and a murder? Or is it about a society which oppresses certain individuals and forces them to commit extreme acts?’ and ‘Consider the effect on the overall balance of the play if the shaving scene, between the Captain and Woyzeck, is placed first’ – as it had been in the opera Wozzeck), followed by his own thoughts on these issues.

Woyzeck is driven further into delirium at the sight of Marie and the Drum-Major embracing © The Open University

Woyzeck is driven further into delirium at the sight of Marie and the Drum-Major embracing © The Open University

Woyzeck was the first of the four drama productions that John Selwyn Gilbert directed for A307 (the others were The Way of the World, Peer Gynt and Six Characters in Search of an Author, the last of which I have blogged about here). It was really interesting to hear his thoughts on the production process in a recent interview that he was kind enough to agree to. He remembers that it was very time consuming, largely owing to the fact that he was ‘really shooting it like a movie. Scene by scene. Not how you do television drama’. On the BBC side, the Executive Producer Nancy Thomas warned him about going over time and Rex Tucker, who helped to train the BBC producer-directors who made these OU productions, warned him about rehearsing scenes that weren’t going to make the final cut, but ultimately, he says, he was satisfied with how the production turned out (source: interview with John Selwyn Gilbert).

One critic, at least, was equally happy with this television production of Büchner’s play. Writing in The Times, Michael Church pronounced that Woyzeck was

the best piece of television drama we have had for many weeks. […] John Selwyn Gilbert’s direction was magical; his actors were inspired. David Collings played the poor, paranoid hero with piercing intensity, and Cyd Hayman made a heartrendering, Tess-like Marie.

But ‘Why waste such riches on a few thousand conscientious bleary heads’, he continues, with reference to the Open University’s signed-up students and the necessary shift from the usual late-Sunday morning slot to very early on a Saturday, ‘when at the push of a different button, and at a civilized hour, you could offer them to as many millions?’ (‘Best Television Drama for Many Weeks’, The Times, 23 May 1977, p. 11).

With warm thanks to John Selwyn Gilbert for the interview and for generous help with research materials.

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