Last Updated on September 6, 2023, 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.