- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
PETER WEISS 1964
Whether reading or watching a performance, Marat/ Sade is neither a comfortable nor an immediately enjoyable play. The work, whose full title is 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 Sade, is more commonly known by its truncated name. The play was first performed in West Berlin at the Schiller Theater in 1964 and directed by Konrad Swinarksi. It was not until British director Peter Brook staged an English language version in London, however, that Weiss and his play received wide acclaim. That production, staged in 1964 at the Aldwych Theatre, brought Marat/Sade to the attention of the world as critics and audiences hailed the play’s unique style and structure.
Swinarksi’s direction was tame compared to what Brook would do to the work in London and, the following year, in New York. According to David Richard Jones in Great Directors at Work: Stanislavsky, Brecht, Kazan, Brook: “Most audiences experienced it as powerful. Viewers showed that they were strongly affected by its magnitude, whether they walked out in anger or stayed seated, shaking, at the end. The show usually had a similar impact on critics, other theatre workers, and the actors themselves.”
Audience members did storm out of performances of Marat/Sade; some viewers reacted so strongly that they became ill. “At least one spectator, Page 265 | Top of Articlethe German actress Ruth Arrack, died in the auditorium during a performance,” reported Jones. The fever pitch of the play’s emotions, combined with its frank violence and brutality, led many of the play’s detractors to label it as nothing more than “shock theatre.”
Debate existed among critics about the value of the play. Some suggested that the real meaning of the play was perhaps ambiguous. The majority of critics, however, felt that the ambiguity of the play was intentional and a means to force the audience to assess the proceedings and come to their own conclusions. Despite what some perceived as a lack of resolution in Marat/Sade, all who viewed the production agreed that it was a spectacle the likes of which the London and New York stages rarely saw.
Peter Ulrich Weiss was born on November 8, 1916, in Nowawes, a German province near Berlin. A textile merchant, his father was a Hungarian of Jewish descent. His mother, a German Christian, was a former actress. At three, he and his family moved to Bremen, which is the city Weiss associates with childhood and his first rebellion against the wealth and the social pressures of an upper middle class upbringing. In his adolescence the family moved to Berlin, where Weiss began training for a career as a visual artist. His life changed drastically, however, when Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party (the Nazis) rose to political power in Germany. The Nazis were racial purists who believed that non-Germans were a detriment to society and should be rooted out. Being half Jewish and a Czech citizen Weiss was a particular target for such oppression.
As the Nazi’s persecution of Jews became more violent, the Weiss family fled Germany in 1935, settling near London where Weiss was sent to take photography classes, since his family felt that painters couldn’t make a decent living. In his spare time, however, he continued to paint, using his attic as a studio. His disavowal of his family’s values (and wealth) forced him out on his own, and he pursued his studies as an artist in London. He later studied at the Art Academy in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and struck up a friendship with author Herman Hesse (Siddartha), whose work he had been reading for years. Although painting was his major passion, Weiss began writing as well. In 1939, his family moved to Sweden, and Weiss went along, later joining a commune of other German-speaking artists in Sweden.
During this period, Weiss began writing more seriously, publishing his first book in Swedish in 1944. Returning to Germany as a journalist following World War II, he started writing in dramatic form and produced a radio play, The Tower, in 1948. Gradually, the majority of his creative work focused on writing, although he also made documentary and feature films. His fiction work included two autobiographical novels, The Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.
The 1964 production of his play Marat/Sade established Weiss as a writer of international acclaim. The play, with its daring style and strong political content, won a number of honors, including a Lessing Preis Award, an Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Award, and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. The drama was produced in London and New York with direction by Peter Brooks, who many credit as much as Weiss with defining the work’s unique structure.
Like Marat/Sade, later plays by Weiss continued a political vein, these works include Trotsky in Exile, Vietnam Discourse, and The Investigation, which is about Nazi War Crime trials.
Weiss died in Sweden in 1982 and was posthumously awarded the Georg Buchner Prize for outstanding achievement in German letters. Although some critics have considered his work too heavy in political agenda, Roger Ellis said in Peter Weiss in Exile: A Critical Study of His Works: “Weiss always sought something contemporary in his studies of the past: an understanding of the roots of social violence, of the extent of human influence upon historical development, of the restrictive conditions which bear upon modern artists and how to overcome them, and, most especially, an understanding of the roots of the seemingly paradoxical faith of certain individuals who struggle unsuccessfully to improve apparently hopeless situations.”
Or, in Weiss’s own words, “I myself think that art should be so strong that it changes life; otherwise it is a failure.”
Marat/Sade is set in the bath hall of an insane asylum at Charenton; the time is some years after the French Revolution. The play opens with the Marquis de Sade undertaking some last minute preparations for a play he has written with the parts to be played by inmates of the asylum. Invited to watch this spectacle are members of the French aristocracy, specifically Coulmier, the director of the clinic, and his family. Sade gives a signal and Coulmier and his family enter as the actors, a scraggly lot of patients from the asylum, wait tensely.
Coulmier introduces this play within a play by describing the modern advanced treatment at Charenton, which includes therapy through education and art. The Herald points out the main characters—Sade who is seated in his dais, Jean-Paul Marat who is placed in his bath, and Charlotte Corday. There is also Duperret, who buzzes around Corday trying to get his hands on her, and the radical priest Jacques Roux. The Herald explains each of the characters as well as the story line. Corday is coming to Paris to murder Marat in his bath.
At this point the cast pauses to offer an homage to Marat and engage in a slight discussion of his role. This sequence ends with a refrain that will be repeated throughout the play:
Marat, we’re poor and the poor stay poor/Marat don’t make us wait any more/We want our rights and we don’t care how/We want our revolution NOW
Emotions rise as this is recited and the patients/ actors become agitated; the asylum’s nurses restrain them. Coulmier complains to Sade about this outburst, calling on him to control what is happening on stage.
At this point Corday is introduced and her role in the play explained further. Marat, cared for by his mistress Simonne in his bathtub, claims, “I am the Revolution.” Corday makes her first attempt to contact him, knocking at his door. She is sent away, reminded by Simonne that she must come three times before gaining entrance. The Four Singers then describe Corday’s visit to Paris and she responds. Marat, in his bath, attacks the conduct of the ruling class after the revolution, and the patients mime an execution. They play with the severed head, kicking and throwing it about the stage. Coulmier breaks into this play in progress, suggesting that this violence isn’t helping the patients. The Herald smooths things over by declaring that of course this play is talking about the past. Then Sade and Marat launch into a conversation about life and death, in which Sade ultimately looks at war and the manner in which anonymous deaths are parceled out. He wonders whether Marat has become an aristocrat because he has questioned Sade’s lack of compassion.
Marat makes an indictment against the status quo, including the way the church has been used to keep the poor in place by encouraging them to view suffering as an honor. This statement is too much for Coulmier, who again questions Sade about the cuts in the play that they had supposedly agreed upon. Sade and Marat continue to talk, Sade suggesting that his health may be the most important thing to Marat, who then lashes out at the ruling class, complaining of how oppressed people still are.
Duperret is introduced and talks with Corday about her plans, but he (or the patient playing him) is more interested in touching her body and must have his attention refocused. Sade taunts Marat, questioning the validity of the revolution, pointing out that everything comes down to the personal, to oneself. Roux speaks up and encourages a continued revolution of the masses but is restrained. This is too much for Coulmier and he again protests the events taking place in Sade’s play. Roux appeals to Marat and Coulmier demands the scene be cut. Sade continues his conversation with Marat and talks of confronting the criminal in himself while he has Corday beat him. Marat sits in his bath and asks for his pen and paper so he can write down his ideas. He wonders aloud if the revolution that has taken place has improved things. Sade questions Marat’s ideology.
Corday makes a second attempt to see Marat and is turned away. Sade taunts Marat about the reasons people join the revolution. Marat is visited by voices from his past and feverishly begs for help in writing down his thoughts. The act ends with the repeated demand from the patient/actors for revolution.
The second act opens with an imagined scene in the National Assembly where Marat questions the actions of those in power after the revolution, saying they are as bad as before the revolution. His words are received with mixed emotions. Some cheer him on while others question his facts and intentions, including Duperret. Coulmier can take it Page 267 | Top of Articleno longer and jumps up, demanding Sade cut these parts from the play. Roux interrupts and further incites the patients.
Marat, exhausted, is in his bath again, tended to by Simonne. He is once again attempting to commit his thoughts to paper. Sade, to the side, questions the revolutionary’s writing, claiming that nothing can be achieved by scribbling. Marat defends himself, saying that he always wrote with action in mind and that it wasn’t a replacement for action, only a preparation. But Sade doesn’t let up and asks him to look at the sorry state of the revolution. Marat is confused and exhausted.
Corday prepares herself for her final visit to Marat’s bath. She takes her dagger in hand, while Duperret suggests she throw it away and give up on this goal. He begs her to go away with him. She refuses and resolutely goes to Marat’s door. Sade interjects his idea about sensuality at this point and stirs up the patients to sing “what’s the point of a revolution without general copulation.” Corday knocks at Marat’s door and is invited to enter.
The Herald engages in a brief recitation of history, claiming fifteen glorious years since the revolution and the rise of Napoleon. Marat is killed in his bath by Corday.
Coulmier tries to bring a conclusion, again insisting “we live in far different times.” The patients, however, are aroused and march around the stage. Coulmier enlists the nurses to strike them down. As the nurses violently beat the patients, Sade looks on laughing. The play ends.
Corday exists in a dream and must at times be ushered to her appointed times and places. She speaks in a sing-song voice, never fully dimensional, but resolute even in her dream-like state. It is not explained whether her behavior is historical or merely the personality traits of the mental patient playing her in Sade’s inner play. Like other characters in the play within the play, Corday’s ambiguous nature inspires disturbing feelings in the audience.
Corday is going to murder Marat. She comes to Paris, buys the knife, and confers with Duperret, who, at the last minute, tries to dissuade her from committing the murder. She is determined, however,
to accomplish this mission. She also interacts with Sade, and in what many consider a startling scene in Brook’s production, lashes Sade at his request—not with a whip but with her hair.
Corday approaches the thought of killing Marat with fascination. The manner in which she describes how she will kill him is spiked with eroticism. She views Marat’s murder as an act that will free humankind. She once found Marat’s ideas appealing, but she is disappointed by the revolution’s outcome. She sees his death as the first step in a new revolution. Near the end, Corday envisions her own death at the guillotine.
Coulmier is the director of the mental asylum, quite smug about the advanced treatment employed by the Charenton asylum; he boasts of the progress they have made using art and music in therapy. He interrupts Sade’s play on several occasions, complaining about inciteful sections that should be removed. He also interjects to assure anyone listening that the disgraceful subjects in Sade’s play occurred long ago and that things are much better now. His nervousness increases as the patients are aroused and, in the final scene, he orders the nurses to brutally beat down the rioting patients.
Duperret is a rather foppish character whose mind is constantly on sex. He takes any opportunity he can to manhandle women, whether it is Corday, who ignores his advances, or the wife and daughter of Coulmier, who at first don’t know how to react to him and later merely push him away. He coaxes Corday along on her mission but tries to talk her out of the murder just before she commits it. He entreats her to leave Paris with him.
Like all of the characters in Sade’s inner play, Duperret is essayed by an insane actor. His actions are never defined as those of a sane participant in Marat’s murder or those of a psychotic patient. His relentless and overt sexual behavior seems to indicate that the personality of the patient is spilling over into the character, however.
She is the mistress of Marat and regularly fusses over him and changes his bandages. She sends Corday away twice but on the assassin’s third visit, Simonne allows her to enter.
Like the Herald, these four report what is happening throughout the play, through music and mime. They are partly comic.
The Herald acts as a kind of chorus, ushering the audience through the play. So there will be no surprises, he announces what is going to happen: Corday will murder Marat; she will have to come to his door three times before she can enter. He frequently interrupts, using coarsely comic language to describe what is happening in the play. He interjects himself into scenes and at times prompts characters on their lines or actions.
Marat is a physician and journalist who played a significant role in the French Revolution. As a character in Sade’s inner play—which takes place several years after the war—he is a confused man tortured by his memories and the realization that the revolution did not accomplish what he intended. He is plagued by a skin disease and can only find relief by soaking in a bath, which is where he spends his time on stage.
Marat struggles to organize his thoughts, speaking of his ideals for social reform. It is these ideas he defends as he debates with Sade. “I am the Revolution, “he claims at one point. He criticizes the ruling class, those who survived the revolution and live to again profit from it, and the church, which has contributed to oppression by convincing the poor that they are blessed. “We invented the Revolution but we don’t know how to run it,” he says. Sade scolds Marat for hiding behind his words and failing to take action; Marat explains that he never believed the pen alone could destroy institutions. He contends that social injustice demands action and that Page 269 | Top of Articlehuman beings are called to challenge the status quo and change it.
Marat lacks Sade’s eloquence, but he seems to truly believe the ideals of which he speaks. When he writes he does so with action in mind, he says, although he is clearly doing nothing more than sitting in his bathtub. By the play’s end he is exhausted and filled with doubt about his words and the revolution they helped inspire. He desperately tries to dictate a call to the people of France when he is stabbed by Corday.
These are Coulmier’s stooges, who keep the patients in line as needed, and overcome Roux when his speeches become too incendiary. They are brutish men who carry batons to beat down the patients.
These are the insane who populate the play, lurking in the background. They chant to Marat that they want a revolution “NOW!” As the play concludes, they are incited by Sade and Roux and begin rioting, chanting “Revolution! Copulation!” They are savagely beaten by the Nurses.
A former priest, Roux levels strong accusations against the church and interjects his radical ideas during Sade’s play; at one point he calls for the churches to be closed and turned into schools. His questions and allegations disturb Coulmier and incite the patients. Although he is in a sort of straightjacket and has limited mobility, his mouth is often running. He is frequently pulled to the side by the asylum attendants to be silenced.
Sade is the author of the inner play. Interred in the Charenton Asylum, he writes plays for the patients to perform. Sixty-eight-years-old, he is fat and noticeably eccentric. He interacts at times with the characters within the play he is directing. He regularly confronts his lead character, Marat, eloquently debating the French Revolution. He exhibits a fascination with death, especially the painful, tortured variety. He admits to a confusion about his role in his ongoing conversation with Marat, saying, “I do not know if I am hangman or victim.”
Sade doesn’t believe in idealists, only in himself. He describes his imprisonment in the Bastille in which he confronted the criminal within himself, a criminal that committed desecrations and tortures, acts for which he was whipped. Thirteen years of imprisonment have taught him the depths of his own depravity and allowed him to focus his attention on the body—particularly the concept of sadomasochistic sex. Sade’s efforts are heroically honest, wrote Penelope Gilliatt in Vogue, “but he is neither an admirable nor an enviable man, being without charity and mad.”
Marquis de Sade
These are athletic looking men who are dressed in light grey. They carry rosaries and attend to Corday.
In this retelling of the French Revolution’s aftermath, Weiss raises questions about the struggle between classes, between the aristocracy or privileged class, and the poor, lower class. The picture that he paints is a grim one. The much-needed, much-touted Revolution in France has come. Heads have rolled—literally—and changes in France’s government have been introduced. But the question is raised, have things really changed or have the new ruling class adopted the ways of the old aristocracy? The play notes the actions of the ruling class and how the poor are treated. The situation has slightly improved but not enough to merit the loss of life in the revolution.
The church is scrutinized for aiding the ruling class by encouraging those in poverty to turn to God and see merit in suffering. Churches should be made into schools, the play suggests, at least they might then make some positive contribution to society. The lives of the new ruling class are examined, pointing out a basic pattern. Once in power, those who may have started out with good intentions become corrupt. Power corrupts, greed corrupts. The wealth resides with the minority who control society; the pattern is repeated with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.
These messages are couched in the surreal setting of an insane asylum with three major factions (represented by Marat, Sade, and Coulmier) debating the reality of the times and the issues.
While this occurs, the insane inmates become agitated and threaten the security of the institution. Coulmier, representing the status quo and those in power, continually defends the present, pointing out the improvements; he is the one most threatened by the unruliness of the patients, who represent the poor masses. Weiss uses the similarities between the oppressed poor and the incarcerated patients to show that inequity existed not only in the French Revolution but in all social situations—even ones as microcosmic as the power structure of an insane asylum.
Weiss held many communist sympathies, and he employs socialist ideology to the events he depicts. He illustrates the theory that oppressed people will rise up to better their conditions in life. In the play within the play, the actors/patients praise Marat’s efforts in the revolution, yet they also criticize him for not going far enough. They want continued revolt to the point that real change takes place. While these exhortations seem directed at Marat and the circumstances following the revolution, they can just as easily be applied beyond the setting of Sade’s play. Criticism is also leveled at the ruling class of the French society that is represented by the audience members visiting the asylum. More succinctly, the patients’ calls for change can be focused on the asylum director, whose efforts at progressive therapy are appreciated but who could also do much more to make life in the asylum better.
Body vs. Mind
Yet the major conflict of Marat/Sade is not found between the patients and Coulmier. It lies in the contrasting ideas of Sade and Marat. Sade, as the author of the play within the play, gets to confront Marat and his ideology. Their division is the conflict between the physical world and the mind—or inner world.
Marat represents a deep faith in ideas and ideals. He is tortured at times with the ineffectiveness of words but nonetheless defends their power. Words are a representation of ideas. But he insists he has not fallen back on verbiage to avoid action. Clearly the masses are swayed by words but the sympathies of the crowd are fickle; Marat and his ideas can be rejected. While his concepts were inspiring, Marat’s theories of revolution did not go far enough to address the potential for history repeating itself; they have not wrought the revolution that was desired. “We want the revolution NOW,” demand the patients. The impoverished and disenfranchised demand that Marat get out of his head and bring change through action. Is the pen mightier than the sword? The play presents the pen as basically impotent. Marat’s revolution yields a society too similar to the one he sought to vanquish.
Sade argues with Marat about the ineffectiveness of his thoughts and words. He points out the failure of the revolution to bring real change. Sade believes that the revolution failed because its architects failed to address human nature. He tell Marat that change in society cannot be wrought without first changing man’s nature, starting with the body and working outward. To this end Sade proposes his theory of pleasure gained through a combination of agony and ecstasy. By pushing the body to its threshold, one will gain complete knowledge of oneself. Only at that point can humankind hope to change the way they interact.
Appearance vs. Reality
Throughout the play, the traditional barriers between the stage and the audience are broken down. Several times during the course of Sade’s play, Coulmier interrupts the action to criticize the work’s content. Sade also invades the play’s action Page 271 | Top of Articlewith his own comments, taking the opportunity to engage Marat in debates on mind and body. Perhaps most unsettling and surreal for the actual viewer (as opposed to the onstage audience represented by Coulmier and his family) are the performances of the inmates enacting the various roles in Sade’s drama. It is never clear if their actions are dictated by the Marquis’s script and direction or by their own, insane motivations. Similarly, the actors’ call for revolution is ambiguous. Weiss does not clarify if the call is directed toward the action in Sade’s play, toward Coulmier and his class, or to the actual audience. Many have theorized that it is unimportant who the target is as long as the message is understood.
Play within a Play
Weiss uses the technique of a play within a play to tell his story. This layers the play and creates a certain distance for the audience while providing the playwright with narration to explain the work. Marat is both a character in the inner play and is pulled to the outer play in debates with Sade. Coulmier exists in the outer play and regularly challenges what Sade, the creator of the inner play, is doing.
This technique had been used fairly extensively prior to Marat/Sade—notably in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. As with Weiss’s play, the inner play in The King and I addresses issues that are being discussed in the outer play. The slave girl Tuptim acts out Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a story that she uses as a thinly disguised critique of the King of Siam, for whom the inner play is being performed, and his policy toward his servants. Plays like The King and I used the play within play technique for a small section of the overall play. Marat/Sade, however, builds its entire foundation on this conceit.
While some critics complained that Weiss’s multiple layers were little more than theatrical gimmickry, the majority felt that it was an effective technique that, while failing to answer all questions raised by the plot, made the play a riveting, thought-provoking experience.
Theatre of Cruelty
Weiss was a proponent of a form of experimental theatre known as the Theatre of Cruelty. This was developed primarily by Antonin Artaud, a French actor and director. Artaud wanted theatre to go far beyond the written script (just as Sade wants life to be beyond thoughts and ideas), so elements such as lighting, sound effects, and other forms of technology do not just flesh out the text but play an active role in its presentation and interpretation. In Marat/Sade this is employed through the extensive use of special effects such as the gruesome execution sequence.
Albert Bermel wrote in Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty that Artaud “did not care whether his characters won or lost arguments. He wanted to use them in order to expose his audiences to a range of their own feelings that was unconscious and therefore normally inaccessible to them.” This is evident in the central conflict between Sade and Marat. While Sade’s criticism of Marat leads the audience to believe he will offer a solution that Marat’s ideas and thoughts could not, they are confounded in this expectation when Sade offers up the concept of carnality. His alternative does little to solve the problems created by the revolution, but it does offer a glimpse into his psyche. In this sense Weiss provokes the audience to consider the character with whom they most identify and which personality traits are closest to their own.
The concept of cruelty for Artaud was the idea of exposing the audience to danger but then to ultimately free them from it, creating a sort of cleansing transformation. Cruelty, as he was using the idea, did not mean actual physical assault but that the energy of the production made as a sort of attack on the defenses of the viewer; it threatened their concept of normality, exposing them to the fragile nature of human interaction. Theatre of Cruelty seeks to make its audience aware that the balance can topple at any moment and everything can be thrown into utter chaos.
In Marat/Sade Weiss employs these ideas by creating an environment that is unruly and unsafe. While he allows the actual audience a degree of distance and safety—putting the audience of the inner play at the greatest physical risk—they will nevertheless identify with the inner audience and empathize with their fearful situation. The inmates are odd, ugly, obviously insane. They seem ready to spill over into riot at any moment.
Weiss creates unease with a number of techniques meant to disturb. The play is written in verse form and has song and dance laced throughout it. The Corday character delivers her lines with a sing-song Page 272 | Top of Articleeffect, seeming to sleepwalk through her part. This gives her a ghostlike persona that contributes to the surreal effect of watching a play within a play. Added to this is the increasing unrest of the patients, their songs and screams, their threatening behavior. The sum effect of these elements is to unnerve the audience, place them off-balance so that they do not know what to expect. Through this Weiss hoped to confront the audience, make them think, by vicariously putting them through a hellish process he sought to provoke feelings that would not dissipate when the houselights came up.
By many accounts, the impact is significant. The audience may not like it, but they do not forget the experience. As director Brook said of his staging in the introduction to the published version of Marat/Sade, ’I know of one acid test in the theatre. It is literally an acid test. When a performance is over, what remains? Fun can be forgotten, but powerful emotion also disappears and good arguments lose their thread. When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself—then something in the mind burns. The event scorches onto the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are rightly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say.”
Weiss readily admitted his debt to Bertolt Brecht, a German dramatist who lived from 1898-1956. Brecht was known for an approach to epic theatre which he used to make social criticism while using a technique called “Alienation.” Brook explained this concept in the introduction to Marat/Sade: “Alienation is the art of placing an action at a distance so that it can be judged objectively and so that it can be seen in relation to the world—or rather worlds—around it.”
The History of the Play within the Play
It’s important to understand the historical events chronicled in Marat/Sade. Although part of Sade’s drama is fiction it is based on actual events. Jean-Paul Marat was murdered by Charlotte Corday in 1793. He was a physician and journalist who used his newspaper as a platform for his political beliefs.
As a member of the Jacobin party, he played an instrumental part in instigating the French Revolution. The Marquis de Sade was an author living in France during the time of the revolution. He had been imprisoned for his cruel sexual practices (the term “sadism” is a derivation of his name and is used to describe sexual pleasure gained through the causing of pain). He was in residence at the Asylum at Charenton and did write plays while there. He did not know Marat but did give a memorial address at his funeral.
The French Revolution actually took place between 1787 and 1799, with a major climax in 1789, when an outraged mob stormed the Bastille, a fortress and prison. Later the French royal family was forced to flee and the king, Louis XVI, was captured and executed. Leadership in the government thereafter brought about a Reign of Terror in which perceived enemies of the cause were sought out and slaughtered. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte assumed power and built France into a considerable empire. Reasons for the revolution are many, the strongest being the impoverished state of the peasants and the lack of any political power by the middle class. Marat/Sade is set in 1808, when the Revolution was over, but the play reenacts an important event from those bloody days—the assassination of Marat, one of the revolutions’ key architects.
The Foundation of Weiss’s Politics
Weiss experienced three major wars in his lifetime. World War I was in full swing when he was born, the second World War sent his family into exile, and, at the time he was writing Marat/Sade, the Vietnam War was escalating into a vicious battle of attrition. Having experienced the cruel effects of dictatorship firsthand, Weiss came to oppose fascist governments of any kind. He found a positive alternative to such oppressive rule in the concepts of communism, which idealizes equality of ownership and government by the people.
At the time he was developing the play, former Nazi leaders were being tried for war crimes committed during World War II. In the United States, the year 1964 was pivotal because it marked the Tonkin Bay incident in Vietnam and the official authorization by Congress to involve U.S. troops in that conflict. The country was recovering from the assassination the year before of President John F. Kennedy.
This timeframe was also the beginning of other significant action in the U.S., most notably the start
of the civil rights movement as well as the women’s movement. The civil rights movement was marked by violence and race riots in major cities. The energy of the movement gathered steam and rolled over into the antiwar movement. The 1960s were revolutionary times with a preponderance of both peaceful and violent demonstrations against the government.
But like Weiss’s play (Marat’s concepts), much of the rhetoric of the 1960s was merely that, and although important issues were addressed, things didn’t necessarily change. Or not that much. Those in power within the resistance movement, mostly white males, were reticent to accept women as much other than sex objects. So those who were disenfranchised continued in that state. Gains were Page 274 | Top of Articlemade in civil rights but it has become apparent in the decades following that racism cannot be legislated away. These events were hard to ignore and many have speculated that they in some way influenced the themes of Marat/Sade.
The Culture of 1960s
In literature, the 1950s produced a generation of beatniks, bohemian artists who lived on the edge of society and actively criticized the government and society. This movement spread and spawned the hippies of the 1960s. One notable poet of the Beat Generation, as it was called, was Allen Ginsberg, whose long diatribes against America were laced with profanity and references to sex and drugs. His Howl, which was first published in 1956, started out with this line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. . . .” Another poem titled America starts with this: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing/America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956/1 can’t stand my own mind/America when will we end the human war?”
Artists during this time included Andy Warhol who was shocking and questioning artistic values with his silk screens of pop icons done larger than life, including the Campbell soup can and Marilyn Monroe. The Beatles made their first trip to the U.S. in 1964, wedging a chasm between generations of music lovers. The folk music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez was popular, inspiring musicians to address political and social issues in their compositions. Folk music—and later rock—became a foundation from which to protest such topics as the war and racism.
When the work Marat/Sade was first produced, it became a bit of a joke to some. A common jibe was often directed at the play’s lengthy name: “No, I haven’t seen the play, but I’ve read the title.” The first production of the play was staged in West Berlin, Germany, under the direction of Konrad Swinarski. From the start the work was controversial, which is often the best publicity. In its initial run, many critics saw the influence of fellow German Bertolt Brecht on Weiss and his play. Weiss admitted his debt to the great playwright, stating “Brecht influenced me as a dramatist. I learnt most from Brecht. I learnt clarity from him, the necessity of making clear the social question in a play. I learnt from his lightness. He is never heavy in the psychological German way.” Of this first production, the London Times claimed it was “the most ambitious example of the Theatre of Cruelty yet to appear. Practically every influence current in operation in intellectual high fashion is to be found in this play.”
It was the direction of Peter Brook and his London production of the play, however, that brought Marat/Sade to the highest level of international critical acclaim. Brook attended rehearsals for the first production in West Berlin and there met Weiss. The two agreed to take the play to London, where Brook would reinterpret it and later move the production to New York. The Brook-directed version made its debut at the Aldwych Theatre in 1964.
As with the German production, the London performances almost immediately sparked controversy, including a verbal attack on the play by a member of the theatre company’s executive council. Critics also had a good deal to say about Weiss’s work. Millie Painter-Downes of the New Yorker called it “a dazzling theatrical experience” and a “stunning production.” She ended her favorable review by stating, “It is an electrifying show, which would have been a hit even without the present controversy.”
While most reviewers conceded the work’s originality, their appraisals were mixed. A critic from Newsweek questioned whether Weiss should be considered a revolutionary playwright: “Beneath all the business, all the violence and startling gestures, is a vacuum. Weiss, for all his pretensions, is a conventional socialist and an extremely limited philosopher.” The critic went on to say that although the play is impressive, “it establishes a kind of frenetic dance, a choreographed quest for the truths of the imagination, flattering our sense of the fashionable, our desire to be at wicked, important happenings, but offering no light and no resurrection, Marat/Sade is to be seen but not believed.” A reviewer for Time labeled it “inspired sensationalism, “while Harold Clurman of the Nation called it “fascinating entertainment.” Clurman both praised and questioned the work, seeing it as a dialogue with the spirit of the playwright yet he also appraised that the text, when removed from Brook’s theatrics, was trite.
One of the most disturbing parts of the Brook production followed the play’s proper ending. At the curtain call, the actors would clap back to the Page 275 | Top of Articleaudience in a rhythmic pattern which had the effect of shutting up the audience, “dismissing us scornfully as representatives of a public that has evaded its responsibility to recognize the horrendous atrocity of life within us and around us,” claimed Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review.
While such gestures were startling and unconventional—and many critics found them patently offensive—few could deny the power of such theatrics. While a critical consensus could not be reached regarding the artistic merits of Marat/Sade, most agreed that it is a singular work deserving attention. Thirty years after its initial production, Weiss’s play is still considered innovative and shocking; it is regarded as a hallmark of progressive theatre.
Worthington is a professional writer who specializes in drama. In this essay she discusses the debate between the play’s title characters, the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Marat.
Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade presents us with a very bleak world where madness and pessimism prevail. This is a grey world in which range of color is absent and where there seems to be no salvation. Just reading the play, however, makes it difficult to get the full impression, since plays are meant to be seen not merely read. Writing in Civilization, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) described a recent play he had seen and said reading the text “is an incomplete experience of the work, as reading any play must necessarily be, since a play in book form is a little like an octopus out of water.”
Book in hand, we grapple with the text but have a much more distant experience with the action described. In Marat/Sade, the background of mentally ill patients on the brink of violence creates a disturbing experience in which we have to deal with the concept of madness while, simultaneously, interpreting the central action as the two main characters duke it out in an intellectual sparring of ideas.
A critic from Newsweek responded to the 1965 New York performance of Marat/Sade with a claim that the play appealed to a contemporary audience
who wanted to be in on “wicked, important happenings, but offering no light and no resurrection.” But both Sade and Marat purport to offer salvation. Marat, on the one hand, stands for revolutionary idealism. Yet it is an idealism that has him locked in his head, swimming in his bath—a critic but not a creator.
Sade is a disillusioned, washed-out old man, cynical and preoccupied with death and pain:
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Any animal plant or man who dies/adds to Nature’s compost heap
This bleak outlook on human existence is followed by a rhapsody in which Sade speaks of slow, torturous death and complains about anonymous cheapened death. Clearly to Sade, suffering and pain bring significance. And while Sade goes on to question his experience and how anything can be known, a patient prances around claiming “the earth is spread thick with squashed human guts” and then says he is a mad animal.
Although Sade himself is also mad, he sees himself above it all, better than the patients around him. Yet his very dependence on his inner world makes his form of insanity no better than the others. While he says he cannot trust his own experience, he tells Marat that the only thing that is real is his imagination and the world inside his head. He disavows any belief in revolution, claiming to only believe in himself.
But the self in which Sade believes has a distinctly sordid side. He admits to Marat that he sank to the depths during his imprisonment in the Bastille, in which he imagined the worst of society. “I dug the criminal out of me,” he claims, “so I could understand him.” And the criminal that he discovered both enjoyed creating pain in others and also having discomfort inflicted on himself. But he sees himself flawed because even in finding the criminal inside he could not bring himself to murder “although murder was the final proof of my existence.”
Despite being mired in his madness, Sade can still taunt Marat about how useless the revolution has been. This massive social change has not really altered the heart and soul of man. He claims that people join a revolution for reasons quite trivial, quite apart from the ideals of the masterminds. “A poet runs out of poetry and desperately gropes for new images.” He along with the man with ill-fitting shoes and the woman with a too-short husband tack their faith on a revolution that will bring them salvation. Sade points out to Marat that the revolution has failed and has only produced a greater evil. Words, he contends are also without value. All that is anything is in the body:
Marat forget the rest/there’s nothing else/ beyond the body
And so Sade has distanced himself from the revolution, this beacon, this chance for mankind to be saved. He cannot see worth in anything that does Page 277 | Top of Articlenot address man’s carnal nature; “What’s a revolution without general copulation,” he asks.
Marat suffers intense anguish, as does Sade. Part of his suffering is physical, with a skin disease that leaves him fevered and itching, unable to find relief. The disease is a metaphor for the disease of the times, of mankind, a condition which can be eased but never completely cured. Yet Marat professes himself a believer in man’s ability to change. He withstands the cynicism of Sade. While Sade has dug into his criminal self, Marat digs into his skin for words to give France a new beginning:
my head’s on fire/I can’t breath/ There is a rioting mob inside me/I am the Revolution
Marat counters Sade’s cynicism about death and the insignificance of the individual by claiming Sade is without compassion. It is his compassion that is tormenting Marat, as he sees people killed, oppressed beneath the wheel, just to support the lifestyles of the aristocracy. Marat agrees with Sade that the revolution hasn’t succeeded. “We’re clogged with dead ideas. We stand here more oppressed than when we’ve begun.” In his tortured state, he hallucinates. For him, the answer is in his mind because he’s determined the soul is in the brain. Salvation then lies in ideas.
But Marat who has been writing feverishly, collapses, defeated, confused now about his ideas. Why is everything so disjointed he questions:
Everything I wrote of spoke/was considered and true/each argument was sound/And now/doubt/Why does everything sound false
Yet even with this admission of hopelessness Marat digs for his pen, for the words that he can say to save both France and himself. To the end he clings to the belief that the will of the individual is important and can change things:
against Nature’s silence I use action/In the vast indifference I invent a meaning. . . ./The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair/to turn yourself inside out/to see the whole world with fresh eyes.
The doubts that Marat seems to voice, his confusion, seem to most represent those of the author. Yes, “Marat/Sade is full of doubts, my doubts,” Weiss admitted. “The only alternative is that I give my doubts, that I show my situation of doubtfulness and the great difficulties I undergo to find some way out of it. That is the only thing I can reach.”
Certainly Weiss wanted his audience to experience madness. Pandemonium reigns in the background
of this ongoing debate between Sade and Marat, as the play marches forward to its conclusion. It is clear that Weiss is referring to the madness of the times. Although set in the early 1800s, post-Revolutionary times during Napoleon’s reign, he laces the text with references to the present (when he was writing the play) and to recent history. There’s mention of “anonymous cheapened death which we could dole out to entire nations on a mathematical basis,” and the idea of a “final solution.” These are both clear references to the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany.
At the core of the play is the question between Marat and Sade. “The central question about the debates was, Who wins? Was Marat correct when he said society must change before humanity can change? Or was it more important, as Sade believed, to change the self before changing society?” Peter Brook asked in the play’s introduction, noting that audiences in America were divided in their response. Weiss himself, Brooks asserted, wanted that uncertainty in the play. Brook believes that the words of Sade best describe it:
Before deciding what is wrong and what is right/first we must find out what we are/i/do not know myself
The uncertainty that Sade voices, as the more eloquent of the two debaters, seems to be the message that Weiss is giving his audience. There is no certainty. There is no complete knowledge. Weiss after several productions of Marat/Sade placed his sympathy with Marat, but even in tipping the balance in favor of the radical who believes society can change, the play ends in a riot, with insane patients chanting Revolution Revolution Copulation Copulation while nurses bludgeon them with sticks.
“Nothing, we feel, could ever stop this riot. Nothing, we conclude, can ever stop the madness of the world,” said Brook. And that pervasive image of madness stays in the mind of the viewer. All polemics and diatribes aside, the madness is the most memorable aspect of Weiss’s work.
Although Weiss may want us to take away some hope for change, it is hard to be a true believer. One may walk away with the thought, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” a refrain that runs throughout the book of Ecclesiastics in the Bible, a refrain arrived at by King Solomon, who had done extensive research into life—concluding that none of it really made sense.
And that, in a way, is Marat/Sade’s ultimate message: Nothing makes sense. Peter Brook, referring to the New York production, stated that “it wasn’t affirming what was good and glorious in life, but something that most spectators would relate to very directly, violence and madness.”
This is what Kushner labeled “Difficult Art.” He described the concept in Civilization: “It insists on its spectators doing some of the work. . . . We are meant to learn that we are born into a world in which what is easy, commonsensical and evident is very often a lie and that labor is required to make sense as much as to make shoes and houses and superhighways.”
Source: Etta Worthington for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following review which was originally published on December 28, 1965, Taubman praises director Peter Brooks’s production of Weiss’s Marat/ Sade for presenting “afresh, probing sensibility in original stage terms.”
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Source: Howard Taubman, review of Marat/Sade (1965) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 485-86.
Bermel, Albert. Artaud ‘s Theatre of Cruelty, Tallinger, 1977.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space, Avon, 1968.
Brook, Peter. Introduction to Marat/Sade, by Peter Weiss, Atheneum, 1965.
Clurman, Harold. Review of Marat/Sade in the Nation, January 17, 1966.
Ellis, Roger. Peter Weiss in Exile: A Critical Study of His Works, UMI Research Press, 1987.
Gilliatt, Penelope. “Peter Brook: A Natural Saboteur of Order” in Vogue, January 1, 1966.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems, City Lights Books, 1956.
Hewes, Henry. Review of Marat/Sade in the Saturday Review, January 15, 1966.
Hilton, Ian. Peter Weiss: A Search for Affinities, Oswald Wolff, 1970.
Jones, David Richard. Great Directors at Work: Stanislavsky, Brecht, Kazan, Brook, University of California Press, 1986.
Kushner, Tony. “The Art of the Difficult” in Civilization, August/September, 1997.
Painter-Downes, Mollie. Review of Marat/Sade in the New Yorker, September 19, 1964.
Review of Marat/Sade in Newsweek, January 10, 1966.
Review of Marat/Sade in Time, January 7, 1966.
Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss, University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
This work provides a good biographical overview of Weiss’s life as well as a critical study of his work, including a whole section on Marat/Sade.
Connor, Clifford D. Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary, Humanities Press, 1993.
This is a biography of Marat, looking at his life both before and after the Revolution.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Vintage Books, 1988.
This book provides some insight into the events and significance of the French Revolution. It offers a useful overview of the events depicted in Sade’s play within the play.
Weiss, Peter. Exile: A Novel, Delacorte, 1968.
This is an English translation of two of Weiss’s autobiographical novels, The Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800024