Last Reviewed on May 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394
Georg Büchner's Danton's Death is a direct critique of the French Revolution and what it became.
Buchner himself was a proponent of revolutionary ideas within his home country of Germany, and he studied French literature and philosophy during his university education. Written when Büchner was only twenty-one years old, Danton's Death is the young author's expression of worry over the social injustices he witnessed during his life.
However, it is interesting that he chose the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution as the backdrop for such musings, as it had ended approximately forty years prior to the writing of the play. In the introduction to his English translation of the play, Hedwig Rappolt suggests that the actors of the French Revolution were historical figures to Büchner that were analagous to Hitler and Stalin in the contemporary imagination. This suggests that Büchner chose the infamous Robespierre and Danton to illustrate the timeless drama of human suffering.
Büchner also wished to represent a factually accurate portrait of history—so much that he actually paraphrased some words speeches of the real Danton and Robespierre in some of their fictionalized monologues. Büchner himself wrote that it was a dramatist's "highest task" to recount history as accurately as is humanly possible, so as to preserve it for posterity.
Furthermore, many scholars suggest that Büchner's extensive study of Shakespearean tragedies informed his style, which is demonstrated in both the content and construction of the text. Interspersed scenes of lighthearted debauchery provide comic relief from the tragic, serious aspects of the drama, which is a hallmark of Shakespearean tragedy. In addition, Robespierre's betrayal of his former friend echoes Brutus's betrayal of Caesar, which is even referenced within the play itself. When the doomed Danton's wife commits suicide, it seems eerily similar to the suicides that frequent Shakespeare's most famous tragedies.
Some scholars have also suggested that Büchner's play is a precursor to the epic style later introduced by dramatist Bertolt Brecht. The way Büchner employs large crowd scenes juxtaposed with more intimate ones mirrors this epic style, so named because creating such large assemblies on stage is a somewhat difficult task.
Overall, the stylistic hallmarks of the play and its historical context help the reader understand its goal of exposing the endless struggle of human beings to find peace in life.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257
*Paris. Capital of France and center of revolutionary activity in which the play is set. The locations of many of the play’s scenes are only vaguely identified, such as “a room” and “a street”; however, all the crucial locations of the Terror are carefully included, in telling sequence. One crucial scene in act 1 takes place in a Jacobin Club, and a scene in act 2 is set in the National Convention (the Revolutionary government). Act 3 moves back and forth between the Luxembourg prison, the Revolutionary Tribunal (the court that issued condemnations), a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety (which determined its policy) and the Conciergerie (the prison of the Palais de Justice, whose voluble inmates include Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man). Scenes 7 and 9 of act 4 are set in the place de la Révolution, the site of the guillotine, toward which Danton is irresistibly moved by implacable fate, taking the ideals of the Revolution with him.
The various anonymous rooms and streets used as settings are unidentified because they do not need to be, but the differences between the discussions to which they play host are glaring; the interior debates are thoughtful and mostly idealistic, but insulated from a full awareness of the forces that they have already unleashed; their exterior counterparts are more casual, more abrupt, and more confused. Once Danton is condemned to make his final trip from the interior to exterior, however, he reaches his philosophical conclusion: that the world is chaos, and its god, awaiting birth, is nonexistence.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220
Hamburger, Michael. “Georg Büchner.” In Contraries: Studies in German Literature. New York: Dutton, 1970. Hamburger is a distinguished critic and translator of German literature. His essay focuses on the profound boredom that saps the willpower of Büchner’s heroes.
Hilton, Julian. Georg Büchner. New York: Grove Press, 1982. Hilton pays special attention to the scenic structure of Danton’s Death and to Büchner’s influence on such contemporary playwrights as Bertolt Brecht, John Arden, and David Storey.
Knight, A. H. F. Georg Büchner. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1951. This is the first full-length study of Büchner in English. It examines all of Büchner’s writings thoroughly, including his letters. In the discussion of Danton’s Death, Knight examines at length Büchner’s use of historic sources.
Lindenberger, Herbert. Georg Büchner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. Lindenberger writes gracefully and perceptively, with particular sensitivity to Büchner’s uses of rhetoric and dramatic form. His chapter on Büchner’s forebears and descendants is illuminating.
Schwartz, Alfred. From Büchner to Beckett: Dramatic Theory and the Modes of Tragic Drama. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978. Schwartz distinguishes and traces various patterns of tragedy. He examines Büchner’s kaleidoscopic art of composition, in which each scene expresses the violent assaults of history on people’s lives.