Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Some Thoughts on Danton's Death at the National Theatre

(Due to working on some other work this is a shorter article than I intended. Having only just received the book of the play I will return to do a further piece in the near future)

I went to see Danton’s Death at the National Theatre in London. The play has generally been well received and reviews have been favorable although some of the more right wing press have been critical. Not really a surprise there.

Buchner was only 21 when he wrote Danton’s Death. He wrote it in 1835 in under five weeks. Being a revolutionary himself he was in constant fear of arrest. The play is all the more significant for the fact that it was written by one so tender an age and in revolutionary terms still a baby.

One word of warning is that you need as one critic put it “you need to do a bit of homework if your knowledge of the French Revolution is as patchy as mine, He was also critical which I agree with him in that “far too many of the dramatis personae fail to come to satisfyingly rounded dramatic life” Also in the book of the play the cast lists Thomas Paine as a Deputy of the National Convention yet unless I am mistaken nothing was heard from him in this production. Please someone correct me if I am wrong.

Büchner's original play is a rarity these days in the sense that even at the tender age of 21 his grasp of the complex history of the French revolution is very striking. The play focuses on the French Revolution's year of terror, 1794. The central theme of the play “is the art of Insurrection” and the use of terror in a revolutionary situation. The plays director tries hard to show this but there a very serious weaknesses in this production as Billington said cutting two scenes which showed the scope of the revolution, the scenes cut for instance showed crowd scenes and even the national convention was sparsely populated.

Another reviewer also picked up on this Ann Talbot said in her review “the immediate problem is that Brenton has removed two small scenes from the original play. Both of them are crowd scenes. They are very short scenes in an already short play and it is difficult to see that there was any good reason for dropping them. Running time is hardly a question. The play gains nothing in clarity without them. In fact it loses something crucial. The effect of taking them out is to unbalance the whole work because omitting them removes a character that has a vital role to play in the conflict between Danton and Robespierre. That character is not an individual, or rather it is the many individuals who make up the crowd, the mass of the population, the sans culottes, the poor who must get their living by selling their labour and their bodies on the streets of Paris. Once this element is removed from the play we are left with a largely personal drama in which two individuals are pitted against one another in a conflict that lacks any substantial basis in the wider framework of social relations. Danton without the crowd is not really Danton. He is left as a rather effete, weary man who simply cannot be bothered to take the necessary action to defend himself. What brought Danton to the head of the revolution was his relationship with the sans culottes. He expressed their material interest in overthrowing the unequal state of affairs that existed in France under the ancien regime and establishing a more just society. Robespierre was able to defeat him because he still reflected the interests of that social layer. If that relationship is left out of the play then Robespierre loses his historical stature and is reduced to a rather dogmatic man”

And again commentating on Buchner’s method “The fact that such a small piece of editing can have such a major effect on the play points to the masterly precision of Büchner’s technique. He was by training a scientist and doctor. When he died in 1837 he had just won a teaching position at the University of Zurich. The play was written on his dissection table and it has something of the character of a dissection about it in which each organ, each social element, is laid out before us in an entirely objective manner. Büchner is offering us an autopsy of the French Revolution performed at the moment when it reaches its fatal impasse. He allows us to examine his meticulously prepared specimens and draw our own conclusions rather than beating us over the head with his message. It is a powerful dramatic technique so long as all the parts are present. Those two missing scenes, small though they are, are essential to the play”.

I am not saying that the play is not worth seeing and lacks dramatic tension but by cutting out the people scenes according to one review it “thins the dramatic texture and turns the play into a character study: one in which the sensual, death-haunted, strangely passive Danton confronts the repressed, life-fearing, remorselessly active Robespierre. That is a vital part of Büchner's play; but to focus so exclusively on that element is to miss the larger point that they are also history's puppets”.

The question of Danton and Robespierre being “history’s puppets” is a piece of crude determinist verbiage. I prefer Engels description.

Engels beautifully describes how the laws of a revolutionary insurrection intersects with its human participants. “Insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l'audace, de l'audace, encore de l'audace!

Although only two hours in length this production still has enough in it to show some psychological insights into the minds and action of the two leaders of the revolution. It would be useful to record some insights gained from the Wikipedia article on the play. To explain Buchner’s method “

“Its use of numerous historical sources and extensive quotations from original political speeches meant that the play was seen in the 20th century as the precursor to documentary theatre. Until 1979 no one had explored the themes and inner connections within Buchner's work between Eros and Violence systematically - that year saw Reinhold Grimm treat it in text und kritik, Georg Büchner, and it was continued in the present Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 11 (2005–2008)”.

I will agree with a number of critics who have described the design of the stage the fantastic, the use of lighting gives the play a stunning look. Perhaps the most gripping scene was the technically astute use of the guillotine, with one critic remarking “with executions so convincing that you are surprised that several prominent members of the cast don’t take the curtain call with their heads neatly tucked beneath their arms”

Clearly from the audience’s reaction the play has still a very contemporary feel to it. At the end when the actors took a bow some members of the audience hissed at Robespierre and applauded more when Danton and his supporters appeared. It is clear that the play deals with all the range of themes that are around us today. Danton’s Death looks at the dialectic of revolution, the relationship between men and women, friendship, class, determinism, materialism and the role of theatre itself.

But am I the only one who left the theatre feeling that a lot was missing was this really just a debate between Danton and Robespierre. Did Danton really resign himself so pathetically to his death? Why did Brenton refuse to elaborate on Danton’s relationship with the Sans Culottes? Because in the end were left with a somewhat disappointing debate over morality.

Ann Talbot has this answer on Brenton’s idea or none idea of revolution “It is an interpretation that says more about the outlook of the current intellectual world and one time left-wing playwright Brenton than it does about Büchner. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline in trade union activity in the West, it has become extremely difficult for writers to imagine a revolution in anything other than the most disastrous terms. There is a sharp contrast here between Brenton’s foray into the 18th century and Trevor Griffiths’ A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine. The American and French Revolutions provide Griffiths with a context in which revolution can still be imaginatively recreated and a connection made with contemporary class concerns. But for Brenton, the French Revolution only offers further confirmation of the hopelessness of the entire revolutionary project whether in the 18th century or the 21st

Notes

1. Michael Billington The Guardian, Friday 23 July 2010

2. Ann Talbot Danton’s Death www.wsws.org.

3. Marx and Engels Collected Works XI 85-86

4. The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx Alex Calinicos Bookmarks.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danton's_Death


6. Ian Shuttleworth July 25 2010

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