GER 341, 342, 343 HomepageOregon State University

Büchner: Dantons Tod


Background:

This play, which was written in 1835 right before Büchner fled to Strassburg, deals with a phase of the French Revolution called the Reign of Terror or the Jacobean Phase of the Revolution. In a version edited by Karl Gutzkow it first appeared in 1835 in installments in Gutzkow's magazine Der Phönix with the melodramatic subtitle Dramatic Images from France's Reign of Terror. (This edition is the one Büchner refers to in the letter dated July 28, 1835.) The play was not performed on stage until 1902 (!). The action of the play starts on March 24, 1794 and goes to Danton's execution (which was Robespierre's doing) on April 5, 1794.

The two main leaders during this time Robespierre and Danton. First Danton was the leader, then he was overthrown by Robespierre. During the Reign of Terror many moderate revolutionaries were arrested and executed, as were Marie Antoinette and the King of France. Although the "hero" (or anti-hero) of the play is Danton, he himself was not innocent of wrong doing. For example, as Minister of Justice he was responsible for the murder of more than 1,000 prisoners in September 1792. However, before he was executed he had withdrawn from political life and had begun to attack the excesses of the Reign of Terror under the leadership of Robespierre.

The drama is more than just the story of Danton; it is Büchner's coming to grips with the idea of revolution. At the time he was becoming more and more involved in actual revolutionary deeds himself. A famous line in another part of the play is: "Die Revolution frisst ihre eigenen Kinder".

For you to think about: Consider the last line Danton speaks in relation to the definition of Nihilism. Remember that these are the views of the characters and do not necessarily reflect the author's true thoughts, but how do his views here mesh with what we read in the letters? Finally, what do you think of the views of Danton and his fellow prisoners?


Excerpt: Act IV, Scene 5

Camille: . . . we should for once take off our masks. Then we would see, like in a room with mirrors everywhere, only the one, ancient, numberless, indestructable blockhead, nothing more, nothing less. The differences are not so great; we all are scoundrels and angels, idiots and geniuses, in fact (we are) all of these things in one; these four things have enough space in this body, (for) they are not as big as we imagine. Sleeping, digesting (your food), making children everyone does. What's left are just variations on the same theme in different keys. And we're supposed to stand on our toes and make faces, we're supposed to be embarassed in front of others.... We all have stuffed outselves at the same table and have terrible pains in our bodies; why are you then holding a napkin in front of your face--go ahead and scream and whine, however you take it into your head. Just don't make such virtuous and such intelligent and such heroic and such genial faces. We know each other well enough, just don't bother.

Herault: Yes, Camille, let's sit together and scream, nothing is more stupid than pressing our lips together when something hurts. Greeks and gods cried; Romans and Stoics put on heroic faces.

Danton: The Greeks and the gods were just as much Epicurians (i.e. hedonists) as the Romans and Stoics. They created quite a comfortable ego for themselves. It isn't so bad to drape your toga and then to look around to see if you throw a long shadow. Why should we care? Whether we tie laurel leaves, rosaries or a vine leaf in front of our private parts or wear the ugly thing openly and let it be licked by the dogs?

Philippeau: My friends, we don't exactly have to stand high above the earth to no longer see all of the crazy staggering and glittering; or to have your eyes be full of (be fulfilled by so you don't see anything else) a few great, godly lines. There is an ear for which the screaming and the hue and cry that deafen us are a stream of harmonies.

Danton: But we are the poor musicians and our bodies are the instruments. Are the ugly tunes which are botched up (played badly) on them (our bodies) only there in order to penetrate higher and higher and finally to die, quietly resonating like a voluptuous whiff (of air) in heavenly ears?

Herault: Are we like suckling pigs for princely tables that are whipped to death with switches so that their meat is tastier?

Danton: Are we children that are roasted in the glowing arms of the monster of this world and tickled by beams of light--so that the gods can enjoy their laughter?

Camille: So is the ether, with its golden eyes, a bowl of golden carp that sits on the table of the holy gods and the holy gods are laughing eternally and eternally enjoying the colorful game of our death throes?

Danton: The world is Chaos. Nothingness is the god of the world (who/that is being born? that is giving birth? gebärend = bearing, giving birth, begetting, breeding; but zu gebärend???)


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