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...
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