Review of Danton's DeathTheatre Journal, March 1983, by Robert F. Gross (Cornell University) August 19, 1982
Although Georg Büchner's Danton's Death has firmly established itself as a canonical text in the college classroom, English-language performances of this sprawling, ambitious play remain rare, and professional productions outside of Germany even rarer still. Therefore, the recent production of the play at the National Theatre has given an admirable opportunity for all who teach or study Büchner's dramatic text to assess it as a work of theatre.
Playwright Howard Brenton has provided a new adaptation which is lively, speakable, and largely faithful to the original. Peter Gill has directed it with care and has been quick to seize on the theatrical potential of the material, often giving the scenes sharp theatrical contours that they lack on the page. The Promenade (II ii) was transformed into a series of witty vignettes, framed by the singing of an appropriately Brechtian beggar. Danton and his comrades were guillotined in full view of the audience, the scene culminating in the decapitation of Danton. Gill also strengthened the final moments of the play. As Lucile was led off, Robespierre entered through the center aisle of the auditorium and silently followed the retreating scaffold into the darkness. This final image told the audience in highly theatrical terms what the history books tell us less evocatively: Robespierre soon fell to the same bloody political death that Danton suffered.
The text is filled with lengthy disquisitions on politics and eros, revolution, virtue, guilt, death and the failure of communication. Some of these reflections were cut, most notably Thomas Payne's discourse on the nonexistence of God and Danton's soliloquy in the field (II iv). Only literary purists can lament the loss of these passages; theatrically the cuts were justified. They helped to keep the audience aware of the play's rapid sequence of historical events, an awareness that can easily be lost amidst the play's leisurely, and often untheatrical, monologues.
The cast handled Büchner's highly ornamented prose with clarity and energy. From Brian Cox's intellectually restless and linguistically playful Danton, through Patrick Drury's cold-blooded and hypnotic Saint-Just, to Frances Viner's straightforward and sensual Marion, the actors successfully resisted the temptation to play mood or to give in to the miasma suggested by Büchner's images of death, non- differentiation, and decay. Keeping a firm hold on the actions of the play, they kept it from degenerating into the proto-existentialist piece of atmospherics critics so often misconstrue it to be. Instead, we were presented with a cast of highly skilled rhetoricians, playing out their destinies on the rostrum of history.
But for all of the National Theatre's efforts, Danton's Death only fitfully came to life. It repeatedly betrayed its origin as a work written for publication, not for production. The play's epic construction was not practically devised for a single architectural setting, as were Shakespeare's plays; Büchner was writing for a theatre of the mind, in which scenes could shift instantaneously without sacrificing either concreteness or wealth of detail. Though Alison Chitty's eminently practical set moved us from one local to another very nicely, the split-second shifts demanded by Büchner's text still could not be realized. As a result, the conclusion of each scene was followed by a loss of intensity not apparent on the printed page.
Furthermore, Büchner's much-lauded "open" dramaturgy proved to be something of a disappointment in production. The audience became interested in Robespierre as a central figure, only to see him unaccountably drop out of the action; Marion's exquisite monologue established a vivid character almost in time for her to vanish. The play meandered without a climax to its ending with Lucile, a character with whom we have had little time to acquaint ourselves and who elicited little interest. She seemed more a literary exercise in Shakespearean madness than a particularized character in a historical drama.
A play, no matter how episodic, needs to culminate in certain passages near its end, passages which bring the accumulated weight of the dramatic action to bear on a certain moment which focuses and clarifies the whole. Few playwrights have been able to structure "open" dramas successfully; Shakespeare, Wedekind, and Brecht are the most notable representatives of that small company. Büchner, unfortunately, is not among them.
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