Büchner: A Revelation
By Stanley Kauffmann
About Georg Büchner, the astonishments
never cease. How could they? Whenever we turn back to the plays
and the unfinished novella, two miracles dazzle: the quality of
the work and the brevity of the life that produced it. Add the
historical anguish: the fact -- certainly it can be called a fact
-- that if his plays had become known at the time they were written,
the whole of nineteenth-century drama would have been affected.
The latter-day German critic Wilhelm Emrich says: "Georg Büchner's
writings already contain in condensed form all of the fundamental
compositional elements of our century's modern literature." It
is impossible to believe that Büchner's plays would have had no
influence on Ibsen and Strindberg and Hebbel and Zola if Danton's
Death had been visible. The legacy of those subsequent writers
is rich enough, yet it is not idle to assume that it might have
been even richer.
Still another revelation swirls up out
of Büchner. Recently I re-read Danton's Death in connection
with a seminar in tragedy that I conducted. An aspect of the play,
which I had known but scanted, struck me forcibly -- the play's
form. No play written before it has quite the fierce fracture
of traditional form in Danton's Death. Büchner obviously
had been influenced by Shakespeare: for one instance, the intertwining
of vulgar scenes (vulgar in two senses) with those of major persons
is pure Shakespeare. But throughout Danton's Death I
was conscious of something new, torrential, the play's impact
through the coursing structure itself.
Clearly Büchner, passionately humane, politically
insurgent, teeming with impatience, wanted the shape of his play
to fit his radical views of character and politics and history.
Traditional structure would have been inhibiting for a play that
is a forerunner philosophically of twentieth-century existentialism,
that strips narcotic idealism from public action, and that explodes
Aristotelian injunctions. Danton's Death is the first
play to begin after its climax. The protagonist's fate
-- his execution by Robespierre's group -- is as good as sealed
before the play begins. The play might as well be called Danton's
Dying. He attempts to defend himself because of the pressure
of his friends; still, from the first moment of the play, the
matter is settled in his mind. He will die. Thus Büchner's unconventional
dramatic intent forced him to dispense with the classical structures
of his beloved Shakespeare and Goethe and to shape his play in
a manner as innovative and exploratory as his thought.
I suggest, then, that he wrote Danton's
Death as a film script. Yes, this was literally impossible
in 1835. Film would not arrive for another sixty years, and I
don't imply that Büchner foresaw its arrival. But the play depends
on a pace, a rhythm of progress, a stream of settings that we
now associate with film and that seemed to be in Büchner's grasp
in advance. The nineteenth-century theater, as A. Nicholas Vardac
shows in Stage to Screen, was frantic to flex its physical
limitations, almost as if theater people and theater public were
demanding, without knowing what they were demanding, the invention
of film. Büchner, spurning the current theatrical practice, overleaped
it: he responded to an aesthetics that did not yet even exist.
Consider some details. The play doesn't
begin. These lives have been going on for some time: we simply
join them. Scene One doesn't start with establishment of time
or place -- they will filter through as we go -- but with the
sense of our slipping into a set of lives in progress. (Shakespeare
sometimes does this, for instance, in Othello.) For us
today, this effect is less novel than it probably was in the past.
We recognize the method from many, many films, though Büchner
heightens the impact with the intrinsics of what we are joining.
He hardly gives us a chance to catch our breath as Danton in his
first speech wryly makes a bawdy joke and in his second speech
lays his soul open as easily as if he were unbuttoning his shirt.
The play is not one minute old before we are completely immersed
in it. We who live in a film-drenched world can recognize the
process, here used for exceptional purpose.
The pace of the play is almost breath-taking
-- paradoxically so because some scenes are deeply introspective,
like the one in which Danton deliberates about getting dressed.
He is supposed to hurry, to go to the tribunal and defend himself;
still, he considers the weary repetitiveness of dressing. Throughout
the play, short and long scenes, active and pensive, almost bump
one another, depend for their fullness on the very speed with
which they do it. (Max Spalter says: "Multiplicity of episode
allows Büchner to make the content of one scene footnote the content
of another.") This approach makes the usual method of scene-shifting
seem ludicrous, which is all the more wondrous because the theater
practice of Büchner's day had nothing else but that practice.
The idea of the melding of scenes through changes of lighting
and focus, something utterly familiar in today's theater -- and
of course in film -- was rudimentary in a theater that did not
yet have or even conceive of electric lighting.
After Danton has been warned of his arrest,
we suddenly see him in the middle of a field, alone, thinking
aloud. This is not a shift of scene, it is a cut in a film. Later,
Lucile Desmoulins outside her husband's prison calls up to him
at a high window. This is followed immediately by a scene in that
cell with Desmoulins looking down at Lucile. This is not a change
of theater setting: it is a cinematic reverse shot.
Two films of Danton's Death have
indeed been made, both in Germany, a silent one in 1921, one with
sound in 1931, but both are reported to have altered the original.
Television versions were done in Germany in 1963 and in Britain
in 1978. (Andrzej Wajda's Danton, 1982, was adapted from
a different play.) I have not seen any of the Büchner films, but
what lingers in the mind as prototypical for the play is, as I
have read about them, Max Reinhardt's productions. His first was
in 1916, and the descriptions of his maneuverings of the Paris
mob are revelatory. A contemporary critic wrote:
Scenes would flash up for a second or
two....The last words of one scene were still being spoken when
the first words of the next would sound and the light change
to it. The sound of singing, the whistling of "The Marseillaise,"
the tramping of many feet, booing, the echo of a speech being
delivered, applause from out of the darkness. A lamp-post lights
up and the mob is seen hanging an aristocrat.
This, with magnificent appropriation, is
sheer cinematic montage, employed in the theater. Reinhardt had
come to maturity in a country that was rapidly becoming a world
leader in film art, and it seems reasonable to believe that the
film culture swelling around him made him especially perceptive
of the cinematic elements and opportunities in Danton's Death.
In any case, my own last reading of the
play disclosed more clearly than ever another aspect of Büchner's
genius. It enabled him to envision an art that did not yet exist
and to put it at the service of the theater.