“Danton’s Death” by Georg Büchner

The play Danton’s Death was written by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) at the improbably young age of 22 (he was only 23 when he died). One can’t help wondering what course drama would have taken had Büchner lived longer; or if his few existing works (two complete plays, and the incomplete but quite extraordinary final work Woyzeck) had been better known after his death: they were virtually unknown till the early 20th century, by which time Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov had already transformed drama. Certainly, Danton’s Death makes even Ibsen’s most mature historic dramas (The Pretenders and Emperor and Galilean) seem stiff and awkward in comparison.

The drama is on an epic scale, with huge crowd scenes intercut with more intimate, personal drama. The model appears to be Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, but already, I think, we are looking forward to Brecht’s “epic theatre”.

The play presents us with the last few days of the French revolutionary leader, Danton. There is no development of character within the play itself, but a development of Danton’s character in the past is implied: the Danton we see in the play has developed and changed from what he used to be. Previously, he had been one of the architects of Terror; but as we see him in the play, he is tired of it all, and is surprisingly inactive. The easy reason for this is that he is sick of bloodshed, but the play is considerably more complex than such a simplistic interpretation will allow: Danton’s actions, his personality, are moulded to a great extent by his political and philosophical views, and those views now are fatalistic: he now feels that mankind cannot be changed, that there is no further potential in humanity; and if that is so, if there is nothing further to humanity than what may be seen on the surface, then why bother ripping it up to see what’s inside?

Something went wrong with us at creation. Something is missing – I can’t put a name to it but we won’t find it in each other’s guts. So why hack our bodies open looking for it?
[From the translation by Victor Price]

Danton is overcome by a sense of futility, and is paralysed by it. He craves at times for death:

But time will kill us. What a bore to put on a shirt every day. Then the breeches over it. To crawl into bed at night and out again in the morning. To keep setting one’ foot in fromt of the other, with no prospect of it ever changing. It’s very sad. And to think that millions have done it before us, and millions will do it again…

The grave’s a surer  place for me – at least it brings oblivion. It would kill my  memory. But here my memory lives and kills me.
[From the translation by Victor Price]

But at other times, he cannot see an escape even in death: what is created cannot, he feels, be “uncreated”: the futility of existence – of all existence – will go on, whether he wants it or not:

Plunge yourself in a greater peace than nothingness; and if the greatest peace of all is God, doesn’t it follow that nothingness is God? But I’m an atheist. That damned argument: something cannot become nothing, there’s the misery.

Creation has become so broad, there’s no emptiness. Everything is packed and swarming. The void has destroyed itself; creation is its wound.
[From the translation by Victor Price]

This seems to me a vision of life even more pessimistic than anything Beckett has to offer: life is painful, tedious, and meaningless, and we do not even have the comfort of ultimate nothingness – all the meaningless activity is to continue for ever.

This being a play in which the author’s voice is absent, we do not know where Büchner himself stands on this point. But the dramatic sweep with which this is presented is striking.

But I can’t help feeling perhaps that this play might work better read in one’s study than performed in the theatre. Translator Victor Price tells in the introduction to his edition that “Büchner never heard a word of his spoken on stage”. That someone with no experience of the theatre should even be able even to conceive of a work such as this, and at so young an age, is miraculous, but, given these circumstances, the presence of dramatic flaws should not surprise us: stagecraft is a very difficult business, after all, and it took even such acknowledged giants as Ibsen and Chekhov many years to master it fully. And the major flaw in this play is, it seems to me, lack of conflict, either external or internal. Danton is a wonderful creation, true, but is he a dramatic creation? He is a troubled man, certainly, but not a man in conflict with himself. The major conflict is with Robespierre, but, despite having a few wonderful speeches, Robespierre remains throughout a cold and inscrutable character, and never quite comes to life. Significantly, there is no confrontation in the play between Danton and Robespierre: although they embody in their sharply contrasted outlooks the dichotomy at the heart of the play, their perspectives are never allowed to interact with each other. The character of Robespierre is such as to make dramatic presentation extremely difficult, and, while we can imagine a more artistically mature Büchner solving this problem, his younger self – which, alas, is all we have – couldn’t.

Robespierre, unlike Danton, is full of revolutionary zeal, and, indeed, with revolutionary idealism. To him, humanity can and should be made perfect. He himself is the “Incorruptible”, free from all human weakness – free from venality, from lust, and even from pity. For Robespierre, human beings must be forced to be virtuous, even if it is by terror.

A figure who embodies such a view of humanity is a terrifying figure. This figure has haunted human history for centuries, possibly since the earliest times, and hasn’t gone away. All theocracies, past and present, all communistic, totalitarian  regimes, have as their basis the aim of perfecting humanity, through force, through terror. Of course, we may (and should) strongly contest their definition of “perfection”, of “virtue”, but however misguided their ideas may be, the principle of forcing humanity to be what it isn’t has always been with us, and is with us still in various different guises. But fascinating though Robespierre may be as a character, Büchner cannot bring him to life dramatically, and neither could he clothe in dramatic costume the essential conflict between the world-views of Robespierre and of Danton that lies at the heart of this work. This must be counted a flaw.

Nonetheless, while we may regret the opportunities not taken, we can but celebrate what has been achieved. The portrait of Danton, especially, is tremendously powerful, and I would love to see this play in a good production on stage.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Bit of a coincidence as I just read Lenz by Büchner.It’s actually a 3-parter Lenz, Mr L by Oberlin, and a section written by Goethe that concerns Lenz. Have you seen the film version of Woyzeck? I haven’t but I’ve been wondering if it’s worth watching.


    • I saw the Herzog-Kinski film when it first came out (yes – I am that old!) But that was a long time ago, and I haven’t seen it since. My impression is that it possibly works better on stage thanon screen: I don’t think Werner Herzog quite has thre skill that Sidney Lumet had of making a play work in cinematic terms. The other problem is that Klaus Kinski, although he gives, as expected, a performance of terrific intensity, is too old for the part. Woyzeck surely has to be a young man, as, given the person he is and given his environment, he would not have survived into advanced middle age.

      Nonetheless, the film is well worth watching. But the best adaptation of this play is, I think, Berg’s opera Wozzeck, a masterpiece of uncompromising modernism.


  2. I bought all of Büchner’s plays a few months ago and was intending to read them, but the book seems to have become lost on my bookshelves somewhere. No doubt it will turn up some day.

    I have seen the Herzog film of Woyzeck, but didn’t enjoy it all that much – and I usually like those Herzog/Kinski-type vehicles.


    • I did like the film, although with some reservations (see my reply to Guy above). But no, it isn’t in the class of Aguirre Wrath of God, or of Fitzcarraldo. Aguirre, especially, is a very favourite film of mine. It puts the fear of God into you before you can say “Apocalypse Now”!


  3. Posted by Mark David Dietz on December 12, 2011 at 6:07 am

    To be honest I am not sure if I had even heard of it before — sounds vaguely familiar, but… My touchstones, as I read this review were Hibbert’s history of the French Revolution which I read summer before last and Carlyle’s extended prose poem The French Revolution which I am half way through.

    I should read more plays, perhaps in time. Your review, Himadri, had me wondering what an epic play might look like today. Something set in the streets of Cairo this past summer — contrasted perhaps with students on the streets of London and the glories of pillaging and looting for the sake of social progress — played out in halves on the pages of Facebook — at which point it becomes seriously non-epic…

    Ah, well, we shall always have Paris and the grand guignol of the guillotine to warm our epic desires, — but the point is, I suppose, that that was the death knell of the epic.


    • Hello Mark, while I fully support the students protesting on the streets of London, I wouldn’t say there’s any real equivalence with the protestors in the Arab countries, who really are risking their lives, and who, in many places (Syria is the most prominent), are being repressed quite hidelously. As for the looters across England of earlier this year, they rioted & looted because they rather enjoyed rioting & looting! I for one can’t really see much of a political statement there. But let’s not get into politics: I try to keep off politics on this blog as, in my experience, political discussion on the net invariably results in more heat than light.

      I look forward to reading your views on Carlyle once you’ve inished. But of course, you’d need to start a blog of your own first. And if that isn’t a broad hint, I don’t know what is! 🙂


      • Posted by Mark David Dietz on December 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm

        Actually, I was trying, rather poorly, to suggest the difficult nature of political expression in this age. The movements across the Arab world, as you rightly point out, have that meaning shadowed by the fear of death that does have something epic in it — and then we have the growing distemper in the lands of milk and honey which, even at their best, seem no longer able to reach anything even remotely epic. I fumbled I suppose in suggesting that something epic may not yet wait in the wings in Syria or Egypt or Libya. And the London riots might yet give us another post-modern, boiler-plate non-narrative on the futility of meaning.

        Ah well it was a rather too off-hand a comment anyway.

        I have actually thought about the blog-thing. And eventually may do something. Perhpas not “Yet Another Argumentative Old Git.” I have an essay that has been turned down by a journal and needs a home — and it is not likely to find such a home in any other journal — such is its nature — too eccentric and (as I was told) not likely to appeal — fodder I suppose for a blog.

        But first I must get my classes for next Spring in order…

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