Revolutionary rhythmsThe Times, July 22, 1982, by Irving Wardle
It has become a comforting academic cliche to state that when the young hothead Georg Büchner sat down in 1835 to write his first play after a dispiriting attempt to rouse the Hessian peasantry, what he produced was a profoundly anti-revolutionary work.
There is no point in denying that Danton's Death gives a very flattering account of the Committee of Public Safety keeping the heads rolling, and of the Paris crowd's readiness to seize on anyone without holes in his coat as a public enemy. But that is only the beginning of the play's response to the Reign of Terror. The crowd are also quick to realize that the blood is a poor substitute for bread; while, on the other side, one can hear Büchner, the scientist's voice behind Saint-Just's speech asking why nature should show any more delicacy in her revolutions than physical nature.
Overshadowing all the play's paradoxes is that of Danton himself; a character of volcanic energy and diversity, who spends most of the action longing for the extinction of individual personality. Julian Hinton gets it right in his recent study of Büchner (Macmillan Modern Dramatists) when he says that the last figure one should compare that lethargic world-changer to is Shakespeare's Antony; and that the play is enlisting history in the service of an internal debate.
Peter Gill's production comes closer than any other version I have seen to capturing this element and justifying the work's indifference to conventional ideas of stage action. It is extremely alert to the rhythmic contrasts between public and private events, to the sense of a fatal past controlling the present, and to the protagonist's inner development from his first scene with his mistress to his last exit where he races up the steps to the guillotine dragging the executioner behind him.
Alison Chitty, Mr. Gill's regular designer, supplies a characteristically bare set consisting of a timbered floor and lofty panels that join and separate to form everything from intimate interiors to the meeting places of the Jacobin Club and the Revolutionary tribunal and finally disclose a fully naturalistic guillotine in all its mechanical elegance.
My first thought was that wood is an inappropriately sympathetic material for such a work as this; but by the end of the evening those blank, smooth anonymous surfaces come to reflect the natural oblivion that Danton desires.
He is a revolutionary leader who got off the juggernaut in mid-course and paid the invariable penalty. The question Büchner asks and which the production illuminates is why he did so.
The impression you receive from Brian Cox, a shaggy Beethoven-like demagogue, is of the steady growth of a quietistic spirit inside the craggy exterior. He is still capable of tremendous bursts of energy; privately with John Normington's Robespierre, and publicly at the trial where he almost turns the tables on his accusers. But Mr. Cox never lets such spasdomic returns to his past overshadow the experience of the present. He fights for his life without any belief or impulse to win: it is a beautiful gesture. Likewise, with Robespierre, he cannot resist proving yet again that he is the better man. But by that time, he is on an entirely different track from those he has abandoned in the mire of public life.
It is the interview with Danton that forces Robespierre into his one moment of agonized self-scrutiny as an unloved inferior.
Otherwise "the Incorruptible" retains his chilling historical mask: a neat, spinsterly figure, standing unshaken before the fury of the crowd, and following up the intemperate speeches of his revolutionary colleagues with icy tirades of mad logic which bring them to their feet cheering.
The play's line of thought and its heroic outline are fully projected, and the new translation (Howard Brenton and Jane Fry) excels in the telling physical detail that sets Büchner off from other romantic dramatists. The supporting parts (honourably excluding Patrick Drury's Saint-Just and Paul Moriarty's Lacroix) could be more interestingly cast, and some of the crowd work is surprisingly patchy.
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