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The Theatre: New Plays in Manhattan: Nov. 14, 1938

3 minute read

Danton’s Death (by George Büchner; produced by the Mercury Theatre). Mars Director Orson Welles having blasted the U. S. into an uproar over the radio, Mercury Director Orson Welles turned last week to the peace & quiet of the French Revolution.

Written a hundred years ago by a young German revolutionary while the police were patrolling his house, Danton’s Death has somehow struck the fancy of modern revolutionaries in the theatre, was produced in German in Manhattan by Max Reinhardt in 1927. It reveals the “moderate” Danton (Martin Gabel), weary of bloodshed, broken in purpose, fallen in power, propelled toward the guillotine through the fanatical ardor of Robespierre (Vladimir Sokoloff), the Incorruptible. After the knife has fallen, Robespierre’s man Friday, Saint-Just (Orson Welles), defends the rigors of revolution in a speech of flame.

Except for this last-minute affirmation, it might seem as though it was Danton’s Death that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For the play is a dark forest of conflicting themes, can be variously regarded as a study in revolutionary disillusionment, an attack on revolutionary fanaticism, a defense of revolutionary intransigence. Danton can be seen as victim or traitor, Robespierre as scourge or hero, or both as merely instruments in a historical process. But Danton’s Death is just as undramatic as it is indecisive. Fatalistic, Hamletesque Danton, bogged in procrastination and boredom, shouts back at Robespierre but never fights back. Everybody shouts, nobody fights. The play consists of great gobs of 19th-Century rhetoric; it could do much better with a little 20th-century suspense.

Most lively thing about Danton’s Death is the production, in which the hero of the play is not Danton, not Robespierre, not the Paris mob, but the Mercury’s electrician. Against a towering cyclorama cobbled with thousands of tiny skulls, with the mob off-stage howling and shrieking, bellowing bawdy songs, braying the Carmagnole, Danton’s Death jerks forward in short, swift scenes of sinister lights and even more sinister shadows. Many of the stage effects are bold and startling; but where, in Julius Caesar last season, vivid technique heightened a throbbing story, in Danton’s Death the technique mercilessly, luridly spotlights a pallid, waxen corpse.

Run Sheep Run (by Raymond Knight) tells of a sentimental Broadway columnist who goes back, after 25 years, to the home town he is always ballyhooing in print. Both he and the audience are very much let down.

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