Julius Caesar is certainly one of the most shocking of all Shakespeare’s tragedies. Caesar is murdered at the height of his triumphs. A moment before his death, before the last words of his final speech, he compares himself to the northern star “of whose true-fix’d and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (III.i.61–62), and now he is lying bleeding on the steps of the Capitol pierced by the daggers of the Roman senators. Shakespeare saw with the utmost clarity that Caesar’s death is a twofold exemplum, of both history and tragedy, and that it would be played all over again on the steps of many capitols and on the stages of many theaters”…be acted over / In [states] unborn and accents yet unknown!” (III.i.112–113).
For Brecht the last deadly blow given Caesar by Brutus might well be one of those gestures in which history for a split second is frozen in the way a single frame of a film is held on the screen, so that its sense could become transparent and engraved on our memory. There are two tragic actors in the scene of death on the steps of the Capitol at high noon: Caesar and Brutus. The tragedy is called Julius Caesar, but Caesar dies in the middle of Act III, almost exactly halfway through the drama. In political and rhetorical treatises, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing through the entire Renaissance until after the English and French revolutions, Brutus is portrayed both as a regicide—for the audacious deed of raising his hand against the Lord’s anointed he is cast, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, to the very bottom of hell next to Judas—and as a tyrannicide, the defender of liberty, the patron saint of revolutionary terror.
If the tragedy had ended in Act III with the murder of Caesar and the funeral ceremonies, Caesar would have been its only protagonist. Had it ended in Act V with Brutus committing suicide by running on his own sword, Brutus would have been the secondary and perhaps even the primary actor, and the tragedy could have been called Brutus. But there are other principal actors. Cassius, the fanatical hater, the bribe giver and taker, knows only too well that the end justifies the means. He alone could have saved the Republic, but what kind of republic would it have been? Then there is Mark Antony, a Renaissance type of politician with many faces, a rhetorician, a tactician, and a pragmatist who sides with the Caesars. And finally the most enigmatic character in the play, the one who always appears at the end, Octavius, Julius’ successor, the new, faceless Caesar.
A historical tragedy depends for its meaning largely on what happens at the beginning and the end. In the first scene we find tribunes vainly trying to persuade the tradesmen celebrating Caesar’s triumph in the streets to go back to work. Not long before the same men had celebrated Pompey’s triumph, and now they celebrate the man “that comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” (I.i.51). They throw their caps into the air the way the rabble of London celebrated Essex after his triumphal return from his victory over the Spanish Armada, and then again when he was led to the scaffold. Shakespeare knew how to begin and end his selection from history with cut-off heads. In Julius Caesar the reenacted history begins with the end of the first Triumvirate and ends with the beginning of the autocracy of Octavius. Octavius gives the command for Brutus to be buried with all honors, but in the meantime he keeps Brutus’ body in his own tent. But the new Caesar does not stop there; he continues: “So call the field to rest, and let’s away, / To part the glories of this happy day” (V.v.80–81). The murder of Julius Caesar ends with the words “this happy day.”
A strange ending for a tragedy. But Hamlet, written two years later, also ends in much the same way. Fortinbras also gives the command for military honors to be paid the corpse of the Prince of Denmark, but he places himself on the Danish throne. “The rest is silence.” No. The rest is Fortinbras. When Horatio attempts to talk to the mourners about the prince in Ingmar Bergman’s recent unorthodox production of Hamlet, Fortinbras pulls out a revolver and shoots Horatio on the spot. Witnesses to the past are unwanted. For Fortinbras, too, it is a “happy day.” Bergman made Hamlet a contemporary: in his reading of the play history itself is a tragic hero, as it is in Julius Caesar.
For the twenty-two-year-old Georg Büchner Julius Caesar was the model of historical tragedy; or perhaps it would be better to say that for Büchner Julius Caesar was the model not of historical tragedy, but of the tragedy of history. And for that reason Büchner could undertake his own version of Julius Caesar, transposing it, in Danton’s Death,* into the drama of revolution. At a midnight meeting of the conspirators Brutus says:
Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
. . .
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds;
. . .
…to the common eyes,
We shall be call’d purgers, not murderers.
Brutus wants to put Caesar’s body on the altar of the Republic, to change murder into a ritual in which the sacrificial lamb is offered up to save Rome. “Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers.” The spirit has no blood, but the sacrificial lamb bleeds. Shakespeare knows that ritual is still murder. The same pure Brutus who, one hour before sunrise on the day of the murder, had talked about Caesar’s death as an act of cleansing, the way a surgeon wearing antiseptic gloves talks about an operation, now, when the deed is done, lifts his bloody hands over Caesar’s body. After the murder, a new Brutus is born—an ideologue.
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords;
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place…
In Danton’s Death Saint-Just is the deputy who speaks first, when he urges Robespierre to take part in the murder of their fellow revolutionaries, Danton and his circle. He repeats almost exactly Brutus’ words, which Shakespeare took from Plutarch: “We must bury the great corpse with proper decorum, like priests, not murderers. We dare not chop it up, all its limbs must fall with it.” When Robespierre interrupts him—“Speak more clearly”—Saint-Just becomes the counterpart of Cassius, who demanded that Antony be done away with along with Caesar. “We must bury him in full armor and slaughter his horses and slaves on his burial ground” (I.vi).
Shakespeare’s Brutus calls Caesar’s murderers “the purgers.” In the first act of Danton’s Death Robespierre and Saint-Just draw up the list of names for the great purge of the Terror. One after the other they put down the names of the deputies of the Convention, the Jacobins, the old comrades, including Camille Desmoulins, the legendary editor of the Vieux Cordelier and Robespierre’s schoolmate and friend: he had dared to call the “Incorruptible,” Robespierre, the “Messiah of Blood.” “Then quickly, tomorrow,” says the new Brutus of the Revolution. “No long death agony! I’ve become sensitive lately. Quickly!” And Büchner adds, in the spirit of Macbeth: “Only the dead do not return,” an ill-fated prophecy.
Büchner was not the first to show how the French Revolution wore the costume of republican Rome. But more penetratingly and more sharply than Marx, for instance, Büchner revealed for what sort of masquerade and for what purpose that costume, and the Roman names and gestures, were intended. In Act I, scene two of Danton’s Death, as in Shakespeare, the action takes place in the streets. A drunken theater prompter mercilessly beats his wife while he is reciting some fragments from Hamlet and shouting at the passers-by: “A knife, give me a knife, Romans!” He calls his wife alternately a whore and Baucis. His daughter, Lucretia, is standing on the corner. “Would you have a pair of pants to pull up,” the new Baucis asks her husband, “if the young gentlemen didn’t pull theirs down with her?”
In the street scene of Julius Caesar the Roman rabble, enraged by Caesar’s murder, attacks Cinna the poet instead of the conspirator bearing the same name. In the street scene of Danton’s Death the citizens drag to the lamppost a passer-by who happens to have a handkerchief around his neck. “Our wives and children cry out for bread. We want to feed them with the flesh of aristocrats. Hey! Kill anyone without a hole in his coat!”
Less than a year before writing Danton’s Death Büchner founded, in his native Giessen, “The Society for the Rights of Man,” an organization intended to prepare the ground for the “revolution,” and in “The Hessian Messenger” (Der Hessiche Landbote), of which he was the publisher, he declared, “Freedom for the huts! Wars to the palaces!” Now, with all the bitterness of defeat, convinced of the implacable fatalism of history and abandoning Schiller for Shakespeare, Büchner did not forget that people were hungry. It was the same in Hesse, which was ruled by feudal princes, as it had been in Paris during the Revolution. Instead of bread, Revolution could offer only heads falling into the basket from the guillotine.
“The weapon of the Republic is terror, the power of the Republic is virtue,” says Robespierre. “Virtue, for without it terror is corruptible. Terror, for without it, virtue is powerless.” Büchner extracted from Robespierre’s speeches their essence—a corrosive essence, one might say. In Danton’s Death Büchner, one hundred years before Orwell, was one of the first writers to reveal the newspeak of terror.
Terror is an outgrowth of virtue…. The revolutionary government is the despotism of freedom against the tyranny of Kings.
In this chilling semantic system words can be inverted at will. Kindness turns into crime and crime into kindness. “To punish the oppressors of mankind is kindness—to pardon them is barbarity.” The despotism of freedom differs from the despotism of kings only in the different heads that fell from the guillotine, just as the difference between “internationalism” and “cosmopolitanism” can be measured by the thousands who perished in Lubyanka prison or rotted in the labor camps. It is quite possible that Büchner found this appalling semantics not only in the words of Robespierre but also in those of Shakespeare’s Brutus. Consider Brutus’ speech over Caesar’s body:
…then is death a benefit;
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridg’d
His time of fearing death.
The horror of this stupefying sentence, which must be breathtaking when delivered by a great actor, became clear to me only when Büchner’s Robespierre says, “To punish the oppressors of mankind is kindness.” But Büchner unveiled in Robespierre’s speeches not only the semantics of terror but also its deadly logic. “The internal enemies of the Republic consist of two factions, like two armies.” The relentless repetitious quality of this logic seems to define the terror. “One of the factions,” Robespierre continues,
no longer exists. In its presumptuous insanity it tried to throw aside the most proven patriots as worn-out weaklings in order to rob the Republic of its strongest arms. It declared war on God and property in order to create a division on behalf of the kings. It parodied the illustrious drama of the Revolution in order to compromise it through premeditated excesses. Hébert’s triumph would have turned the Republic into chaos, and despotism would have been satisfied. The sword of judgment has struck the traitor down.
It is not necessary to bring Robespierre’s logic up to date; it is already modern enough. Two factions, two deviations, both enemies of the people. The other faction, Robespierre goes on, “is the opposite of the first. It leads us to weakness; its battle cry is: mercy!” After the Trotskyites we have Zinoviev and the followers of Bukharin; after Hébert and the Hébertistes we have Danton.
There is then a brief exchange which also needs no updating. We have heard it all too often.
Robespierre: Whoever said that an innocent person was struck down?
Danton: Do you hear that Fabricius? No innocent person was killed!
The twenty-two-year-old Büchner shows not only the logic of terror, but the face of the Incorruptible as well. Here again one thinks of Büchner’s apprenticeship with Shakespeare. Sleep has abandoned Robespierre, just as it did Brutus that night full of “figures and fantasies” before the murder of Caesar or Macbeth after killing the king. Robespierre looks out the window at Paris.
I can’t tell what part of me is deceiving the other. Night snores over the earth and wallows in wild dreams…. Aren’t we sleepwalkers?
At that moment, enter Saint-Just, the archangel of terror. A maid brings a lighted candelabra. Death sentences are soon being signed. Even the closest friends must perish. Robespierre is once more left alone. A new day breaks. The guillotine erected at the Place de la Révolution can be seen from the window. “They’re all leaving me—all is desolate and empty—I am alone.” Robespierre brushes off his jacket. From early childhood he has hated dirt. His face is almost white. He has powdered it again. He smiles. And one thinks not only of dozens of portraits of Robespierre but of a famous smile in Shakespeare: “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” (Hamlet, I.v).
In Danton’s Death the guillotine appears on the stage only at the denouement, but its presence can be felt throughout the play. If I were to stage Danton’s Death, the guillotine would always be there, looming over the actors and the spectators alike, since in this kind of a theater the spectators become the actors.
In Act I, scene one, the conversations take place as cards are being shuffled and fall on a card table. “Did it rain while they were guillotining or did you get a bad seat and not see anything?” But who guillotined whom? “They” did, but who are “they”? At the card table Hérault-Séchelles talks with Camille Desmoulins and Philippeau. Danton sits nearby. All three are deputies to the Convention. So who are “they”—the guillotiners or the guillotined? The game is being played with cards falling on the table like the severed heads that fell in the Place de la Révolution during the first week of April 1794. In Büchner’s play, as in Shakespeare’s histories, time passes at variable speeds, only the hours of the day or night are given precisely. But the precise historical dates are important to the play. In October 1793, during the trial of Marie Antoinette, Hébert heaped abuse upon the queen and demanded her immediate execution. Six months later, in the fourth week of March 1794—and therefore no more than a week before the card game we see—Danton sent Hébert to the guillotine. Only a few days after the rainy morning when Philippeau got a bad seat at the Place de la Revolution and had difficulty seeing the guillotining, he was himself executed along with Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Hérault-Séchelles, at the same hour, the difference being that now it was easier to see.
The spectators, those sending others to the guillotine, and the guillotined, change rapidly at the Place de la Révolution. The guillotine was called “the great widow.” “She has had at least a half-dozen husbands,” Desmoulins wrote at an unguarded moment, “and she had to bury them all.” “On couche avec, on ne la féconde pas,” wrote Victor Hugo in his novel 93. (“Men lie with her, but she does not become pregnant.”) On days when it stood idle, the guillotine was covered with a white sheet. Like an altar. “The Revolution,” Büchner’s Saint-Just says in a speech to the Convention,
is like the daughters of Pelias: it cuts humanity in pieces to rejuvenate it. Humanity will rise up with mighty limbs out of this cauldron of blood, like the earth out of the waters of the Flood, as if it had been newly created.
At this point the deputies give Saint-Just a long, standing ovation. At the same meeting of the Convention Saint-Just asks for Danton’s head.
That same night, or perhaps it was the night before, neither Robespierre nor Danton was able to sleep. In this sudden dramatic kinship between Danton and Robespierre, we can sense the shadow of Shakespeare’s Brutus, with his nightly specters. Now it is Danton’s turn to stand at the window looking out at Paris. And he hears voices coming from outside, or perhaps he hears them within himself: “September, September!” During the first days of September 1792, the sans-culottes massacred thousands of prisoners in Paris and the provinces.
Julie: The Kings [of the invading countries] were just forty hours from Paris…
Danton: We killed them. That was not murder, that was internal war.
Julie: You saved the country.
“The guillotine is an instrument of division,” writes the contemporary French historian François Furet, “separating the good from the bad.” It should be added that by means of this instrument of division the good would invariably turn into the bad, and patriots into traitors. In this theater of revolution, we and “they”—spectators, those sending others to the guillotine and the guillotined—all change places, sometimes during a single week. In Danton’s Death the guillotine cuts off Danton’s head; in actual history, less than six months after Danton’s execution, it cuts off Robespierre’s head. In Büchner’s play the guillotine, along with Danton and Robespierre, is the third protagonist of the drama. It destroyed the Revolution that it was supposed to save. The fearsome widow has two faces: that of a savior and that of an executioner.
In the last scene of Danton’s Death, the day after the excecution, the widow of Camille Desmoulins, who was executed along with Danton, sits on the steps of the guillotine:
Lucille: (Reflectively, then suddenly as if reaching a decision) Long Live the King!
Citizen: In the name of the Republic! (She is surrounded by the watch and is led off.)
Historical tragedy depends on the choice of historical sequence. In Danton’s Death the action starts a week, or perhaps even only a few days, before his execution, but the decisive historical dates that stand behind the play are recited by Saint-Just: “the 14th of July, the 10th of August, the 31st of May”—the storming of the Bastille, the dethroning of Louis XVI, the seizure of power by the Jacobins. Lucille’s suicidal scream ends Act IV, and Danton’s Death has no Act V. In the entire history of the theater, starting with Greek tragedy which is divided into five episodes, through the Renaissance and up to the German and French romantics, I know of no other instance of a drama in four acts that still works on the stage. There always have been either three acts or five acts. What happened to Act V in Büchner’s play?
Roman Jacobson calls the absence of a foot or a part of it at the end of a line of verse a zero sign—a sign signifying an absence. Barthes has written about how “nonpresence” can be a sign of presence—the letter that does not arrive, the telephone that does not ring. In a theatrical performance, an unwritten Act V goes on existing as an expectation. In historical drama, it is history still open, also as though suspended.
In Danton’s Death Robespierre’s execution is foreshadowed, or, rather, foretold. During the final night before his own execution Danton says to his fellow prisoners: “Freedom will now respectably prostitute herself in the marriage bed of the lawyer of Arras [Robespierre]. But I imagine she’ll play Clytemnestra to him. I don’t give him six months. I’m dragging him down with me.”
The nonexistent Act V could have turned on Robespierre’s execution. The piece of history being reenacted would have started with the destruction of the Bastille, or at least with the September massacres, and would have ended with Thermidor. Danton’s Death then could have had an ending comparable to the denouement of Julius Caesar. “Take away the corpses and let soldiers pitch their tents at the Place de la Révolution,” the future first consul could say, still wearing his general’s uniform with its white, tightly fitting trousers and the three-cornered hat of the revolutionary army. But he has already put his hand over his breast in celebration of his first victory.
So call the field to rest, and let’s away,
To part the glories of this happy day.
(Julius Caesar, V.v.80–81)
In the nonexistent Act V of Danton’s Death, history continues to move ahead, constantly digging like Shakespeare’s “old mole”—“A worthy pioneer!” (Hamlet, I.v), but its real conclusion would not be Thermidor, the end of the Reign of Terror and the beginning of Caesarism. For Büchner the time of the Terror did not end with Robespierre’s beheading. In that unwritten Act V of Danton’s Death, the bitter chapter of history would continue, but when would it end? With what sort of new defeat after what kind of new revolution? For the first readers of Danton’s Death in the mid-1830s, and even for its first spectators in Berlin in 1902, Lucile’s suicidal scream on the steps of the scaffold had a sinister irony. Kings were already reigning “in the name of the Republic.” And Act V goes on still, “le temps des assassins,” the time of uninterrupted terror.
—translated by Jadwiga Kosicka
October 12, 1989