September 26, 2010

Danton's Death

Half way through Danton's Death, some of the actors in the play mounted the back of the stage and sung out the Marseilles over the audience's head. The theatre of politics, a black fringed stage, the actors standing like tribunes of the plebs at the back and the music was awesome: you could feel in that moment the absolute power of what happened in France between 1789 and 1799. This series of events and those that came afterwards (Napoleon, the great conqueror of Europe, the afterthought) have convulsed the world ever since. From the great liberal powerhouse of California to the Shanghai shack in which the Chinese communist party started, our world has been inspired and revolted by the events of those ten years in France. There are few periods in history whose resonances are as profound: the American Revolution is perhaps the only other such episode in the eighteenth century that had such tumultuous consequences for the world. Putting all that on stage is not easy, it is not easy to imagine that the wooden O at the National can indeed hold the vasty fields of France or that within those walls monarchs fall, the guillotine splatters blood and the masses splutter for aristocratic death.

Danton's Death attempts to do that. A play written in the 1830s by a German romantic it concentrates on the figure of Danton and his rivalry with Robespierre in the early 1790s. The play represents Danton as a man worn out by revolution. He had led the crowds demanding the King's execution, he had led the crowds demanding the September massacres- but for Danton revolution had an end. He believed that at some point the revolution stopped, that perfection might not be acheivable and that at some point stability was preferable to another cycle of blood. In the play Danton is represented as believing in revolution as a process that achieves an objective and then can cease: like a factory production line that can stop when the car has rolled off the other end. He loves women and wine- we see him clutching at girls and bottles- his allies are perfumed and pumped full of the joys of life. They too share his sense that revolution cannot and should not imperil normal human lives- that it had to go so far, but that it should not go further.

We contrast that vision of revolution with Robespierre's vision. In the play Robespierre first arrives on stage to declaim about terror and virtue. For Robespierre revolution is not a means to remould the system in which men live, but to remould men themselves. Robespierre believes in virtue, disdains the fleshy vices that Danton revels in. Danton's wife contemplates towards the end of the play whether she could save her husband by offering her body to Robespierre's pleasure, but rejects this possibility. The incorruptible is incorruptible and wishes everyone else to be so. Consequently he is quite willing to use terror to create virtue: he is quite willing to execute so that everyone will execute vice. Revolution is not a process to a goal but a process that will continue to the end of time. As human beings are probably not perfect, Robespierre's revolution never ends and whatever he says, he does not mean it to. He is for himself the creator of virtue, for others he is the expression of pain- as an ally of Danton says, the poor have only their pain and a scream which slashes down upon someone's neck.

Two visions of the French Revolution are presented to us- a revolution to help mankind or a revolution to cure it. The play expresses this with dialogue- constant speaking. Almost nothing happens- there are two set pieces the one described in my opening lines and a later one at the end of the play and between them, nothing. This is a play about words and as suits something written in the Romantic era, the words are flowery and often wonderful. One character derides another for example by saying 'he thinks its cool to be a compost heap', another will comment on how death reminds him that human beings are 'Plato's leather bags'. Historical references are flung in as though everyone knows who Hebert is or why Lafayette mattered, what the Girondins were and what the difference between the Club Jacobin and the Club Cordeliers was. That isn't a problem but the play is long and to listen for so long is difficult. These words situate the play at a turning point, or what Buchner the author, thought was a turning point.

I'm not sure that you need to buy this historical analysis or that Danton represented conservatism and Robespierre radicalism in this context to use or understand the play. I think the key point here is the different revolutions; any revolution which seeks to change the condition in which people live is ultimately distinct from one which changes the nature of the people ruled. The latter is a totalitarian ambition, whether clothed in the language of rightwing virtue or leftwing charity, the former is the language of humanitarianism. The play allows us to develop another distinction: what Robespierre argues for is to diminish the value of liberty, to tell someone they should change and you will force them is to deprive them of their liberty. Naturally a modern audience recoils: but he is the more virtuous of the two main characters- Danton is a fornicating drunk who argues for liberty, Robespierre a purist who argues for virtue. There is a lesson in there.

Overall the play is more interesting than entertaining- the performances especially from Robespierre are good but it is hard to keep focussed, especially given the fact that not all of us know our Desmoullins from our St Just. Having said that, the points the play makes are interesting and important. The debate between Robespierre and Danton goes on on both the right and left and has done ever since, a consequence of the development of the modern state, it is not over and I suspect will survive both this play and this reviewer.


Matthew Sinclair said...

I enjoyed the play despite not having your grasp of the history. I found the acting fine enough to make it compelling even with only a vague idea of some of the references. I think we all know enough about the French Revolution to get by and the detailed backstory isn't essential. The actor playing Robespierre did a particularly good job, Danton himself was a bit too obvious.

Sean Jeating said...

As this very German romantic(?!) deserves his name to be mentioned: Georg Büchner.

Gracchi said...

Matt perhaps I was too harsh! I enjoyed hte play though and I don't want it to be imagined that I didn't either!

Sean that was a ridiculous oversight on my part- sometimes comments are better than blogs and that's an example!

Sean Jeating said...

Ah, Gracchi, so glad you did not take it for nitpicking.

Büchner (to me) is one of those I'd like to have grown [sic] older. A fascinating personality.

And as I am at it: Go on!
I am a lazy commenter, but I do like reading what you are writing.

And: I am looking forward to the mugs of tea/pints* of plain we shall have together when next time I shall have the pleasure to be in the London area.

*Means: Not the drinks are important ...

Claude said...

Correct me if I'm wrong. But by "Marseilles", you must have meant the actors sang the French National Anthem: La Marseillaise, which was composed, during the French Revolution, in one night (April 24,1792) by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Ironic that he was a Royalist, refused to sign the Revolution papers, and barely escaped la guillotine.

I wish I could see the play. I'll certainly read it. You make it sound fascinating. I memorised those dates and names at school, in my French Canadian young years. I remember thinking what silly men those revolutionaries were! They killed a whole bunch of nice people, and then, they killed one another. In those days, I much preferred Napoleon's time. Until I matured, did extensive historical reading, and didn't like him any better! Mind you I'm not diminishing the importance of those moments. Just never liked so many useless French deaths.

Actually, I've always been very glad that my roots were in the French Colony, not in the Motherland. And that we managed to get along with the British and formed a quiet, peaceful, somehow boring little country. The Colons also kept the French language, and many traditions alive, without any bloodbath, and without any help from la Vieille France. And we let her go without any regret. At least, in my own heart. Vive le Canada!

À votre santé, Monsieur Gracchi!