Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
Georg Büchner’s life was brief but intense, and his extraordinary talents merit no less than the word genius. Before he died of typhoid fever at the age of twenty-three, he had obtained a doctorate in philosophy, taught comparative anatomy at the University of Zurich, been formidably active as a political revolutionary, composed scientific papers, translated two dramas by Victor Hugo into his native German, and outlined a course of lectures on the history of German philosophy. Above all, he had written three plays and one story that mark him as one of Germany’s, indeed Europe’s, most brilliant authors.
Büchner’s impact was felt, directly or indirectly, by virtually every important playwright after him. He can be studied as a forerunner of naturalism, social realism, psychological irrationalism, expressionism, existentialism, and the theater of the absurd. In the search for the taproot of twentieth century drama, one need dig no further than his texts.
Danton’s Death may well be the best first play ever written. It is profound, relentless, passionate, eloquent, complex, and tragic. Above all, it is remarkably original, even though Büchner was influenced by earlier German dramatists and by William Shakespeare. Like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen, mit der eisernen Hand (1773; Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand, 1799), Danton’s Death presents a vast historical panorama composed of short, episodic, loosely connected scenes, and with broad strokes it achieves a fullness and earthiness of detail and creates a multitude of characters. Goethe’s Götz, however, is an idealized robber baron, and his play demonstrates the possibility of heroic action; Büchner’s Danton is an antihero and this work shows extreme skepticism about the feasibility of heroism.
The playwright who most clearly commanded Büchner’s admiration is Shakespeare. Danton’s self-communing soliloquies go straight back to Hamlet’s. Like Hamlet, Danton is passive, introspective, melancholy, bored, witty, morbid, and prone to subject the assumptions of others to ironic analysis. Büchner’s Lucille, when she gives way to hysteria, recapitulates Ophelia’s mad scene. In addition, Büchner casts the French Revolution in the Roman world of such Shakespearean texts as Julius Caesar (pr. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), and Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623); each of these features, as Danton’s Death does, a recklessly blind protagonist and coarse, obscene, easily swayed mobs.
Büchner is faithful to respected scholarly sources for the struggle between Danton and Robespierre that occurred in France during the early 1790’s. His primary historic debt is to F. A. Mignet’s Histoire de la Révolution française (1826) and L. A. Thiers’s Histoire de la Révolution française (1825-1827). He derived many of the external events in Danton’s Death from these sources and sometimes reproduces verbatim whole speeches by the historic Danton. His portrait is historically accurate in featuring Danton’s joviality, generosity, passionate temperament, hedonism, and carelessness in courting danger. His stress on Danton’s laziness, fatalism, sensuality, and disillusionment has aspects that are both traditional and contemporary.
Büchner is highly original, however, in presenting Danton as an unheroic hero who, even when capable of stirring action, chooses not to engage in it. Because of his disillusionment with politics and human nature, his only desire is for death. Unlike such classic, developing heroes as Oedipus or Lear, the static Danton fails to experience any moments of insight or recognition, and he does not begin in an initial state of innocence or ignorance from which, as a result of the dramatic action, he enters the world of experience and increased knowledge. Without choosing to wrestle with his fate, Danton indicates repeatedly that he has come to regard all human behavior as ultimately futile, doomed to destruction, without hope or reason. Each man, he declares, is isolated in his impenetrable shell, unable to come to know his fellow, adrift on a sea of anguish and desolation.
The play’s first scene illustrates this pessimism and Büchner’s adroit juggling of dramatic styles. The initial conversation, ostensibly about love, is loaded with wit and bawdry. Julie, Danton’s devoted wife, is concerned about his cynicism. “Don’t you believe in me?” she asks him. He replies: How should I know! We know little enough about one another. We’re thick-skinned creatures who reach out our hands toward one another, but it means nothing—leather rubbing against leather—we’re very lonely.
The apprehensive Julie tries to obtain emotional reassurance from her husband, but he refuses to comfort her, instead asserting that for people to know one another, it would be necessary to crack open their skulls and draw forth their thoughts one by one from their brain fissures. Danton will restate the same idea several times in the play.
Büchner’s plot is anti-Aristotelian, in that the central emotional crisis of the drama is not released through the contrivances of plot structure. Instead of being clearly organized with a beginning, middle, and end, the text begins at the end of the middle and continues as one extended end. Robespierre organizes the accusations against the Dantonists, followed by their arrest, trial, and execution. Danton, by contrast, refuses to offer any resistance and thereby resigns himself to his fate. What the play amounts to is a slow dance of death, with Danton invoking life’s nullity in richly metaphoric imagery as he prepares himself for extinction.
The pervasive dramatic confrontation is in the opposed temperaments of Robespierre and Danton. Büchner shows the former as a damaged psychopath who projects his vengeful, aggressive impulses on others and sees himself as a divinely appointed instrument of justice who can do no wrong. His language reflects the rhetoric of totalitarianism: It is loaded with absolute assertions and dogmatic clichés, devoid of humor, and dominated by abstractions such as “virtue,” “immorality,” and “the healthy strength of the people.” While Robespierre is prepared to sacrifice any number of people to what he is convinced is his absolutely necessary program, Danton refuses to set in motion any further acts of political violence, resigned instead to the futility of politics and history.
Although he is the passive antihero, Danton is mentally and morally superior to his opponent. He jibes at Robespierre’s pomposity, jokes with the mob, eschews self-pity, and contrives an endless succession of striking metaphors to express his stoic resignation. He uses wit as an alternative to anger and dilutes his despair in affectionate teasing of his friends. In the conflict between these leaders, Büchner achieves a timeless, universal polarity between the impatient zealot filled with self-righteous fervor and the weary humanist who can no longer believe in a better life to come.