Friday, January 27, 2012

Danton's Death by George Büchner

RobespierreDanton and Marat, by Alfred Loudet, 1882

Nothing impresses me as much as precociousness, and in the list of young geniuses, George Büchner is one of the most impressive. Büchner was only 23 when he died of Typhus on the 19th February 1837. Still, he left a body of work, whose baffling modernity still impresses. “Danton’s death”, “Woyzeck” (of Herzog – Kinski fame) and “Leon and Lena” are all, in their own special way, genuine masterpieces.
Practically unknown in his own century and heavily bowdlerized when published, Büchner has been brought to attention to a larger public by the likes of Brecht, Böll and Grass. Today, his reputation is secured.

“Danton’s death” is a play in four acts, written in the early weeks of 1835, its conception separated a mere forty years, one generation so to say, from the occurrences Büchner describes in his book. 

The play, which has Paris as a setting, during the brutal days of the French revolution, recounts the 13 days, from 24th March to 5 April 1794, that lead to Georges Danton’s public execution. Thirteen days, is a nice symbolic number, which later historical writers will use again to frame moments of high Political significance. 

I never harbored any romantic feelings about the French revolution and its aftermaths. When intellectuals meet the mob, the ugliest things take place. While the intellectuals are ever so surprised that once set in motion, the bloodthirsty mob cannot be stopped or steered, the mob once on the move, soon speeds up its momentum of looting, raping and murdering, venting all the frustrations they have accumulated in their sorry lives.

So, Paris in that “red” year of 1794, is enjoying its “Khmer rouge” moment. The days, Büchner covers in his play, see the ideals of the French revolution turn into the frenzied, genocidal acts of “La Terreur”. Faction after faction is denounced as an enemy of the revolution and their alleged members executed after what is hardly a semblance of jurisdiction. At the moment the play starts, the Girondins have already been taken care of because they were “not revolutionary enough”, and so are the Herbertists, who are accused of being “too revolutionary”. Only Robespierre and Danton are over. Danton is trying to bring the revolution back on track and to return to “normality” in order to start reorganizing the country, but his opponent argues that the country has not been cleaned yet of all anti –revolutionary elements and that Danton is betraying the revolution… 

In the chaos of the French revolution it is difficult to keep one’s bearing. Not only because of the nearly 250 years it is separated from us but also because of the political complexity of the different factions. Even the calendar months and days are altered . Who are we to belief? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys?

Büchner, himself a young political rebel, was fascinated by that carnival of liberty, when liberty was a synonym of lawlessness and chaos, and equality and fraternity just empty slogans. His modernism lays in the fact that, contrary to what was the standard back in the 1840’s, he refused to depict the happenings in a romantic way. No embellishments, just a few raw facts discernable through the interactions of the major players. To make his dialogues as realistic as possible, he literally quotes the conversations, copied from the written testimonials he consults during his extensive research. There is also much lurid talk and sexual innuendos. While it ads to the realism of the play, the reason Büchner inserted it was to distract the critics from his more dangerous political statements. The world had changed since 1789, but many things had not. Büchner risked imprisonment with his book and he did in fact flee Germany to escape the secret police. 

This said, while I agree with the modernity of the play, I find it unfitting for such a grand spectacle as the French revolution was. The play misses more juicy verbal interaction and intellectual gusto. I even missed a few famous quotes from Danton. Where for instance is Danton’s famous prediction “Robespierre, you will follow me!”, he shouted, when the tumbrel carrying the condemned, passed the house of his opponent? Büchner even forsakes to mention Danton’s last words. As Danton stepped up the blood soaked planks towards the guillotine, after witnessing the beheading of his three companions, he reminded the executioner to show his head to the crowd: “N’oublie pas de montrer ma tête au people, elle est bonne à voir” (Show my head to the people, it’s well worth seeing”)

I would have preferred a “Sturm und Drang” rendering of this “Sturm und Drang” period.