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Legacies of Sade: Theater, Insanity, and Revolution in Marat/Sade (1967)

“A writer of books with hope on every page, or the most vicious butcher of his age…”

Marat/Sade, originally a play (1963) written by Peter Weiss that was later turned into a film (1967) directed by Peter Brook, is a creative venture that crosses beyond historical time. The settings are both imaginary and real, culminating in a chaotic mixture of political ideas that cover nearly two centuries. It is a confusing piece of theater even if viewers have a general familiarity with the subject matter, which is most likely incomprehensible to an audience that has no context or explanation. In this way it is pretentious in the most literal sense of that word, but rollicking fun for those who have studied the French Revolution and avant garde theater of the twentieth century.

Jean-Paul Marat was many things throughout his life, but perhaps best known for radical politics and journalism during the French Revolution. He sided with the people, as opposed to the government, aristocracy, or church, but was eventually assassinated on July 13, 1793, by a woman named Charlotte Corday. She came from an aristocratic family, and will forever be known as the woman who stabbed Marat as he was confined to his bathtub with a skin disease. To many, Marat was a martyr, and his historic path crosses with the Marquis de Sade, who turned out to be the one to write Marat’s eulogy and speak at his funeral. Perceptions of this revolutionary figure were conflicted, with some destroying the icons of his memory, and others paying tribute to him for years to come.

Marat/Sade–which goes by the full name The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sadetakes place inside the Charenton asylum, where Sade lived out his final five years. Legend has it that the Abbé de Coulmier, who ran the asylum, had progressive views that encouraged the inmates to put on theatrical productions–a kind of art therapy. However, this and the belief that Sade was like a puppet master, pulling the strings of inmates in grandiose shows, is most likely a thing of myth. Historical record leads us to believe that professional theater troupes may have performed at the asylum, with well behaved inmates like Sade taking on minor roles, but nothing so complex as the events in Marat/Sade.    

The Weiss/Brook production opens with Coulmier (Clifford Rose) addressing the audience straight into the camera, explaining the activities that go on at Charenton, as well as giving a synopsis of the play to come. We are introduced to our players and the ticks of their personalities: The inmate who plays Marat (Ian Richardson) is a paranoiac, and Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson) is a narcoleptic melancholiac. Corday’s inter-institutional suitor is Duperre (John Steiner), a spaced out sex maniac who looks like a precursor to David Bowie. Roux (Robert Lloyd) is a former priest harboring beliefs a bit too radical. Sade, played by the brilliant and memorable Patrick MaGee, is just Sade–brooding, ruminating, and attempting to negotiate power from Coulmier. Most of the secondary cast members rollick about in white, hospital-gown-like clothing, while Coulmier and a few others on the periphery are dressed in early-nineteenth century garb, flashing the French tri-colors. Sade gets some frills, while Duperre is allowed to wear a costume much like a gentleman’s, only drained of color or dye. What follows shifts between ecstatic chaos and intellectual exercise.    

By design, the afflictions of the inmate actors infect the historical figures, most likely giving rise to associations that may not be completely true. Was Marat really a highly paranoid person? Perhaps, in so much as any other confrontational political figure should be during times of revolution. However, Charlotte Corday was most likely not a narcoleptic, although heightened despair probably played a part in the extreme assassination she committed. Quite ironically, in that Weiss and Brook take vast liberties with Sade’s true history, the divine marquis seems to be the character who is most similar to the figure of memory. Patrick Magee–who played the role both on stage and screen–gives an excellent performance as a power-stripped philosopher nearing the end of his increasingly existential life confined behind bars. What may be the most compelling thing about Marat/Sade is the feeling that Sade is somehow in control of things–he clearly is not. Yet he retains this illusion of actually having more power than such a significant revolutionary voice like Marat’s. It gives us the feeling that those who continue living have the ability to reframe all of our perspectives on the dead. Corday becomes a sort of contract killer for Sade–his first line is “Not yet Corday.”–approaching Marat’s home only when the marquis allows her to. In reality, Sade was not much more than a financially devastated inmate of prisons and asylums. The weight of history allows him to be so much more than that. In one of the last spoken passages of the play, Sade compares himself with Marat: “Both wanted changes. But his views and mine on using power, never could combine. On the one hand he, who thinks our lives can be improved by axes and knives. Or he who’d submerged in the imagination, seeking a personal annihilation. So for me the last word never can be spoken. I’m left with a question that is always open.” Indeed, with every new writing and conversation about the marquis, it proves that his truth is in a penultimate holding pattern.

Did I mention there are a variety of musical numbers? Marat/Sade is a freewheeling hodgepodge of theatrical techniques that largely keeps returning to the form of a misfit musical. Yet it doesn’t seem to be the type of production that is looking for all the Tony awards–although it did win Best Play and Pest Director in 1966. The production marks an interesting time in popular theater when various avant garde techniques synthesized into such a wild show. All the Brechtian techniques of the 1920’s and 30’s that led to alienating the viewer are in full force during Marat/Sade. This is combined with the influences of Antonin Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty, which concentrated on the primal aspects of human behavior, throwing out structure for emotion and anger. The result is a play distinctly from the 1960s that marks a moment when the avant garde and popular theater crossed each other. In terms of the film adaptation, an awareness of contemporary practices is evident, with Peter Brook’s work being quite relatable to a filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard.

Quite often art takes great liberties to fit history into an attractive and understandable package. Regarding the French Revolution, perhaps one of the most famous examples is the painting by Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat.” The fallen revolutionary is highly romanticized and completely beautiful, when in fact he was apparently an unattractive man with a nasty-looking skin disease. Marat/Sade cleans up our protagonists as well, with the former having a few pockmarks on his skin, but generally looking good. Of course, by this time in Sade’s life he was wildly corpulent, something that the playwrights and filmmakers chose to ignore, and replace with the classical-looking Patrick Magee. It would be fascinating to see a production of Marat/Sade with actors who were far truer to the unflattering realities of these historical figures. As it is, Peter Brook’s production deserves a worthy seat among the other important mental asylum films like Bedlam (1946), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Each of these films are about the insanity and cruelty found outside asylum walls, with Marat/Sade concentrating particularly on the wild and uncontrollable actions and events that exist with revolution.   

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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