This past Monday night, President Obama addressed the nation about the concerns of the debt ceiling negotiations in Congress. Obama emphasized the importance of the wealthiest few paying their fair share. He brought to the forefront the disparity between those who have and those who have not. This disparity is as old as time. Presidents throughout history have attempted to solve this unsolvable issue. FDR’s attempts were perhaps the noblest. As president, FDR suggested the implementation of a second bill of rights, the so-called “Economic Bill of Rights,” which would include benefits that would effectively end poverty. Obviously, these rights were never implemented, and poverty remains. Perhaps, Jesus was right when he said, “You will always have the poor among you.” Sometimes, the best way to shake the souls of men is to shout on stage, and during the First World War, Alban Berg had something to shout about. The realities and consequences of poverty are disturbingly and beautifully illustrated in Berg’s mad opera, Wozzeck.
In the first scene, Wozzeck, a poor soldier, is shaving his Captain’s face. The Captain insists that Wozzeck slow down. “Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam!” The Captain continues, “What shall I do with the time you save?” As the Captain fears the idea of eternity, Wozzeck obediently answers, “Yes sir, Captain.” Time is a luxury. The Captain has too much; Wozzeck has too little. The Captain judges Wozzeck’s character by saying, “Wozzeck, you are a good man, but you lack morality!” He then patronizes Wozzeck, “Morality is when you have morals! You understand?” Wozzeck answers, “Yes, were I a fine gentleman with a hat, a watch, and an eyeglass and could speak eloquently, then I would be virtuous too!” Wozzeck continues, “But I’m just a poor fellow! The likes of us are damned in this world and the next. And I think if we ever got to heaven, we would all have to manufacture thunder!”
In another scene, Wozzeck returns home from a long, miserable day at work. His wife, Marie, is admiring her new, luxurious earrings that were a gift from a wealthy drum major. She sings, “We share but a small corner of the world and a broken piece of a mirror. And yet my lips are as rosy as those of fine ladies with their mirrors from top to bottom and their fine gentlemen, who kiss their hands. But I am just a poor girl.” Wozzeck watches his little boy as he peacefully sleeps. He notices beads of sweat forming on his brow. Enraged with melancholy, the music begins to pound like a beating fist. Wozzeck cries out, “Nothing but work under the sun, even sweating in sleep. Us poor folk!” Wozzeck then hands his day’s wages to his wife—some from the captain, some from the doctor. Marie, saddened with guilt, thanks him, “May God reward you.” If only…
Berg’s opera, Wozzeck, is one of the most shattering experiences the theater has to offer. The music is epic, every bit as gorgeous as it is ugly. It will raise your skin and chill your bones. If anything, you will never look at the problem of poverty the same. Like the poor, the opera ends in obscurity. While children are singing “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” in joined hands, Wozzeck and Marie’s child hops around in his own sad, lonely world. “Hop, hop! Hop, hop! Hop, hop!”
In order to avoid spoilers, this article has intentionally left out shocking details of the opera’s plot. You can enjoy a full movie production of ‘Wozzeck’ on YouTube starting here. Enjoy!
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