Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Danton'sDeath by Georg Büchner is a play divided into four acts that traces the story of the titular protagonist, Georges Danton, who is a leader in the French Revolution.
The story occurs between the first and second Terrors of the Revolution. Danton was instrumental in the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal, the penal organization that executed individuals accused of crimes without any evidence whatsoever. After witnessing the terror and violence that the Revolution has devolved into at the hands of the infamous radical Robespierre, Danton has become disillusioned with the ideals he fought so ardently to establish in the new Republic.
As a result, he has become cynical and disinterested in political life. This is demonstrated in the first scene of the play, where Danton and his wife, Julie, play cards with a group of acquaintances and friends. Danton says that he loves Julie like a "grave," a quote that disturbs her, but he explains his association between death and peace. After Camille and Phillipeau begin talking about the needed changes in the Revolution, Danton becomes disgusted and wishes to leave.
In the next scene, the audience gets a glimpse of what life has become for commoners during this period. A group of citizens is roaming the streets in search of perceived traitors of the common people when Robespierre appears and invites them to join him in the Jacobin Club, where they will find allies.
In act 1, scene 3, Robespierre delivers an impassioned speech about the necessity of violence to achieve the goals of the Republic. In scene 4, Lacroix and Legendre discuss Robespierre's speech. Lacroix insists that Robespierre intends to enact vengeance on any perceived enemy, including Danton, and that the Revolution has not actually helped the common people.
At the beginning of the next scene, Danton is in a private room with a prostitute named Marion who waxes poetic about her ability to please him with her body. Suddenly, Lacroix bursts in to discuss what he believes about Robespierre's intentions. Danton dismisses Lacroix's suspicions, insisting that the Revolution isn't finished and that Robespierre will spare him so that he can use Danton's talents later on.
After a brief discussion with Robespierre, Danton leaves, completely unaware that his former friend plans to have him executed because Danton is no longer active in the Revolution. At the end of this scene, Robespierre learns that several of his followers have begun to desert him due to his increasingly radical tactics.
In the first scene of act 2, Danton still denies that Robespierre will move against him, despite his clear suspicions that people have been treating him differently as of late. A mere two scenes later (scene 3), Danton has been arrested by the Committee of Public Safety and offered asylum, yet Danton seems resigned to death, lamenting that it would be much easier than to continue fighting to live in a world that doesn't seem worth living for anymore. In scenes 4 and 5, Danton seems to be losing his senses, asking why he is still breathing and shouting dark thoughts aloud in the middle of the night. Julie is awoken by her husband's cries and expresses worry over his state of mind.
The next scene describes the militia members who invade Danton's house in the middle of the night. In scene 7, Legendre argues before the National Convention that Danton and the other members of the group who were arrested the night before should be given a hearing before the entire Convention. There is some disagreement about whether Danton should be granted this, but Robespierre interjects with a...
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speech, declaring that the Convention should not fear bloodshed when it is necessary.
Act 3 begins with the four arrested members being led into a prisoners' holding area; these new prisoners are Danton, Lacroix, Phillipeau, and Camille. In scene 2, two men discuss how the jury that will try the accused will be selected, and in scene 3, Danton expresses regret for creating the Tribunal that will soon sentence him to death, asking God to forgive him for the deed.
Before the Tribunal in scene 4, Danton denies guilt of the charges of which he is accused, which include colluding with a faction of Louis XVII's supporters. He challenges those that have accused him to show their faces before him so that he can "heap shame" upon them. Danton asserts his vital role in the Revolution, declaring how much he helped and cared for the people of France.
Two prisoners in the next scene discuss how Danton's speech moved the jurors and the audience at the Tribunal, and they wonder when the Revolution's bloodlust will be satisfied if such a heroic figure as Danton is sent to the guillotine. The next scene shows how Danton's hearing has created discord within the Convention itself: several prominent figures argue whether Danton's demands should be met.
In scene 7, Danton finally resolves to fight for his life and the lives of his comrades. In scene 9, Danton and the accused return to the Tribunal for their second hearing, at which time the leaders declare that the seriousness of the charges against the accused permits the Tribunal to deny their requests for witnesses and continuance.
Danton declares that Robespierre and the Tribunal are guilty of high treason against the people for drowning the Republic in bloodshed. Danton's passionate declaration rouses the people in the audience, who take to the streets in support of him. However, the final scene of the act demonstrates the fickle nature of the mob, who begin their riot in support of Danton yet shift their loyalty to Robespierre after one citizen points out the fact that Danton is now wealthy as evidence that he has been bought by the crown.
At the beginning of act 4, Danton and the accused lament their impending fates as the time of their execution seems to draw nearer. Danton's wife and Lucile, Camille's wife, each deal with their grief in different ways. In scene 5, Camille expresses a desire to stop pretending that there is any hope the group will not be executed and to just accept their fate. At the end of the scene, the carriages arrive to deliver the men to the guillotine. In the next scene, Julie commits suicide by drinking poison.
In scene 7, the men are escorted from their carriages to the scaffold as onlookers heckle and taunt them. Camille ascends the scaffold first while Danton goes last. In the final scenes of the play, Lucile wanders to the scaffold where the guillotine sits, the square deserted in the night. When a patrol approaches at the sound of Lucile's singing, she impulsively shouts "Long live the King!" After this, she is arrested and led away.