Danton's Death

Danton's Death

1981 Berlin production of "Dantons Tod"
Written by Georg Büchner
Characters Georges Danton
Louis Legendre
Charles-François Delacroix
Camille Desmoulins
Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles
Pierre Philippeaux
Fabre d'Églantine
Louis-Sébastien Mercier
Thomas Paine
Maximilien de Robespierre
Louis Antoine de Saint-Just
Bertrand Barère
Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois
Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne
Pierre Gaspard Chaumette
Arthur Dillon
Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville
Jean-Pierre-André Amar
Jean-Henri Voulland
Martial Joseph Armand Herman
René-François Dumas (fr)
Antoine Simon
Lucile Duplessis
Date premiered 1835; premiered 1902
Original language German
Setting French Revolution, Reign of Terror

Danton's Death (Dantons Tod) was the first play written by Georg Büchner, set during the French Revolution.


Georg Büchner wrote his works in the period between Romanticism and Realism in the so-called Vormärz era in German history and literature. The goal of the politically liberal poets of this period was that literature of a sham existence would again become an effective organ for renewing political and social life. They were opposed to the Romantics and against the restoration of the old order from prior to the Napoleonic Wars. They fought against convention, feudalism and absolutism, campaigned for freedom of speech, the emancipation of the individual, including women and Jews, and for a democratic constitution. They created a trend-poetry and time-poetry – in other words, poetry that dealt with problems of the time and with a commitment to liberal political ideas. Other writers of this trend and period were Heinrich Heine (author of Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen and Atta Troll. Ein Sommernachtstraum), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (author of Faust and Erlkönig) and Franz Grillparzer (author of Weh dem, der lügt).

Whilst working on it Buchner always feared arrest. It only reached print in 1835 after being heavily cut and having the politics softened by sexual innuendo. Research for the play started in late 1834 and he completed a first version of the complete script in five weeks from mid January to mid February 1835. The same year saw a version published by Karl Gutzkow in the Literatur-Blatt of Eduard Duller's Phönix. Frühlings-Zeitung für Deutschland and a book-version in Johann David Sauerländer's Phönix-Verlag, including both the original and Duller's version and giving them the subtitle Dramatic Scenes from France's reign of terror to appease the censor. This makes it the only one of Büchner's plays to be published in his lifetime, albeit in a heavily censored version.

For a long time no theatre would dare put on the play and did not receive its premiere until 1902 – long after Büchner's death. This occurred on 5 January, in the Belle-Alliance-Theater in Berlin, in a production put on by the Vereins Neue Freie Volksbühne.


Its use of numerous historical sources and extensive quotations from original political speeches meant that the play was seen in the 20th century as the precursor to documentary theatre. Until 1979 no one had explored the themes and inner connections within Buchner's work between Eros and Violence systematically – that year saw Reinhold Grimm treat it in text und kritik, Georg Büchner, and it was continued in the present Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 11 (2005–2008).

Plot summary

The play follows the story of Georges Danton, a leader of the French Revolution, during the lull between the first and second terrors. Georges Danton created the office of the Revolutionary Tribunal as a strong arm for the Revolutionary Government. With this, to be accused of anything real or imagined was to be condemned to death without trial, proofs, evidence or witnesses. Within months he knew this power was a terrible mistake and fought to have it ended. Robespierre stopped him and used the Tribunal to have Danton and all opposition killed, consolidate his power and slaughter uncounted thousands of French men, women, and children. Ultimately he followed Danton to the guillotine. Witnesses describe Danton as dying bravely comforting other innocents executed with him.

Second act

Danton's friends press him to fight or flee Robespierre's supporters, but Danton does not see any need to do so and does not believe that the French National Convention will dare to act against him. Danton confides the guilt he feels for the September Massacres in his wife Julie. Danton is imprisoned and led before the National Assembly, which is divided – it feels it has no choice but to acquit him. However, Robespierre and Saint-Just reverse its opinion.

Third act

The prisoners discuss the existence of God and life, and an attempt to prove that God does not exist fails. Danton's supporters are transferred to the Conciergerie. During this time the revolutionary tribunal arranges for its jury to be made up of honest and faithful men. Danton appears confidently before the tribunal, impressing the public with his willingness for justice to be done. Seeing the hearers' sympathy for Danton, the court is adjourned. The tribunal's members invent a plot to change the public's mind. At the tribunal's second sitting, the people stop supporting Danton, due to his lifestyle. Danton's liberal programme is revealed as unacceptable to the masses.

Fourth act

Danton and his supporters are condemned to death. Danton and his friend Camille Desmoulins exchange thoughts on life and death. Danton's wife Julie, to whom he has pledged to be loyal beyond death, poisons herself at their home. The people show themselves to be curious and ironic on Danton's way to the scaffold. When Lucile Desmoulins sees her husband Camille mount the scaffold, she goes mad and resolves to die too, crying "Long live the king!" and thus guaranteeing her own death sentence.


Georges Danton

He is portrayed as a man, at his ease, with innate hedonism, with respect for the recent successes of the Revolution but doubts as to its other objectives. The atmosphere around Danton is marked by wine, gaming and easy women. This is contrary to the realities of the revolution, characterised by poverty, begging, drunkenness and prostitution (1.5). Danton was once poor and owes his current wealth to a gift from the Duke of Orleans, who tried to bribe his way to the French throne and gave Danton a gift as part of this attempt (S. 74, Z. 1–13).

Danton is also portrayed as a hero who stands up against Robespierre's unnecessary killings (Einfach Deutsch; S. 73, Z. 9–12): You want bread and he throws out heads. You thirst and he leads you to the guillotine to lick up the blood. He even takes his premature death as inevitable, with a death wish: Life is evidently a burden to me, please take it away from me, I long to be there to take it off (S. 60, Z. 13–14). Danton has a strong bond of love to his wife Julie, without whom he will not die.

Maximilien Robespierre

He is shown as recognising the plight of the people, who admire him as "virtuous" and "the incorruptible". Even he is not always virtuous, as is already visible at the start of the play in his conversation with Danton. Robespierre is accused of killing people in order to distract from the ongoing famine. He is presented both as a man with a social conscience and as one who moves against Danton to convince the people of their own power. Other revolutionaries describe Robespierre's policy as that of a terrorist.





Critical studies in English (since 1997)

as . 319-33 ALSO IN: Theatre Topics, 1998 Mar; 8 (1): 73–91.

  1. Rhetor7 Spring; 23 (1): 24–38.
  2. 'Les Peuples meurent, pour que Dieu vive': Gertrud Kolmar's Consecration of the Protagonists in the Drama of the French Revolution. By: Justus Fetscher. IN: Hüppauf, War, Violence, and the Modern Condition. Berlin, Germany: de Gruyter; 1997. pp. 317–42

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