… means and ends …
Buchner’s early 19th-century play (1835), in its new version by Brenton, portrays on one level the interpersonal dynamics of the reign of terror of the French Revolution, and on a deeper level the tragic consequences of an ideologue-at-work, Robespierre, who places concept over humanity. Danton, as brilliantly played by Toby Stephens, mistakenly believes that his past services to the Revolution and his reputation as a revolutionary will secure his future. He does not grasp the full consequences of Robespierre’s single-minded pursuit of “political cleansing”. But, as Robespierre says at Danton’s trial, “He [Danton’s friend Lacroix] thinks a special privilege is attached to that name. We want no privileges, we want no false gods!”
Speeches in this play are drawn from the archives of the actual events. It’s fascinating and frightening that the things said make a kind of weird, Faustian, sense. In the oration at the end of the trial, Robespierre’s ally on the Committee of Public Safety, Saint-Juste, whips up the assembly with fundamentalist fervor:
We still have a few clauses to complete our sentence. Are a few more corpses going to stop us? Moses led his people across the Red Sea and the desert and let the old, corrupt generation die out before he founded his new state. We do not have the Red Sea or the desert, we have war and the guillotine.
In the face of the insight and dramatic ability of the 22-year old playwright Georg Buchner, who left us also the brilliant and unfinished Woyzeck, one can only wonder, what would he have achieved had he not died of typhus a year after completing Danton’s Death, at age 23?
A theatergoer in a seat at the National Theatre — yet one feels one’s witnessing the events in Paris in 1794. At the same time, and with benefit of hindsight, we’re left to ponder that what happened then has repeated itself many times — times unknown to Danton, Robespierre, and Buchner — in Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and elsewhere, too many elsewheres. I hope that this production will make the journey across the Atlantic and will be performed in the United States. Danton’s Death drives home what happens when the call to pure reason leads to a bitter conclusion: the end justifies the means. It’s as immediate as today’s headlines and timeless in its revelation of fundamental human issues and patterns of behavior. It was one of the greatest theater experiences this reviewer has ever had.
Danton’s Death plays at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre in London through October 14, 2010. For further information, click here.