Danton’s Death is a lyric tragedy, a work of great and expressive beauty. True, on the surface it appears too calm in its development, too negligent in its shifts from private to public life; and yet in the end it is just this slow, careless moving toward death that is the very center of the peculiar power of the play. The paralysis, the static nihilism, the already ruined hopes, the fixed despair of Danton are the astonishingly moving and complicated results of his previous explosion of revolutionary energy. To have brought these two themes together is the glory of Büchner’s conception. The French Revolution is the scenery in which an individual man comes to his last act—the Revolution at that moment when idealism has frozen into corruption and the revolutionary victories are beginning to institutionalize themselves by the Terror and the destruction of the revolutionaries. It is as it was in French history, and of course we know all about the painfully similar road taken by Stalin after the Russian Revolution. Ideology and Terror, as Hannah Arendt says, “one compelling men from within and the other compelling them from without,” have been the fate of almost every country at one time or another. We see at present no relief from Terror in support of Ideology and so there was every clear civic, as well as artistic, reason to open our new “people’s theater” with Danton’s Death.
“I love you like the grave,” Danton says at the very opening of the play. This is the announcement of his theme—death. Danton bears the fiercest scars of the Revolution and of his own violence. He had gone as Carlyle writes, “through seas of blood to Equality, Frugality, worksome Blessedness, Fraternity, and Republic of the virtues. Blessed shore, of such a sea of Aristocrat blood: but how to land on it? Through one last wave…” It is on the one last wave of blood that Danton himself is sinking—or almost the last. The meaning, or meanings, of this were what concerned Büchner when, in 1834 and he was only twenty-one, he wrote Danton’s Death.
Narcissistic fatigue, a weakening of the will to resist have seized the hero of the Revolution. But it is not merely a peculiar, personal despair. It is despair about mankind, a sorrow fringed with carelessness and tolerance. Danton no longer loves the people, but he wants to leave them alone. The questions that had meant everything to him are now meaningless.
Does it matter whether they die on the guillotine or from fever or from old age? The first is even preferable. They tread with supple limbs behind the scenes, and are able to gesticulate prettily as they go off, and hear the spectators clap.
Danton does not value life much now and for that reason he does not want to go on killing others. “I’d rather be guillotined than guillotine. I’ve had enough of it.” The deeds of the …