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 Revolution have brought him to this point, that and a radical uncertainty about life itself. “A mistake was made in the creating of us; something’s lacking in us. I don’t know the name for it.”
Neither love nor sex subdues ennui. The Absurd and le Néant (a word used by both the historical and dramatic Danton) poison hope. A bitter rationalism alternates with a romantic, nostalgic weariness.
How tedious it is always to have to put one’s shirt on first and then pull up one’s trousers; to spend the night in bed and then in the morning have to crawl out again and always place one foot in front of the other—and no one ever imagines it could be otherwise It’s very sad; millions have already done so and millions more are destined to do so; and besides that we consist of two halves, each doing the same thing, so everything happens twice—it’s very sad.
After the revolutionary fervor, there is nothing left except sensuality, disillusionment, and death.
Perhaps this is the moment to face up to the disabled production of Danton’s Death Herbert Blau has put on at Lincoln Center. That the Danton Büchner has imagined is of surpassing interest will come as a surprise to those who know the play only from this new rendering. Alan Bergmann, as Danton, is a mistake of the most thoroughgoing, the most devastating, order. From the moment he comes on the stage the production is doomed. He is charmless, monotonous, and boring from the first moment to the last. Carlyle calls Danton “A gigantic mass of valor, ostentation, fury, affectation and wild revolutionary force and manhood.” Nothing of the historical person is suggested by Bergmann and nothing of Büchner’s character, who is less robust and more romantic. The Danton of Büchner is coarse, but there is also about him a sweetness, mystery, and grace. The proper casting of this role is the first concern of the play—and what can one say except that THIS WAS NOT NECESSARY.
Still, what is the virtue in insulting actors? The injury done to a noble and complicated play was the grief of the evening. The men of the press go to the classics all nude and fresh and seem to greet each play as if it were written yesterday on Central Park West. Many of them pronounced the banality of the evening to be equally shared by Blau and Büchner and one had the idea they were sending the heroic young genius, who died in 1837, back to some play-writing class at The New School. One reviewer remarked that it would help to know something about the French Revolution, but he did not explain what it was that held the knowledge at bay. Still it is not too hard to figure out the answer.
Danton’s drama is to wait, with a cold sophistication and an elaborate selfconsciousness, for his execution. He has himself been an executioner. He knows the nature of power and its readiness to destroy. A curious lassitude sweeps over him. He has learned the lessons of his own political experience. The famous “Ils n’oseraient” is merely a gesture. Of course they will dare and who knows better than he? Carlyle reminds us that Danton had every vice except cant. In his refusal to make a truly meaningful effort at self-defense he has our sympathy. Indeed Robespierre himself will soon show this same sweep of lassitude, the same collapse of the will as he gives a sort of consent to his own execution. We find, or rather we feel, some hint of surrender, also, in Stalin’s victims. Of course the power of the Terror speaks most clearly to those who have used it; others, the innocent and the weak, it takes by surprise. Yet, there is the possibility of some deeper root to the paralysis; it appears almost as an unconscious act of atonement. The careless manner in which Danton goes to his death is a comment upon all those other deaths. The blood of the revolutionaries atones for the blood they have shed in the service of Idea. The orderly sequence of nature seems to be, at least for a time, restored by their atoning deaths.
The crimes behind Danton’s disillusionment are terrible. From Salvemini’s French Revolution a few “minor” instances: “…the Princess of Lamballe was killed on the morning of the 3rd at the Force, and her body subjected to abominable abuse. Her head, struck off and fixed upon a pike, was paraded by a howling mob beneath the Queen’s window…Forty-three boys, aged from twelve to fourteen and detained at their parent’s request, were put to death. ‘The poor boys were dispatched with difficulty for at that age, life is tenacious…there was one who looked like a sleeping angel, but the others were horribly mutilated.”’ We know from his letters that Büchner, young as he was, was tortured by the awful questions raised by the French Revolution. Danton’s mood in the play is fascinating because every action, even love-making, or particularly love-making perhaps, is darkened by questions that, alas, are still ours.
All critics have remarked upon the striking modernity of Büchner’s ideas, his “alienation,” and his “existentialism.” This play and his other great work, Woyzeck, touch our lives at every aching point. The intellectual and poetic seriousness of the dialogue is uniquely exciting. In Danton’s Death, Thomas Paine says, “One can deny evil but not pain, only the understanding can accept God, the feeling rebels against him…Why do I suffer? That is the rock of atheism. The least twinge of pain,…rends your creation from top to bottom.” (When those unimportant-looking men are milling about the stage at Lincoln Center these are the ideas they are discussing!)
Power, political rhetoric in the service of tyranny, personal despair, sensual disillusionment, courage, neurotic weariness, the abyss, Nothingness: these themes, created in a natural and beautiful language, should have brought to our stage a great moment of enlightenment and beauty. Just remember the lovely lines: “The stars are scattered through the night like glistening teardrops; what a terrible grief must be behind the eyes that dropped them.” In the production, Blau did not seem to have any ideas of his own or to be solicitous about the abundance of ideas to be found in the text. A sort of tarpaulin fell over the whole enterprise, coarsely covering the poetry, the subtlety of characterization, the seriousness of the philosophical questions.
Take for instance the crowd. Might we not have had something new from the mob, something of its cruel silence, its monumental forgetfulness of its own sufferings. Anything except the same old cackling, milling, and nudging. And Robespierre, that dry, unpleasant man, Carlyle’s “sea-green formula”: he was well-enough played by Robert Symonds, made up to look like McGeorge Bundy, but the interpretation was perfectly routine, conventional, and finally uninteresting. Or the speech made by Marian in the love scene with a Danton, who is stripped to the waist, but who unfortunately achieves nothing of increased interest by the way of bare midriff and visible shoulder. This interesting speech, off-hand, reflective, is delivered with a disintegrating rush of breathless intensity, the old Broadway “serious” manner.
Few of the actors have any sense of style, except Roscoe Lee Brown, who gives his scenes as Saint-Just an interesting pace and authority. Most of all one regrets the sheer present in which the actors seem fated to live no matter what the role may be. The ability to look backward, whether it be learned in the study of the craft of acting, or gained by some individual gift of imagination, seems to be pitifully lost on our stage. The smothering contemporaneity is always there like the smog outside. It is this lack of historical feeling that makes our attempt to do the classics always seem amateurish. They are indeed up there, dressed to the nines in period drag, but still themselves, today’s waifs. And because of this inadequacy, the great guillotine trundles up to the front stage and, clump, clump, clump, go the heads of our tragic heroes and we feel no more than if a stapler had pierced a piece of paper.
An attack of heartache coming out of the theater. Another fiasco. One felt like some poor old Tommy Manville, ever hoping, ever failing, ever paying off. A theater-lover! Year after year, morosely muttering about those patriots who wait in their overshoes in lines on the cold silvery mornings in the paper-strewn side streets, dutifully hoping to find their seats in the nightly gatherings of the consensus. No, no, that is their business. And you, off through those same cold, fluorescent nights, now downtown, here to the West, there to the East, in absurd pursuit. Year after year, and some gains of course, a few evenings of joy, many more of interest. Yet, never to be quite prepared somehow. The disappointment of Danton’s Death—how sharp it still can be! The messianic hope, struggle against it as we will, had risen once more, filling the heart with promise. The day came and there was no sign in the sky. The kingdom had been deferred again.