The Death of Danton

A historical drama by John Keats

Notorious since its 1821 première in Pisa, which was famously interrupted by armed police, The Death of Danton has never received a proper modern edition. Yet its importance is hard to overstate. George Steiner called this play the first political tragedy in European drama, and a host of other firsts go with that: the unprecendented mixture of verse and prose, the startlingly recent historical subject and near-documentary reliance on contemporary accounts, and of course the vulgarities that long made the play unprintable and unstageable in its original form. That it fell to Keats, supposedly the least radical of the Romantics, to make this decisive break into modernity is an irony that may still not be properly appreciated.

Yet, for all its newness, the play is doubtless congruent with the more familiar Keats that came before. The influence of Shakespeare, always his lodestar, is strong as ever; the corporeal, medical imagination so apparent in Hyperion is here trained on an entire republic, as is that love of easeful death which here threatens to open an existential abyss and reminds us that Keats’s illness of 1820-1821 very nearly prevented his embarking on the work at all.

For tax reasons, we have been advised to release the complete four-act text of the play as a preorder incentive for a contemporary American novel, available at The first two scenes appear below.

Act One, Scene One

Hérault-Séchelles with ladies at a card table. Danton and Mme Danton apart, Danton seated on a stool at Mme Danton’s feet.

Danton. See the fair lady! Subtle are her hands,
And nice her fingers, parceling the cards.
See, ever to her husband fall the hearts—
And to the rest, the coins. Legerdemain!
A lie commands our love.

Mme Danton. Believ’st in me?

Danton. How can I say? We know each other scarce.
We are thick-pelted things—we stretch our paws,
And one coarse hide but rubs against the next.
We are lonely.

Mme Danton. Danton, thou knowest me.

Danton. Ay, what the world calls knowing. Feather’d locks
Thou hast, and eyes of jet, and cheek all snow,
And loving call’st my name―but here! But here!
What is behind? How gross our human senses!
To know each other? Never, till we cleave
Our skulls in two, and from our furrowed brains
Wring out the thoughts.

(A hand is dealt.)

Lady. Say, what are you about with your fingers?

Hérault. Nothing!

Lady. Don’t stick your thumb out so, it’s vulgar.

Hérault. But see, the thing has such a particular physiognomy.

Danton. I love thee as the grave.

Mme Danton. O horrible!

Danton. Nay, hear. ‘Tis said that in the grave is peace,
Peace and the grave are one. If this be so,
In thy soft lap I lie beneath the earth.
Sweet grave! Thy fluted lips my passing-bells,
Thy breast my burial mound, thy heart my coffin.

(The hand is played.)

Lady. You lose!

Hérault. It was a lover’s adventure. It cost money like any other.

Lady. Then you declared your love like a deaf-mute, with your fingers.

Hérault. And fitting it was. They say the fingers, of all things, are soonest understood. See, here I made a tryst with the queen; my fingers were princes transformed to spiders; the fairy, Madam, was you; but the chance went ill. The lady was forever in childbed, each moment she birthed another knave. By God, I wouldn’t have my daughter play this game―the lords and ladies fall so indecently upon each other! And the knaves come close behind.

(Enter Camille.)

Hérault. A frown, Camille! Didst tear thy carmine cap,
Or blotting rain obscure the guillotine?
Did the gutter crowd press close, and give no view?

Camille. Time was, Hérault, to play at Socrates,
And mock Alcibiades in his sulk;
Now give ear, classical republican!
Your guillotine romantics have the day.
Another twenty are made sacrifice—
We were deceived. The Hébertists are slain
For want alone of system in their crimes,
And that the faction after Robespierre
Quake for themselves, lest any men should seem
More merciless, more swathed in blood than they.

Hérault. We are become antediluvians.
Saint-Just would bend us naked to all fours,
That Master Robespierre might raise new men
Upon the Genevan watchmaker’s design:
Lectures and dunce caps—and a clockwork God!

Camille. Five hundred heads for peace; so said Marat.
They swell his tally with a row of noughts.
How long have we to sprawl like newborn babes
‘Midst blood and filth, with coffins for our cradles
And heads for baubles? Progress! Clemency!
The banished deputies must be restored.

Hérault. The Revolution has attained the age
Of self-remaking. Forthward must it cease,
And in its stead the Republic commence.
We must exchange our principles of state:
For duty, right; for virtue, happiness;
For penance, preservation. Let each thrive,
Let each unfold his nature. Be he sane
Or madman, true or base, rude or urbane,
It reaches not the state. We are fools all;
Let none impose his folly on another.
Let each seek pleasure in his fashion, save
That none may gladden in another’s harm,
Nor choke his neighbor’s wellspring of delight.

Camille. The shape of state must be an airy veil
To cling skin-close upon the people’s form.
Each pulse of artery, each tightened nerve,
Each longing qiuver must be there transcribed.
The figure may be fair or hideous;
That is its right. Authority have we none,
To cut a frock in any shape we please.
And to them who would throw a nun’s constraint
Upon the naked shoulders and soft throat
Of France, our well-beloved sinneress—
We rap their hands! Nude goddesses, Bacchantes,
Olympic tourneys, sweet melodious lips:
These things we crave—O warm, limb-loosening Love!
Let Robespierre’s Romans, if they will,
Sit them chaste in the corner, and cook beets;
They shall give gladiator games no more.
Let divine Epicurus, let thrice-fair
Venus of shapely buttocks be installed
In place of dead Marat and Chalier
As saints to our Republic. Ho! Danton!
In the Convention shalt thou lead the charge.

Danton. I shall. Thou shalt. He shall… if we live all
To see the morrow… as old women say.
An hour passes. Threescore minutes flown.
Is it not so?

Camille. That much explains itself.

Danton. Ay, everything explains itself. And who
Shall bring to pass these sundry lovely things?

Hérault. We shall, and honest men.

Danton. That “and” between—
A fair wide word! It distances its neighbors.
The road is long, your honesty may lose
Her breath, ere ye join hands. Faith, honest men!
You may lend them money, stand their christenings,
Or wed them to your daughters—but no more.

Desmoulins. Wast thou, wise man, who didst commence the fight.

Danton. Those Romans raised my hackles. Never I met
With any prancing Catos of that stamp,
But I gave him a kick. That is my nature. (Rises.)

Mme Danton. Thou goest?

Danton. They flay me with their politics.
‘Twixt post and portal will I prophesy:
The cast of freedom’s statue is not poured,
The oven glows, we may yet burn our fingers. (Exit.)

Act One, Scene Two

(A man and wife, commoners. The man strikes the wife.)

Man. Puttana! Dose of mercury! Bewormed sin-apple!

Wife. Ohimè! Help! Help!

(Enter citizens with cockades and daggers.)

Citizens. Pull them apart!

Man. Stand off, Romans! I’ll dash this carcass to her bones. Thou Vestal!

Wife. I, a Vestal? A fine day that should be.

Man. From off thy shoulders do I tear the cloak, and hurl thy carcass naked in the sun. Whore’s bed! In each folding of thy body is fornication.

1st Citizen. What’s the matter?

Man. Where is the girl? No, girl she is not—maiden!—that neither. The woman, the wife?—no, nor that—only one name may I call her! It chokes me, I have no breath for it.

2nd Citizen. Good, it should smell of brandy.

Man. Cover thy bald pate, old Virginius. The raven Shame sits upon it, and gouges thine eyes! Romans, a knife! (He falls.)

Wife. He’s a good man, sirs, but he can’t keep up with his brandy. It gets him in the legs.

Man. Thou art the vampire tongue that laps my warm heart’s blood!

Wife. Leave him be, ’tis come time for his bawling.

1. Cit. What’s happened here?

Wife. Sirs, I was sitting on this rock as you see it, in the sun to warm myself, for we have no wood, sirs—

2. Cit. Not even your husband’s nose?

Wife. And my daughter was gone to the corner, for she’s a good girl and keeps up her parents.

Man. She owns it!

Wife. Judas! Would ye have a pair of breeches to pull up, except that the young men pull down theirs? Shalt thirst, brandy-cask, if the fountain dries up? We work with every other part, why not this; thy mother employed it to bring thee into the world, for all it pained her; shall the girl not furnish her own mother? Thou criest for pain? Dunce!

Man. Lucretia! A knife, Romans, give me a knife! O Appius Claudius!

1. Cit. Ay, a knife, but not for the poor tart. What has she done? ’Tis her hunger goes begging. A knife for them who buy the flesh of our women! Woe to them who whore with the daughters of the people! Ye have wind in your bellies and they have fat stomachs, ye have holes in your coats and they have warm furs, ye have welts on your fists and they have velvet hands. Ergo ye work and they do nothing, ergo they stole what ye had by inheritance, ergo ye would have a pair of coppers from your birthright and must beg and whore for it, ergo they are villains and their heads forfeit.

3. Cit. They have no blood in their veins save what they sucked out from ours. They said, the aristocrats are wolves, and we hung the aristocrats from the lampposts. They said, the king’s veto devours your bread, and we struck down the king. They said, the Girondists starve you, and we sent the Girondists to the guillotine. And each time they stripped the clothes from the dead, and we went naked as before. ’Tis time their fat thickened our soup. Death to anyone with no hole in his coat!

1. Cit. Death to anyone who reads and writes!

2. Cit. Death to anyone who flees!

Citizens. Death, death!

(Enter a student, who is seized.)

1. Cit. He has a handkerchief! An aristocrat! To the lamppost!

Student. Monsieurs!

2. Cit. There are no monsieurs here! To the lamppost!

Student. Mercy!

3. Cit. We show more mercy than thou. ’Tis but a curl of hemp to kiss thy throat, and that but a moment. Our life is death by toil, our sentence sixty years to hang and quiver, but we will cut ourselves loose. To the lamppost!

Student (gathering courage). You will see no brighter for it.

1. Cit (laughing). Bravo! Let him go!

(Exit student. Enter Robespierre, women and sans-culottes accompanying.)

Robespierre. What’s the matter, citizens?

3. Cit. What do you think? August and September’s drops of blood have put no red in our cheeks. The guillotine is too slow. We want a thunderclap.

1. Cit. Our children cry for bread, they shall have aristocrats’ flesh. Death!

Citizens. Death! Death!

Robespierre. In the name of the law!

1. Cit. What is the law?

Robespierre. The will of the people.

1. Cit. We are the people and we want no law, ergo there is no law, ergo death!

1. Woman. Silence, let Aristides speak! Silence for the Incorruptible!

2. Woman. Hear the Messiah, come to choose and to judge. He will strike the wicked with the blade of his sword. His eyes are the eyes of election, his hands the hands of judgment.

Robespierre. Poor virtuous people! Your duties ye discharge,
Your enemies ye offer. Ye are great.
In thunder and in lightning do ye storm.
But strike not your own body in your wrath,
O people, murder not yourselves. Ye rise
Or fall by your own force; this your foes know.
Your legislators watch with tireless eyes
And would guide your inevitable hands.
Come to the Jacobins. ‘Midst brothers’ arms
Shall ye hold blood tribunal on your foes.

(Exit citizens after Robespierre.)

Man. Woe! I am undone. (He tries to stand.)

Wife. Here! (She helps him.)

Man. My Baucis. Thou heap’st coals upon my head.

Wife. Stand up!

Man. Dost turn away? Ah, canst forgive me, Portia? ’Twas my madness struck you, not my hand. O, Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it; his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy. Where is Susanna, where is our daughter?

Wife. There, at the corner.

Man. Best of wives, let us go to her.