The new National Theatre production of Danton’s Death presents the struggle between the two outstanding leaders of the French Revolution as a straight fight between polar opposites.
It’s the spring of 1794. On the left we have Maximilien (the Incorruptible) Robespierre, who is fighting for social justice and a society based on “virtue”.
He’s a leading member of the radical Jacobin club and the head of the Committee of Public Safety, which now governs France. He’s regarded as “inflexible” and “dogmatic”.
On the right we have George-Jacques (the Great Stuffed Turbot) Danton, the man-mountain with a booming voice who fought his way to the centre of the revolution.
In August 1792 Danton led the second revolution that finally deposed King Louis XVI and established the republic.
He likes a drink, loves his food, is a serial womaniser and has made more than a few bob out of the revolution.
He’s pragmatic, non-ideological and since the start of 1794 has been arguing for the end of The Terror—repression against those who wanted to destroy the revolution and return to the old order.
Little wonder that Danton is regarded as the “acceptable” face of revolution by modern supporters of capitalism.
But it wasn’t as simple as that.
Most people associate the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille prison on the 14 July 1789.
But that was just the beginning.
Pre-revolutionary France had been subject to the absolute authority of the king.
In the summer of 1789 the mass of the population overthrew the ruling order and began to reorganise French society, destroying feudal privilege.
The middle classes were the main beneficiaries of the revolution. But they had to mobilise the poor of Paris and the starving peasants of the countryside against the monarchy.
Alarmed at the egalitarian and democratic impulses awkened by the revolution, the cowardly bourgeoisie sought to bring it to a close.
But the king conspired with monarchs across Europe in an attempt to restore his full authority.
His open plotting transformed many revolutionaries into republicans. In 1792, the king was guillotined.
The new republic faced a number of problems—wars, rampant inflation and counter-revolution. Yet it was a beacon of progress to the world.
Revolutionary France abolished slavery, overthrowing the “aristocracy of the skin” long before it was outlawed in the British Empire. But arguments over the direction of the revolution split its leaders.
The guillotine increasingly settled political disagreements. Danton did not shy away from using state terror.
In the late summer of 1793 he organised an uprising against the republic’s parliament.
It swept his rivals, the Girondins, to the guillotine.
It was only at the end of 1793 that Danton’s appetite for revolution seemed to falter. He began to argue against the terror though this didn’t apply to the left winger Jacques-Rene Herbert who was executed in early 1794.
For all his radicalism, Danton was protective of his rights to property and hostile to the material equality many advocated.
Robespierre has been painted as a heartless butcher but he despised violence. Nevertheless, he was prepared to take whatever measures were necessary to preserve the revolution.
To Robespierre’s ears, Danton’s call for an end to the terror meant that he had joined the ranks of those who said the revolution was “over”.
This is the background to the events dramatised in Danton’s Death. It was written by the German revolutionary Georg Buchner in 1835 when the events it depicts were still in living memory.
Howard Brenton’s version doesn’t go in for historical spectacle. Nevertheless, clever lighting and a brilliant multi-purpose set conjure up the atmosphere of those momentous times brilliantly.
A special mention must go to Alec Newman as Robespierre’s right-hand man Loiuse Antoine Saint-Just. He gives the performance of the evening.
Go and see this play. The final moments will have you wondering, “How did they do that?”
Danton’s Death by Georg Buchner in a new version by Howard Brenton is at the National Theatre in London until 14 October. Tickets £10 to £30 (almost half all tickets at £10). Go to www.nationaltheatre.org.uk