Thursday, 2 September 2010
Bring me the head of Danton
I was twenty-one when I read Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death), the same age when Georg Büchner wrote it. I only picked it up in an attempt to improve my German but quickly realised that this was something exceptional, an extraordinary play by an extraordinary writer, who died aged only twenty-three in February 1837. Dantons Tod, set during the most climatic and turbulent period of the French Revolution, was the only one of his plays to be published during his lifetime, though in a heavily censored version. Even then, such were the radical themes it touched on, it had to wait until 1902 before it was premiered in his native Germany.
Yes, I’ve read the play, and I loved what I read though I had never seen it performed – until now. London’s National Theatre is currently staging a new production by Michael Grandage, scheduled to run until mid-October. Given that this is the first performance of the play since 1982, four years before I was born, it was clearly an opportunity that I could not miss, though Howard Benton's adaptation has involved some radical pruning, reducing Büchner’s original quite considerably. Nevertheless, it’s still a fairly intense two hours of political drama, without intervals, I should warn you.
In its publicity the National has described Danton’s Death as “the greatest political tragedy ever written.” There is an element of hyperbole here, in that such plays as Julius Caesar and Macbeth stand in the same pantheon, but it’s one that I’m not uncomfortable with. It has a sweep, a romantic and tragic grandeur that in some ways exceeds Shakespeare, looking forward to the great political and ideological contests of the modern age. That’s the first thing that struck me when I read it – how modern if felt.
The play is about a struggle, a struggle of ideas and a struggle of personalities. Toby Stephens plays Georges Danton, in some ways the Lenin of the French Revolution. But unlike Lenin Danton was no puritan; life was for living, and living was to enjoy the good things of life, no matter how they happen to come to one.
The action opens in the spring of 1794, in the midst of the Reign of Terror. Danton has had enough: he wants the bloodshed to stop; it no longer serves any useful purpose, so far as he is concerned. He is also a haunted man, haunted by the prospect of his own death at the hands of the revolutionary purists, haunted by his own bloody past, which included responsibility for the September Massacres of 1792.
The purists are troubled by no such qualms of conscience. Headed by Maximilian Robespierre, played by Elliot Levy, and his protégé Louis Antoine Saint-Just, played by Alec Newman, they believe that Terror is the road to virtue. They are pure and ascetic as Danton is corrupt and venal, but it is the pure and the ascetic who are responsible for so much of the horror and unhappiness of life, these monsters of the idea, as the play effectively demonstrates.
Stephens was good as Danton, though there were points when I felt that he was walking, like a child, in the shoes of a much bigger man, a measure perhaps of the French Revolutionary than the English actor. I simply do not see his Danton as the “Titan of the Revolution”, a title accorded to him by Thomas Carlyle.
Levy was good as the priggish and fastidious Robespierre, the one historical figure for whom I retain a particular loathing, but not nearly as good as Newman in the part of Saint-Just, as chilly a fanatic who ever lived, in many ways the real agent of the Terror, with none of the self-doubt of his mentor.
For me it’s a sign of Büchner’s genius that the play manages to convey so much on so many levels. Yes, it’s about a struggle of political ideas and practices, but there is also the psychological struggle between the main protagonists, intensely played out at points.
There is also something dreadfully frustrating about the character of Danton that he manages to convey, a man of action no longer capable of action, a man seduced by overweening confidence in his own importance, his own indispensability, all this overlaid by a fatalist surrender to an inevitable destiny. Danton made history, but as he himself puts it, history has “a way of biting you on the arse.” Büchner understood that, when it comes to the greater drama, human actions, the actions of any given individual, inevitably reach the point of irrelevance. Here Danton is at the point of personal and historical irrelevance.
I have no hesitation in saying that this is a play of more than historical interest, a play with a relevant contemporary message. In a sense we continue to live in the age of Saint-Just, the age of the fanatic, from Pol Pot to the Taliban, those who would drown life in purity and virtue, no matter the cost. Oh, I should add that the guillotining at the end is chilling realistic; so either avert your eyes…or bring your knitting needles.