Theatre Review: “Wozzeck”

On January 22nd the first stye performance in England of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck was given at Covent Garden Opera House.

These columns may seem to some an inappropriate place in which to review one of the luxury entertainments of our rulers but it is of interest to those helping to speed the end of decadent capitalist society to note its gruesome effects expressed in one of the most moving of 20th century operas.

Wozzeck is the first world-renowned operatic work to have a working class family as its main characters, and inevitable poverty, degradation and misery as its subject. As a programme note by D. Millar Craig says,

  “Wozzeck and his Marie do impress themselves upon the hearer’s thought as living types of the average man and woman—pathetic in their helpless drifting amid the current of life towards the inexorable tragedy in whose shaping they have no conscious part.”

It is about the wretched, poverty-stricken militiaman Wozzeck, the butt of everyone, not only of the Captain of his regiment, whose servant he is, but of the Doctor, who laughs at him to his face, regards him merely as an interesting subject for scientific experiment, and uses him for demonstration purposes to the students. The events finally drive him mad enough to kill his wife.

To those who only desire tuneful music the opera Wozzeck has little to offer. In such horrifying and pitiful scenes as occur throughout the work only the atonal methods used by Berg could make them musically convincing. The distinguishing features of art today, in comparison to the past, are in this opera; ugliness, violence, despondency with neither hope nor cure for the sordid events it portrays. Though rousing opposition among some people there is no doubt that such features in art are fashionable now. Modern films, novels and painting show this. One book reviewer Marghanita Laski was asked by a reader “Why the books she chose to notice are all sad, bad or mad and not good cheerful ones ” (Observer, 8-4-51).

In many ways this is favourable for the socialist. The ideas prevalent in society today are no longer of the illusory sentimental kind held in the 19th century. No longer do poets, painters and musicians escape from the ravages of capitalism and rhapsodise on the Lake District, the Constable Country or Wenlock Edge. Today the taste is for the brutal realities of life without relief or hope.

A perusal of the reviews of art critics reveals this. The following statement by Raymond Mortimer in the Sunday Times (23-10-49) gives perhaps the reasons, “To-day not only poets, painters, and preachers, but almost everyone who indulges in the luxury of thought is dismayed by the age in which he lives.’’ The ugly realities of life under capitalism are apparent to most people—only the socialist solution eludes them.

There is one thing certain. The spread of socialist knowledge will revive once more optimism and hope in works of art, and the establishment of socialism will no doubt also revive a music lyrical and tuneful as a direct outcome of the more happy and contented lives lived by its members.