Having scanned the theatre programs everywhere I travelled last year, I was glad to read that Hamburg’s Thalia Theater (my favourite and most missed Hamburg stage!) made Jette Steckel’s 2012 dress rehearsal of Georg Büchner’s Danton Tod available to watch online for 24 hours. This worked fabulously and the #ThaliaDigital program continues. As one of the few (unfortunately) not having read Buchner in college, my idea of Georges Jacques Danton has been mostly shaped by Hilary Mantel’s debut A Place Of Greater Freedom, in which this career-driven bon vivant is a complex front runner of the French Revolution, torn between the values of family life and his affairs and constantly challenged by his love of social equality and his own weakness for corruption; in one of the book’s most memorable episodes, he refuses to confess his sins in church without a lawyer by his side.
The year is 1794, five years after the Bastille has been conquered, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette have first been disempowered, then guillotined and the Revolutionary Tribunal now rules over the French people, later declared by historians as the Reign of Terror.
In the light of Bengal flares a group of people circle repeatedly around a massive orbital skeleton, motivating those struggling to keep up. Among them is Danton who has been attacked publicly by the leader of the transitional government, Maximillien Robespierre, for requesting an end of the revolution and a republic to begin – too many have been killed already for being disloyal to the new so-called humanist values, so many that the revolution has become a killing machine itself: Robespierre and his closest companion Antoine de Saint-Just have become blinded by their own doctrine and the revolution itself. Where defence stops, murder begins, Danton claims, vice is not high treason. Not avoiding provocations, he is very aware of the thin ice he is skating on; more openly known than any of his rank, has Danton bribed and taken bribes, played with his image as a ruffian, but maybe especially because of this he has maintained a big fellowship among the citizens of Paris, admirers and lovers, aware of his charisma and rare ability to move the masses; he is not willing to sacrifice every life for a new society based on values forbidding weaknesses he never fulfilled himself. But Robespierre, at his lifetime already titled l’Incorruptible, insists in his fanaticism that no innocents were killed – and Danton recognizes how guilty he is of breaking almost every moral value of the new governing elite.
Who knows what had happened if the French revolutionists would have focused on the lowering of bread prices and not insisted on exchanging their definitions of virtue? The sans-culottes, Robespierre’s naïve, immature people of France who need protection from all sins, move like jumping jacks to hurdy-gurdy music. The stage keeps turning and with it the crowds, getting off course no matter how many times they go around and cannot escape the deadly turntable the revolution has become. Danton, seen by some already as a dead saint in a revolution without saints, refuses idleness but admits that he tired, that he feels like a relic in an era when relics are thrown out onto the street. From above them, on a drum set, Robespierre, a fellow lawyer, dictates pace and pulse, not stopping when listening to Danton until his voice turns hoarse.
“You are flirting with death”, his wife Julie says, before he aces a press conference about famine and malnutrition, declaring (while munching trail mix) that every child starving is a murder. The wife of his friend Camille, Lucile Desmoulins, likes his way speech more than its content and fears for her husband’s life; Camille Desmoulins keeps publishing clear affronts against the policies of his school friend Robespierre. She adds grids with chalk to the dark, shot-hole perforated walls, on which unfinished graffiti still declare public support for Danton.
In his next public testimony, the blue-collared Danton and self-declared atheist becomes almost spiritual: We are all buried alive, scratching the coffin lid, adding further bon mots about talking walls and thoughts for which no ears should exist. He is haunted by his bad consciousness after the September Massacres of 1792 – was the killing of people already imprisoned, mainly but not only aristocrats and clerics, unavoidable self-defence? Was he a puppet himself, manipulated by others?
None of his doubts shine through the next day in court: The star lawyer has his stage; cocky and coquettish he has regained his confidence. Accused of high treason, he knows that the law entitles him to be heard. His friends Camille and Louis Legendre are less confident – Robespierre claimed who weakens now, is guilty. Him and Danton duel themselves, each on a drum set, and Danton’s solution to the conflict is a beautiful, unexpectedly Christian one: Which destiny forces us to condemn rather than to forgive? But Danton will reach the point where he can scream as loud as he can, losing his voice or not, Robespierre has overruled him. Handcuffed, as he keeps addressing the people, the Marseillaise sounds from somewhere and transfers into the Eurovision hymn; predominated by Robespierre’s drums, the French Revolution has turned into nothing but a messy cacophony. Danton’s final defence is to accuse both Robespierre and Saint-Just of high treason and of not being humans, becoming despots in their fear of despots – the government is now the enemy of the people.
Imprisoned, one year after they created the Committee of Public Safety, Camille wears Danton’s face on a mask; democracy is an illusion, they conclude. To their hangings Robespierre will hit the drums again. In a time of chaos when only pregnancy could save you from being executed, Lucile Desmoulins decides against cutting the baby out of her body.
The historic Lucile was guillotined few days after her husband and his friends. It is the women and understanding which is which I struggle most with in this production but am still moved, even from watching this play on my laptop. As I have not read Buechner’s original script from 1835 and neither the censored publications available until its actual premiere in 1902 (!), it is difficult to say if the lines have been modernized or amended. But the conflicts are timeless. Robespierre has been quoted: “History is fiction”. It took me years to understand that he was right.
**** of 5 stars
Dantons Tod by Georg Büchner
ThaliaDigital continued with a play each day available for 24 hours on the theatre’s website, some with English subtitles.
The photos above were taken on my trip to Paris and Versailles in September 2019 and in Hamburg a year earlier