May 8, 2009

Danton’s Death (1835)

Georg Büchner (1813–1837)
Dantons Tod (1835)
translated into English as Danton’s Death (1971) by Victor Price


930: Danton’s Death

This was a satisfying morsel of seriousness, like a dark piece of meat. This is exactly the sort of theater I would never buy tickets for: historical, political, grim, long. But on the page and in my mind, it impressed me with its consistent intelligence. Every moment brings a new idea, either in content or form. Büchner wrote it at the age of 21, never having written for the stage before (and possibly never having seen a play?), and it feels wonderfully free from the influence of theatrical standard practice.

It’s clear that he wrote because he was personally invested in the issues (being a cynical revolutionary himself), not because he considered himself “an artist.”

Many writers seem to write principally because they are writers. The occupation and habit of writing demands subject matter, rather than the subject matter demanding its being written. Their desire to communicate is merely a habit, not an imperative. This state of affairs isn’t inexcusable, but once I recognize it, I often lose interest. I want to be caring about the same thing the writer cared about, feeling the same way he felt. If he was thinking about writing more than about life, chances are so will I. The catch is that passionate, unwriterly writing is usually ineffective; writers, unfortunately, are generally the only people who write well.

Here we have a rare and invigorating case of an author motivated more by his subject than his craft, and yet still having an excellent and original talent for that craft. Or at least for literary art. It’s not clear how realistically Büchner was thinking about theatrical productions. This play calls for a really huge cast (30 named roles plus assorted others), many of the characters making only one appearance each. It contains several heavily populated scenes requiring a large stage, and also many extremely short scenes that demand quick changes. Obviously, these things are all possible, but in combination they create the impression of a play written to be produced in the imagination rather than by paid professionals. Considering how heady and depressing it is, it’s awfully expensive. Not a promising combination from a business perspective.

It can be produced, and has been — not during Büchner’s brief lifetime, of course; not for many decades afterward — but at heart it’s not really crying out to be performed, at least not to my mind. It’s really just literature that happens to be written down as drama, I think because Büchner felt that the form of drama closest approaches the artistic ideal of recreating life. This piece borrows the notation of drama to be something rather different, a different kind of literature — just like that chapter of Ulysses that is written like a play but is manifestly unperformable.

I just read someone’s blog saying that Büchner invented cinema aesthetics 70 years too early: his successions of very brief scenes read like edited film. One succession, in fact, is like a reverse cut, where the scene set outside the prison wall, with a character seen in the prison window, is followed by the scene inside the prison, with the same character looking out the window. This is a neat point, but of course what Büchner was writing was not cinema because it couldn’t be. It was his own fresh aesthetic, driven above all by his desire to be true to life and not to convention.

Here’s an excerpt, in which Büchner decries the mass audience that lacks the imaginative capacity to comprehend sincere and conscientious portrayals of life, such as… this play. How right he was! This speech would not get anywhere near that audience for years. If a writer describes a tree falling in the forest, but nobody ever reads it, is it still standing?

CAMILLE. I tell you, if they don’t get things in wooden copies, all neatly labelled, in theatres, concerts, or art shows, they’ve got neither eyes nor ears for them. But carve a puppet, show them the hole where the string goes in, give it a pull so that its joints creak in blank verse with every step it takes — and then, what character-drawing, what verisimilitude! Take a little scrap of sentiment, an aphorism, a concept, dress it up in coat and trousers, give it hands and feet, paint its face and let it attitudinize through three acts till at the finish it gets married or blows its brains out — and lo, idealism! Fiddle out an opera that bears as much relation to the ups and downs of life as a clay pipe blowing bubbles to a nightingale — high Art. Turn people out of the theatre and on to the street — and oh dear me, how pitiful reality is! They forget God Almighty for his bad imitators. Creation, red-hot creation thunders and lightens in and around them at every moment; they hear and see nothing. They go to the theatre, they read poems and novels, they grimace like the puppets they find in them and turn up their noses at God’s creatures. ‘My dear, how commonplace!’ The Greeks knew what they were talking about when they said that Pygmalion’s statue came to life but bore no children.

DANTON. And artists treat nature as David treated the murdered Septembrists when they were thrown out of La Force on to the streets. He sketched them in cold blood and said: ‘I’m catching the last spasm of life in these scoundrels.’

[He is called away.]

CAMILLE. What do you say, Lucile?

LUCILE. Nothing, I so love watching you when you speak.

CAMILLE. Do you listen as well?

LUCILE. Of course!

CAMILLE. Well, am I right? Do you really know what I said?

LUCILE. To tell you the truth, no.

That deflated after-beat demonstrates what makes the play so brilliant. Büchner’s essayistic speechifying, which is always fascinating in its own right, is never allowed to forget that it too is just part of a real, fallen world, in which the pretensions of essayistic speechifying pale next to the love and pain and confusion around them. This is, in fact, the philosophical point of the play; just causes and noble actions are important, revolutions cannot be ignored, but they reduce life and death to political currency, and anyone who can see that death is another sort of thing entirely is bound to become disenchanted. A revolutionary with his eyes open will always be a cynic about his own cause.

What’s exceptional here is that Büchner takes equally seriously both the politics and the undercurrent of anti-politics. There’s no writing off the political intrigues of the plot as just so much breast-beating; everything that happens is very important for both the characters and for their country; but neither is there any writing off the sense that it is all an ugly, deluded game. Danton’s ambivalence is genuinely Büchner’s and it becomes ours as we take it all in. That, I think, is a great achievement. It’s so easy for a work of art to purport to struggle with philosophical issues even as it sits comfortably within larger and more fundamental philosophical assumptions. This play refuses to get comfortable; it lives right within the issues that drive it.

Among the major speeches of the play, most of them by boasting, feuding, scheming revolutionaries, there is one very earthy, personal one given to a whore, which ends on this remarkable note:

MARION. … Other people have Sundays and week-days, they work six days and they pray on the seventh. Every year they look forward to their birthday, and to the New Year, and they feel sentimental. I don’t understand all that. I know nothing about divisions or changes. I’m all of a piece, just one big longing and clinging. I’m a fire, a river. My mother died of grief. People point their fingers at me. That’s stupid! The only thing that counts is what you enjoy — bodies, holy pictures, flowers, toys. The feelings are just the same. Enjoy yourself — that’s the best way to pray.

This is really Molly Bloom incarnate, 80-some years before her time. The whole play feels like an outburst of very modern philosophical clarity, from an isolated soul who came to it with no particular help from the culture around him. I’m not enamored of “genius” any more than any other artistic mode d’être, but in this case I found the aesthetic self-sufficiency of the work and its author very compelling.

What, I can say raison d’être and modus operandi but I can’t say mode d’être? Well, screw you. And anyway, it’s still not actually what I mean. I really want a word for the type of story that is told about a given person — a mode of being talked about or dramatized, a pre-packaged quasi-narrative identity that can be imposed by a historian. “Tortured genius,” or “renaissance man” or “free spirit,” or “ahead of his time” — each of these is a what? They’re all a little phony because they’re all blithely reductive. Word suggestions please.

I wanted to say something about how naturalism is relative and the speeches aren’t actually “realistic” at all to the way people talk. The atmosphere created by playwriting that is observant about life but is artificially dense with thought always reminds me of Shakespeare, but surely that’s because I haven’t read enough plays. Though the introduction does seem to think drawing connections to Shakespeare is specifically merited here. So… there, I said something. The shorter the better.

A lot of standout lines and moments — I want to mention that the deeply evil speech that Saint-Just makes to the assembly, in particular, is absolutely riveting — and a richly idiosyncratic overall conception makes for a very satisfying read. But even knowing that, I’m not sure I would want to see this performed. I’m not sure it makes enough deliberate enough use of time — real, tangible time, sitting-in-a-crowd-in-the-dark-being-quiet time — that it wouldn’t just feel like a cruel way of turning this intriguing text into a tedious ordeal. There are plenty of very good books that I wouldn’t want to hear performed aloud. I think this might be one of them. Stage directions be damned.

But of course I don’t know — a good director could easily surprise me. I have an open mind and would like to sample a production on video or radio, except there doesn’t seem to be any easy way of doing so. There is a fairly well-regarded opera of Dantons Tod, which seems to have been a career-maker for composer Gottfried von Einem. Oddly enough, you can listen to most of it right here (a few tracks are missing). I actually got the score out of the library and followed through about half of it. The adaptation seems respectable and thoughtful, certainly, and the music seems fine… but I think I just don’t speak opera. As with Richard Strauss a few months back, I don’t know how to listen to a succession of moments of little to no inherent drama each being given big-time musical emphasis. This may well have to do with my mongrel musical upbringing, as I was saying earlier this week. But to go there would be really and truly off topic. Halt.

I got out the ratty library copy above even though they also had two successively cleaner and newer reprints, because 1) more fun to get something that reminds me of the 70s than something that reminds me of the bookstore, right? and 2) the new editions, being offset from the old edition, had slightly thicker, weightier letters. I bet if they cared about it, the technology exists to reprint old editions without any detectable loss of fidelity. But they obviously don’t care, and so they print these ever-blurrier editions, even though the crisper, more delicate letterforms are always more satisfying. AM I RIGHT, PEOPLE?

I’m thinking of building this observation into my standup routine.

Actually I think Demetri Martin already has, right after his hilarious bit about n factorial, and his brilliant riff about how 3 looks like a backward E, and his sestina about how awesome a perfectly sharpened pencil is. That shit cracks me up.

But seriously folks, Demetri Martin is probably a cool guy. I’m gonna end this entry before anything else happens.


  1. I feel compelled to comment because 1) I actually feel compelled to comment and 2) another reason. So: 1. I read–presumably “studied”–Woyzeck in college, but everything you write about Buchner here is (as if) all new to me. Wow–how did he manage to get himself read and published and remembered over 100 years later, when he was so young and wrote so outside the conventions of his time? And why did he die at 24? I could google, I know. And when I say “remembered,” it’s all relative, since 999 out of 1000 people will not ever have heard of him–no, clearly a much smaller percentage–and a much much smaller percentage will have ever read anything he wrote, much less read it with as much attention and appreciation as you did. And here he is/was, with these thoughts he had–radical, crazy ahead-of-his-time creative thoughts–that are sitting in ratty library copies on ratty library shelves. While Demetri Martin has a career doing whatever it is he does. He’s really obnoxious, right? I mean, yes, he IS really obnoxious.

    Posted by mrb on |
  2. First of all, my opinion that Demetri Martin is unfunny is, I think, a minority opinion. People I know who are not undiscriminating seem to like him. Are you just getting your opinion on context from mine or do you really think he’s obnoxious?

    Second of all, relative obscurity: I know from hanging around with people with theater degrees that to such people, any playwright or play I have ever heard of is a standard, a very famous classic. Otherwise I wouldn’t have heard of it. Büchner might seem off the beaten path to you or me, but only because daily life has so little do with theater. Without actually knowing, I feel confident guessing that there are people, probably more than one, among my Facebook friends who have been involved with productions of Danton’s Death. Well, Woyzeck, certainly. Even I am aware that that one gets done all the time.

    It’s like if someone told me they’d seen this really bizarre obscure opera, Wozzeck, by this composer they’d never heard of, Alban Berg. I’d say, yeah, I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it but that’s actually “a really famous opera.” That still doesn’t mean that less than 1 person in 1000 has heard of it. In the US, anyway. Probably a little higher in Europe, a lot lower in China.

    He died of typhus. I think the re-emergence of the work years later was due to several enthusiastic editors, but I don’t know off the top of my head. You can look it up.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. Yes, even though I HAD heard of Buchner and had in fact read Woyzeck in some lit class in college, I’m still impressed with something about the fact of his work lasting, though in some medium-sized level of obscurity… but I guess that could be true of hundreds and hundreds of long-dead artists/writers/composers who are not Leonardo or Shakespeare or Mozart.
    My opinion of Demetri Martin is based on my own watching of several episodes of his recent show, which I did specifically because an actress friend appeared in one sketch. I find SOME of his observations SOMEWHAT amusing–just barely–but he is seemingly so in awe of his own awesomeness, that I am put off to a degree that counteracts any entertainment potential. And his little drawings? You did the same kind of things while doodling in German class (or the like) in high school. And without the smugness.

    Posted by mrb on |

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