Chris Harman

Marxism & Culture

The trials of Danton

(September 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 90, September 1986, p. 29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ANDRZEJ WAJDA’S film Danton was almost universally praised when it came out three or four years ago. The RSC production of Pam Gems’ play, the Danton Affair, at the Barbican theatre in London has been almost universally hammered by the critics.

The different response to the film and the play is not just because the film was better acted. It is true that there is a fair amount of ham over-acting in the RSC performance and the sort of over-elaborate stage scenery you expect in Shakespeare-for-tourists.

The real difference is that the Gems play challenges what might be called the ‘Danton myth’.

The myth was first presented in Danton’s Death, written by the German playwright Buchner 150 years ago. Although Buchner was himself a revolutionary of sorts he wrote an anti-revolutionary play.

It showed Danton, who had been prepared to use terror to defend the French revolution against foreign invasion and royalist intrigue in 1792 and 1793, falling prey to those like Robespierre and Saint-Just who want the terror to continue without limit.

Danton is haunted by his own past actions, awaking in horror when he dreams someone shouts out ‘September’ – a reference to the September massacres when royalist conspirators were dragged from the prisons and slaughtered.

He sees his own fate as something inevitable to the revolutionary process: ‘The revolution is like Saturn: it eats its own children.’

The message is that people like Danton, who enjoys life to the full and suffers from all-too-human weaknesses, lose out in revolutions to people like Robespierre – portrayed as an inhuman, puritanical hypocrite.

Wajda’s film continues with this myth. It heightens the drama by developing the contrast between Danton and Robespierre. But in doing so it eliminates facts that Buchner did refer to – such as the way in which the Parisian poor backed the terror and Danton’s support for the guillotining of the most revolutionary of the Jacobins, the Herbertistes.

Pam Gems turns the whole myth round by moving in the opposite direction to Wajda and expanding the amount of historical material she uses. Danton, the ‘lover of life’ becomes a debaucher who buys himself a child wife and rapes her. His ‘moderation’ becomes rejoicing at the fate of the Herbertistes and a willingness to consider a pact with the enemies of the revolution.

By contrast, it is Robespierre who is torn between fear of relying on terror and the need to take measures to stop Danton conspiring with the counter-revolution.

The centre of the play then becomes not the contrast in personality types or allegedly inevitable outcome of any revolutionary process, but the arguments for and against particular courses of action. It is an intense, intellectually challenging play, which forces the audience to listen and think. No doubt this is why it was hammered by critics who could do neither.

But there is one real fault in it. It abstracts from one very important fact about the French revolution – that it was a bourgeois revolution. Such a revolution is always caught between the need to smash its enemies and the fact that the bourgeoisie is a money grabbing class whose members are individually prepared to sell themselves to any one who will offer them enough.

It is this which explains why the French Revolution could only succeed through interventions by the Parisian poor against the backsliding of important sections of the bourgeoisie.

In Gems’ play Robespierre debates the question of how to make a pure revolution from impure people. This was indeed the central issue of the bourgeois revolution. But the ‘impure people’ were not people in general but the bourgeoisie.

Robespierre tried to impose ‘purity’ on them in their own historical interests by executing Danton. He was bound to fair.

Three months later the individual, avaricious members of the bourgeoisie turned on Robespierre himself. In Thermidor (the name the French revolution gave to one of the summer months) 1794 they guillotined him.

The pattern has necessarily been repeated with subsequent bourgeois revolutions, including some of the bureaucratic revolutions in the Third World.

But it is not a pattern for all revolutions. The Russian Revolution did not, in the vital years of 1917-20, involve terror against the left as well as the right, against workers as well as the bourgeoisie. It did not ‘devour its own children’. There was to be a 16 year gap before the Moscow trials and the great purge – part not of the revolution but of a bureaucratic counter-revolution.

For that reason, you cannot fit the Trotsky-Stalin struggle into the Danton myth. There is no way in which you can equate the incorruptible Trotsky with Danton or that cynical manoeuvrer Stalin with Robespierre.

The Danton Affair is well worth seeing. And it has one great advantage over most plays shown at the big London theatres – the bad reviews it’s had means there are usually plenty of seats available.

Last updated on 27 October 2019