Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner, directed by Michael Grandage, at the National Theatre, London

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Eleanor Matsuura as Marion and  Toby Stephens as Georges Danton in Danton's Death, The National Theatre 2010. Photo Johan Persson.

Eleanor Matsuura as Marion and Toby Stephens as Georges Danton in Danton’s Death, The National Theatre 2010. Photo Johan Persson.

Danton’s Death
by Georg Büchner
Adapted by Howard Brenton

National Theatre
Directed by Michael Grandage
Designer – Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Music and Sound – Adam Cork

David Beames – Gen. Billon
Max Bennett – Hérault-Seychelles
Stefano Braschi – Citizen
Kirsty Bushell – Julie
Jason Cheater – Citizen
Judith Coke – Duplay
Emmanuella Cole – Citizen
Ilan Goodman – Lyonnais
Taylor James – Citizen
Michael Jenn – Herman
Phillip Joseph – Barrere
Barnaby Kay (as Camille Desmoulins) – Camille
Gwilym Lee – Lacroix
Elliot Levey – as Robespierre
Eleanor Matsuura – Marion
Elizabeth Nestor – Elizabeth
Alec Newman – as Saint-Just
Chu Omambala – Collot d;Herbois
Rebecca O’Mara – Lucile
Rebecca Scroggs – Eleonore
David Smith – David Smith
Toby Stephens –  Danton
Jonathan Warde – Citizen
Ashley Zhangazha – Legendre

Bloody philosophes. The French Revolution was not the most monstrous of its kind. In World War II Hitler beheaded more people with portable guillotines in Vienna than the tumbrels delivered in Paris. But it survives as a lasting emblem of the fall of reason. That the society of Voltaire and Diderot could descend into the mindless savagery of the Reign of Terror prefigured Freud’s gloomy conclusion that civilization is a thin veneer painted over atavistic brutality. In the shattering drama, Danton’s Death, the point is made more trenchantly when the hero declares that sanity itself is a fragile construction, a bubble that bursts when the true nightmare of life reveals itself. This was essentially the world view of Georg Büchner — we see it reinforced in his better-known Woyzeck (largely thanks to Alban Berg’s operatic adaptation as Wozzeck), in which the schizophrenia of a common soldier is played upon by the equally mad but socially acceptable devices of his superiors.

In the first scene of Danton’s Death, the hero is lying in the arms of a prostitute, who makes cooing sounds about wanting to be close to him. With clinical coldness he replies that to really be close, he’d have to open her brain and pick through her thoughts. No surprise that Büchner, trained as a physician, did major work in comparative anatomy.

He also proves to be a ruthless anatomist of the revolutionary era, able to capture the eloquence of fanaticism and the poetry of butchery. Danton and Robespierre become sworn enemies, but the cold ascetic tactician and the flamboyant louche firebrand are two sides of the same unhinged cruelty. Büchner (who wrote the play in five weeks in 1835 when he was twenty-one and died two years later at twenty-three, younger than Keats by three years) had gotten into trouble for his own revolutionary activities. He intimately knew the horror of bloodied idealism, and when the crazed Saint-Just, the most disturbing Jacobin in the play, cries, “We are not here to die for liberty, we are here to kill for liberty,” the reverberation in modern history is terrifying.

Currently the National Theatre is putting on an imperfect rethink of Danton’s Death. Michael Grandage, the director of London’s prestigious boutique stage, the Donmar Warehouse (which gave us Jude Law’s Hamlet last year in Grandage’s astute production), is making a belated debut at the National. In the interest of maximizing the manic intensity of the play, he trimmed its four hours to two. Every scene is now about Danton and his wild swings between swagger, sensuality, flaming rhetoric, exhaustion, and torment — a man living in the shadow of the guillotine even before it becomes his fate.

With a spare black set, no intermission, and a structure based on twenty short blackout scenes, the staging relentlessly hurtles us forward. We know from history that execution awaited Georges Jacques Danton (1759-94), whom Carlyle called “the titan of the Revolution.” but how can one glorify a man who was devoured by the violence he helped to instigate? Throughout the play Danton boasts of his bona fides as the leader who inflamed the September massacres of 1792, when the mob murdered 1,200 prisoners in Paris as “traitors” to the new regime. It all sounds like material for a shivery horror story, but Büchner turns Danton’s downfall into arguably the greatest historical drama since Shakespeare, and even Shakespeare doesn’t write at such a pitch of sustained psychological frenzy. For those of us who have never seen the play, Grandage’s short sharp shocks were powerful and effective. As for the German original, Dantons Tod must be the greatest masterpiece that the fewest English speakers ever read.

This production is fortunate in having a poisonously pious Robespierre in Elliott Levey –his slim, weasely menace is chilling — and a model of psychopathy masquerading as revolutionary fervor in the Saint-Just of Alec Newman. Danton is first cousin to Andrea Chénier from Giordano’s opera, a free spirit who can only survive through untrammeled liberty. We needed a viscerally powerful actor for Danton, a young Liam Neeson or George C. Scott, whose thundering rhetoric could shake the world; instead, the handsome but vocally slight Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens) looked as leonine as a corsair out of Delacroix but sounded like a weekend sailor.

The thrust of language is visceral from the beginning. Danton raging against Robespierre is like Lear raging against the storm, magnificent in its futility. I wish I could tell which part of Danton’s style is owed to Büchner and which part to the dashing translation by Howard Brenton. There are many epigrams (“Life is a whore — she does it with the whole world”) and memorable images in plenty (as when a condemned prisoner mourns that he might have died easily “like a falling star, a musical note fading away, or a ray of sunlight disappearing in the water”), but when Liberty is personified as a drowning maiden with her skirts billowing around her, one wonders if Büchner or Brenton is the one who wants us to think of Ophelia. Brenton worked from a word-by-word translation made by another hand; in most such cases, one suspects that literalism is closer to the author’s expression. Yet surely Büchner is responsible for the sustained poetic eloquence of Danton and his friends, who speak as one voice, as opposed to the blood-curdling deviousness of Robespierre and the Jacobins.

Alec Newman (centre) as Saint-Just with members of the company in Danton's Death, The National Theatre 2010. Photo Johan Persson.

Alec Newman (centre) as Saint-Just with members of the company in Danton’s Death, The National Theatre 2010. Photo Johan Persson.

In the final scene of Grandage’s staging he filches a trick from the magician’s box. A guillotine towers over the stage, and we actually see the heads of Danton and his condemned friends lopped off. The audience gasps; some laugh nervously. It is perhaps too cheap, a jab at Grand Guignol. The theater goes black; no more words follow. It takes a moment for us to realize that the play is over. I came away shuddering, as we are meant to, but also musing about a different theme from Freud, the twining closeness of Eros and Thanatos.

Büchner makes believable Danton’s passion for death, even though he is a confirmed atheist and expects only nothingness. The obvious defiant model is Byron, but Byron was unfortunate to fall for his own pose. He joined an actual cause, dying in a miasma of mosquitoes and disappointment at Missolonghi. Büchner’s Danton is beyond posing. He is as ruthless in his hedonism as in his zeal for freedom, and since both lead to self-destruction, his fate is sealed. Love and death are necessary to enlarge him. In that regard Danton’s Death is frightening not because it concerns the Reign of Terror, but the reign of desire. Danton plays out the ordinary drives of the ego (he declares, with simple banality, that everyone is only after what feels good), but when your anger has killed thousands — including a king — and your lust makes you a traitor to the purity of the revolution, the ordinary world vanishes, replaced by existential dread. Büchner saw dread as an inescapable fact, and when he was dying of typhus at such a tragically young age, he must have felt it keenly, although his tongue was too swollen to form words.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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