Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
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ISSN 1070-8286


Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(4) (1994) 81-86


Danton's Death and the Dictates of Theory

Author: Buchner, Georg.
Title: Complete plays and prose. (C. R. Mueller, Ed. and Trans.)
Publisher: New York: Hill and Wang.
Year: 1963

Georg Buchner, the son of a prominent government doctor, was born in Goddelau, Germany, a small town near Darmstadt, on October 17, 1813. A brilliant and scientifically minded young man, Georg, influenced by his father, decided to begin medical studies in 1831 at the age of 18. Two years later, however, he shifted his attention to history and philosophy, and became deeply involved in the political struggles of his time. His struggles caused him to leave Germany for Zurich, where he abandoned his revolutionary activities and continued his training in teaching and research at the University of Zurich, where he wrote the plays and texts for which he is best remembered. Befitting the spirit of German Romanticism, Buchner died on February 19, 1837 at the age of twenty-three after suffering from one of the ubiquitous "fevers" of his time, probably typhus.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Buchner's life and work is the rather off-handed engagement with theatre that caused him to write some of the most influential plays in the history of Western theatre. Although his dramatic work left little wake in his own time, he has influenced an incredibly wide range of theatre practice since his rediscovery by Gerhardt Hauptmann late in the 19th century. His plays have an almost eery resonance with modern expressionist and absurdist drama, and have been very successfully adapted to all modes of theatrical and filmic interpretation and style. His best known works include Woyzeck, Leonce and Lena, and perhaps his most influential play, Danton's Death, which continues to exert a powerful influence on the imagination of theatre practitioners and critics alike. Whereas a play like Woyzeck haunts us with its emotional and stylistic intensity, Danton's Death confronts us with the thorniest problems of ideology and belief, problems that are perhaps more important today than ever before.

The issues in Danton - are subtle and finely drawn, emerging as they do from a particularly problematic (and dramatic) time in the history of democratic movements in the West, the era of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. The action, which takes place after the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, charts the decay of the [End page 81] democratic spirit from the heights of idealism into the depths of murderous and vengeful desire. Danton, a charismatic and powerful orator and leader of antiroyalist forces after the Revolution, sees in the growing number of sacrifices to the guillotine a kind of shadow logic to the seeming benevolence of law erected in the desire of the masses to be free. As Robespierre, chief architect of the Reign of Terror says:

If the despot rules his brutelike subjects by means of Terror, then, as a despot, he is justified. If by means of the same terror you destroy the enemies of Freedom, then you, as founders of the Republic, are no less justified. The government of this Revolution is the despotism of Freedom against tyranny (1.3).
This is one of the earliest plays to perceive the lineaments of tyranny in modern ideological movements toward freedom and liberation. What begins as the highest quest for equality and brotherhood ends as only another excuse for bloodlust and the sheer libidinal expense of power. There is, in this movement between the desire for liberation and the desire for power, the first inkling of what later becomes modern terrorism, in which liberationists/terrorists seem so quickly attracted to mass violence.

Moreover, Buchner suggests that the emergence of the Terror--now existing at both ends of political power structures, both as State terror and as anti-state terrorist warfare-- is corollary with theatre, or more properly with the theatricalization of life that we call culture and law. Buchner in fact announces this emergent terror in the theatre as theatre. "Have you seen the new play?" asks The Second Gentleman on the street:

    There's a Babylonian Tower, a great confusion of arches
     and steps and passages --and they blow it all up into the
     air just as easily and cleverly as you could imagine.
     You grow dizzy at every step.  What an extraordinary
     brain that invented it.  (He stands suddenly perplexed)

     First Gentleman
          Why, what's the matter with you?

     Second Gentleman
          Oh, nothing, nothing at all!  Would you reach me
          your hand, sir!  The puddles in the street, you
          know.  There!  Thank you, sir!  I almost didn't get
          across them!  It could have been dangerous!

     First Gentleman
          Surely you weren't afraid? [End page 82]


     Second Gentleman
          Well, you see, sir, the earth has nothing but a thin
          crust--a thin, thin crust.  I always fancy I might
          fall through a hole like that if I were to step into
          it--One must be careful where one steps.  One might
          break through!  But you must go to see the
          play. . . . (2.2)
The image of the puddle or "hole" in the text operates, ironically, much like a hole in the meaning of the text: as the two men are discussing theatre, one of them stops in terror before the theatricalized fissure, and announces his fear of falling into this "hole," into the very truth of the illusion he is living at that moment. His admonition immediately following, "But go to the theatre," thus takes on an ambiguous resonance; is he admonishing his companion to escape from truth into illusion, or to escape from the illusion of truth into the truth of illusion?

The sense here that theatre's dreadful illusions are somehow a refuge from a terrorizing, ontologic danger is underscored and complicated in the very next lines of the play as Camille condemns the sensibilities of the "masses" who respond more readily to the fabrications of theatre than to life:

I tell you that unless they have wooden copies of everything, scattered about in theatres, concert halls, and art exhibits, people have neither eyes nor ears for it. Let someone carve out a marionette so that they can see the strings that pull it up and down and with each awkward movement from its joints hear it roar out an iambic line; what a character, they'll cry out, what consistency!

Take a minor sentiment, a maxim, a notion, and dress it up in coat and trousers, make a pair of hands and feet for it, color its face and permit the thing to moan and agonize about for three whole acts until at last it has either married or shot itself dead--and they will cry out that it was ideal! . . . Take these same people from the theatre and put them on the street and they'll grow pained with pitiful reality (2.3)

The condemnation, articulated in the theatre, finds the misplaced awe and sympathy that so repel Camille in the audience itself. These complications are brought to an even more harrowing acuity when we realize that the revolution is in every sense theatre: it is true theatre operating as "the site of violence" in the celebratory song of the guillotine, and it is also operating as Buchner's play, the secondary emanation of an actual historical pain. Buchner's play, then, [End page 83] looks in two directions, and this is precisely the double-vision that delivers it to its historical moment. While Danton may on the one hand be read as the reformulation of the events of 1789 and after, in a more important sense the play, shown in the ambiguity of the Gentlemen's exchange, is an extension of the terror of guillotine logic--a kind of psycho-logic of absence. The last lines of the play,

     A Citizen
          Hey--who's there?

     Lucille
          Long live the king!

     Citizen
          In the name of the Republic!
read together secrete the very lymph of the play and of theatre in general--Who's there . . . long live the king . . . in the name of the republic . . . who's there? Here we have the prefiguration of that circular logic extending to the cultures of terrorism emerging in modernism--from the growing identity of the revolutionary cell through the articulation of liberationist ideologies, down to the bitter dregs of fascist cult worship, "in the name of the republic." This is the logic of the "disembraining machine," as Herbert Blau has remarked, of truncated thought and irrationality glimpsed in the blank stare of modernist terrorism. This is also a logic in which, as emblematized in Danton, terror and revolution becomes theatre, and theatre appears as revolution and terror, the dream's navel of terror's production: "We have not made the revolution," says Danton, "the revolution has made us." The stage is set for the further blurring of this distinction through the development of the modern theatre and its terrorist and theoretical counterparts.

But while the play speaks pertinently to the dreary tendency of modern liberationist ideologies to collapse into tyranny, the subtler striations of the play also speak to a more insinuating sort of dogmatism errant in our own time: specifically, the tendency of much present theory and criticism to "forget" about its own theatricality even as it tries to theorize theatre according to the dictates of a specific ideology. Thus feminism, while decrying the phallocratic traditions of tragedy, recapitulates that form in its substitution of one ideological system for another--the basic definition of the tragedy, according to Walter Benjamin, among others. Similarly, gender theory attempts to neutralize sexual difference even as it maintains its claims to a creative and theatrical "marginality," while New Historicism, [End page 84] so attuned to theatre in history, seems oblivious to its own theatricalizations of history. Each theory seems predicated on an unconscious theatricalization, but also on Foucaultian notions of rupture and difference. Yet what these and other approaches to theatre misunderstand is what Buchner himself agonized over, the unregenerate "sameness" in human nature, a sameness of greed, power-lust, and willful blindness, a sameness that applies to all and carries all away in the tide of relentless, egocentric desire. It is the nonconstructibility of desire--what Buchner's critics have called his concern with our "lack of free will"--that is the central pain in Danton, a pain that shows itself as a kind of sickness that despairs of finding an answer to the question "what is it in us that lies, murders, and steals"? What is it in us in other words that rebels against the construction of my ideologies and ideals? What is it in me that denies me?

What it is that denies me is theatre itself, of course. For theatre is that which calls into question the substance and stability of self and identity. Theatre's final gambit, however, is not merely to conceal "reality" behind illusions, rather it is to hide itself within seeming revelation itself; when we have seemingly rid ourselves of theatre, when we lay our cards on the table and deny theatre, that is the most dangerous of theatrical possibilities. This covert operation, in the jaundiced eye of Danton, is fatal, even murderous, for it is precisely when theatre "reveals itself" that it becomes hidden in other ways--it is precisely when we think we are finally rid of theatre that it appears most obdurately as its very secretion:

What does it matter whether they die on the guillotine or of fever or of old age! But there's still something to be said for leaving the stage with a good spring in your step and a fine gesture and hearing the applause of the spectators behind you. It's an agreeable way to go and it suits us (2.1)
It is humankind's inability to see its own fascination with the theatrical that allows it to be so easily fooled by despots and dogmatists. The danger is that while we all carefully stage our lives according to the conventions of theatre, we also repress that insight in ourselves. The misunderstanding of the theatrical in the various political approaches to the drama is a lack which we do not find in Buchner (or Brecht, for that matter). Indeed, if Buchner's play is about anything, it is about theatre's role in constructing and deconstructing power and desire as theatre--for Buchner suggests that it may be in theatre and theatricality that power and desire find their substance. Yet, as I have suggested, it is precisely the theatre of it [End page 85] all that is missing from many theories of performance today. One wonders finally if the issue is fear: a fear of the impossibility of the liberatory thought we so desire. We might recall Artaud's words on this very issue. "We are not free," he wrote, "the sky can still fall on our heads. The theatre is there to teach us, first of all, that."

Anthony Kubiak
Harvard University
English Department [End page 86]