The purgatory of France’s revolutionary Terror

Danton’s Death at the National Theatre is a thrilling study of how social relations melt into air during revolutions.

Patrick Marmion

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Every radical worth their hammer and sickle has an opinion on ‘The Terror’ of the French Revolution. Either the blood that flowed from the guillotine was a necessary or at least inevitable part of the overthrow of a ruling elite that had for centuries proved itself at least as violent. Or The Terror was an abomination, a horrifying betrayal of the emancipatory logic that drove the revolution in the first place. But there is more to Georg Buchner’s analysis of the revolution in his 1835 play, Danton’s Death, revived by the National Theatre in London with Toby Stephens in the title role.

Howard Brenton’s typically vigorous ‘version’ of the play seeks to set up opposing views of the revolution in a way that recognises the full, violent, dialectical force of Buchner’s story. Robespierre, who is usually dismissed as a cold-blooded pioneer of mass murder and crimes against humanity, is thus gifted a rhetoric of force equal to that of Danton. ‘The will of the people, that is the law’, Robespierre stirringly declares – except his adage also endorses his followers who cry ‘only a coward dies for the Republic, a Jacobin kills for it’.

Buchner’s sympathy therefore surely lies with the more generous-spirited Danton. He is presented as a hard-drinking womaniser who assesses others with shrewdness and compassion. Casting a rueful eye over the baying crowds and febrile plots the revolution has spawned, he remarks that ‘people are like children: they smash everything to see what’s inside’. And he deplores Robespierre’s asceticism, scoffing that the Jacobin leader is ‘stuck on Earth for the miserable pleasure of finding people who are worse than himself’.

Thankfully, Michael Grandage’s highly polished production does nothing so crass or illiberal as to take sides overtly. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre is an edgy man, fearful of being touched and strenuously subduing his sense of guilt in order to remain true to his ideals. He is not so much wicked as conflicted. We are urged to feel his pain before we judge him. His ideological cruelty is ascribed instead to Alec Newman as his rottweiler enforcer, Saint-Just, who is magnificently murderous – breathtaking in his sanguinary certainties.

Toby Stephens as Danton on the other hand is more of the rock star, whose easy, Glastonbury charisma is quietly envied by Levey’s Robespierre. And so you can’t entirely avoid the impression that he’s a showman who loves to surf the mob and press the flesh of his fans. Giving ‘a little touch of Bono in the night’, as Shakespeare might have said. However, with taut freckly skin, perfectly symmetrical features and tumbling auburn locks, Stephens is arguably a little too smooth even for a rock star. The ideal Danton surely remains a grubbier, fleshier, younger Gerard Depardieu.

More significantly, Danton’s disavowal of the September massacres in 1792 instigated in his time at the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ is reminiscent of the vacuous apologies issued by heads of state, corporations and railway companies today. It is therefore tough to feel sympathy for Danton when he winds up in the Bastille, even after a marvellously boisterous showtrial. Indeed, his reduced circumstances are a cue for comedy and a fellow inmate he once hunted offers a withering putdown: ‘Danton tried to rape his mother – but she was too strong for him.’

The really intriguing question, however, is why Danton escapes Buchner’s full censure. He can easily be seen as just a sanctimonious hypocrite – like New Labourites who lately regret the Iraq War and who will in due course regret Afghanistan. But to judge the play by such moral norms is to reduce it to a cautionary tale. The more intriguing answer to why Buchner appears to be letting Danton off relatively lightly is that Revolutionary Terror is not his real theme. Rather, the play is a record of a man in purgatorial torment. In this reading, The Terror becomes a projection of Danton’s psychological disturbance writ very large indeed.

Right at the start, Danton expresses an acute existential anxiety which is pursued by Buchner in his later play Woycezk. It is the anxiety over whether it is possible to know others directly or whether we are all doomed to be absolutely isolated inside our skulls. As Danton puts it later in the play, ‘we are alone in bloody sweats in our own Gethsemane’. Even Danton’s lover, who throws herself at one man after another, is as much tortured as she is given pleasure by the unstaunchable longing which pitches her from one liaison to the next.

An especially vivid dimension of this comfortless solipsism is the synaesthesia which is a particular hallmark of Buchner’s writing. Buchner frequently transposes sensory impression and his writing is typified by lines such as Danton’s lover saying ‘your lips have eyes’. This can be described as a kind of metonymy of the senses, where one impression is supplanted by another and the world is experienced as a grisly maelstrom, cut adrift from familiar social norms and without correspondence to anything new.

The point of this is not Joseph Conrad’s dictum that ‘we live as we dream, alone’. Rather, it is that in a time of revolution when a social order is being dissolved, all social relations and their psychological correlatives melt into air. Danton’s turmoil therefore represents the condition of humanity in the midst of revolution. The suggestion is that revolution overthrows not just a state but also reason itself and our normal perception of the order of things. Seen this way, the play goes some way to explaining why fundamentalist terror seems to offer something solid amid vertiginous confusion.

Danton’s existential cri de coeur is bleakly caught by Christopher Oram’s design, which turns the Olivier Theatre at the National into a vast wooden coffin illuminated intermittently by blinding dusty light thrown through high windows from the world outside. And yet in Brenton’s text this claustrophobia has only been achieved by purging messy public scenes featuring inconvenient Parisians who don’t fit his scheme. However, these people are vital to Buchner’s vision. They are both objects of Jacobin mania and a fragile remainder who have eluded the slaughter. Cutting them only repeats the error of Jacobin violence and severs the only remaining thread out of the labyrinthine malaise.

It turns out, then, that Robespierre may have been right: ‘The will of the people is the law.’ It’s just that, for Buchner, that will is radically inscrutable and cannot be finally computed – not even by severing human heads.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Danton’s Death is playing at the Olivier Theatre at the National until October. Click here for more information.

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