Rotation or Revolution

Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner

Teatro Nacional de São João, Porto

In this year 45 since the overthrow of the ancien regime of Portugal, I went to the last performance of Nuno Cardoso’s staging of Georg Büchner’s Dantons Tod (A Morte de Danton).1  Since I have heard that this play has been included in the season of other stages beyond our borders, a review of a revolutionary play performed in a country with relatively recent revolutionary experience seemed worth sharing.  The operatic adaptation was performed in the Vienna State Opera in May. In September it was presented in Duesseldorf’s Schauspielhaus. It has also been presented on various French stages this year.

Although I had heard of the play, I had not read it. So after buying a ticket I dutifully digested the German original before attending the Sunday performance. Lest anyone be confused, I want to say that since moving to Porto three years ago I have attended nearly every classical performance at this wonderful theatre and have generally been quite impressed at the high quality of professional acting and staging to be found in the Teatro Nacional de São João. This company has performed amazing work. The 2017 production of Karl Kraus’ Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit (Os Últimos Dias da Humanidade) was unforgettable.2

However, today I had to ask myself after three hours of very serious staging and solid performance if anyone has understood what the revolutionary Büchner must have been saying in his first play. I could not bring myself to applaud — not because of the acting, which was first rate — but because the overall performance upset me. It upset me because it is possible to excuse a young man who died at 23 for lacking the experience to write the framework in which his play could be performed and interpreted so that an audience might understand what moves a revolution. It is very likely that at that age one can only feel that movement not comprehend it.

Today, however, we can appreciate the scope of the revolution in France in a way that few contemporaries could have — just as few soldiers ever know why they are ordered to kill or die.

Even if I do not share the Arnold3 viewpoint that the virtue or quality of art lies essentially in moral edification (indoctrination) I do believe that the interpretive act — and staging a play and viewing it are both — is nothing trivial.

At one point I could not suppress the thought that the “revolution” on the stage was to be understood in terms of today’s fashionable obsession with “gender” and “sexual identity”. However, that bit of artistic license in the performance might be forgiven as a citation for the young audience, even if not very illuminating. Only the audience can guess whether the curious choice of soundtrack was relevant: mainly a Strauss’ An der schönen, blauen Donau (Blue Danube waltz) and the tango Por una cabeza by Carlos Cardel. Perhaps Cardel’s song is supposed to be ironic.

To understand my position one has to begin with the end of the play. The last line spoken by Lucile, the wife of Camille Desmoulins, apparently before her execution, is “long live the king” (Es lebe der König!) What does that mean after Danton and several other members of the early revolutionary movement were executed? What do these words from Desmoulins’ wife indicate about the previous events?

In Büchner’s text this is ambiguous. However, if we work back through the piece from end to beginning we see a classical tragedy. That is the hero, Georges Danton, is defeated by his inability to understand himself in the revolution. Very late, in his dream, he considers that his willingness to become an instrument (or the inevitability of this role) could only lead to him being instrumentalised. He arrives at the conclusion that if his actions were correct in “September” then he cannot object to his own arrest and condemnation. This is not a question of some particular guilt or innocence.  It is an issue that arrives from a revolution in which the established rules have been abandoned in whole or in part and only the laws of life and death are certain.

Robespierre’s speech to the assembly in which he demands the condemnation of Danton is logical and consistent—it is ultimately about the relationship between terror and virtue and the historical possibility of change. If taken as a principle, it is consistent beyond reproach. That argument is then tainted with cynicism by other characters as they insist that measures be taken to disarm Danton. They violate the formal trial procedures to prevent Danton from using his rhetorical skills and capacity to elicit emotion to sway those charged with his trial and judgement. In fact, Büchner leaves the question unanswered whether Robespierre in his puritanism is vicious or cynical. Michelet, in his history of the French Revolution, gives Robespierre his due– both as an old clerical bureaucrat, a sincere revolutionary and as a potentially misguided and even manipulated fanatic.4 But is that really Büchner’s point?

Let us move back — or forward — toward the first scenes with which the play begins. Danton is essentially in a brothel. There is a mixture of revolution and libertinism. This will be recognisable to anyone who has read de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.5 Büchner insightfully describes the ambiguous boundaries that separate crime from sedition, debauchery from revolution. Danton is a creature of the ancien regime — like all those who led the revolution. Who else would there have been? Revolutions are not started by extra-terrestrials and only in the last century does it seem to have been instigated by foreigners. So it is natural that Danton and all others who take their place on the revolutionary stage do so with all the habits and baggage of the world in which the revolution erupts.

The drama proceeds from the conditions of revolution and the war against France (although only mentioned in asides). It focuses on the personality of Danton because he probably more than any other represented both the ancien regime and the emerging order. At least he seems to have been the most charismatic person of this period. By the end of the first act Danton has been condemned. The formal charges — whether they pertain to specific acts left unsaid — are conspiracy with the forces of restoration. Collateral evidence is given in the form of condemnation of his aristocratic lifestyle — in contrast to Robespierre’s asceticism. Danton is condemned because of his origins in the ancien regime and his vice, living like the aristocrats whose principal crimes have been explained in terms of morality. That is to say that rather than discussing the system of aristocracy, it is the aristocratic lifestyle, which is condemned as the visible aspect of the system to be overthrown.

There is indeed some validity in this argument. Not that the exemplary decadence of the aristocracy is remedied by republican virtue. No, the point is that the supposed virtue of the ancien regime was transmitted symbolically. Republican virtue in 1789 had to create a symbolic universe of its own. It had to counter divine right, the myth of royal benevolence and noblesse oblige, the natural order of Church and Monarch. This transformation was not just a matter of passing laws and changing office-holders. Moreover such a new virtuous order had to be created surrounded by monarchs, princes and prelates who still exercised complete control over their subjects and territories.

Danton is tragic in the classical sense because he recognises this more than anyone else around him. He also knows that he cannot be part of the new order. He does not have the capacity or the soul for it. It is immaterial that — as we know — Robespierre would also be executed. What we do not see in the play is that the short period of the Terror under Robespierre and the Jacobins was the shortest part of the violence triggered in 1789. With the fall of the Jacobins, the counter-revolution slaughtered even more people than died in the so-called Terror—practically the only part of the French Revolution that is ever taught or dramatised. Büchner can be forgiven at his young age for leaving so many issues open in his drama. What I found difficult to forgive after 230 years is the inability or unwillingness to lend the revolutionary spirit to a contemporary performance that Büchner certainly had when he wrote the play. The text does not tell the director how to interpret it. In fact, the virtue of the play is the classical openness — it is under-determined. There have been many opportunities to learn from revolutions since 1789. In Portugal forty-five years ago, there was a serious demonstration of how some of those lessons were, in fact, learned — even if the counter-revolution was no less aggressive.6

A Morte de Danton as performed this week in Porto was at best an “amoral” or “revolution-neutral” treatment of a work by a young romantic revolutionary. At its worst it was another demonstration of how mass movements for social change that take arms are trivialised or even maligned — or maybe worse actively misrepresented. A drama on the stage is always a dialogue. I can only say what I saw. There is no looking into another person’s head to see what he is thinking.

  1. Georg Büchner, 1835, translated by Francisco Luís Perreira, 2019. []
  2. Karl Kraus, 1915-1922, a nine-hour performance based on the translation by António Sousa Ribeiro, 2016. []
  3. Matthew Arnold, e.g. Culture and Anarchy (1869). []
  4. Jules Michelet, History of the French Revolution (1847). []
  5. Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). De Sade’s philosophical essay, La philosophie dans le boudoir, was supposed to demonstrate among other things how revolutionary rhetoric can be distilled into the rationale for crime and libertinism. []
  6. 25 April 1974, what was later called the “Carnation Revolution” overthrew the government of Marcelo Caetano and thus ended the Estado Novo, the regime that had been created and ruled by Antonio Salazar since 1933. The counter-revolution was largely managed by US ambassador Frank Carlucci, a senior CIA officer, who died in 2018. In Portugal itself the overthrow of the Estado Novo regime was relatively peaceful. []
Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..