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:
Any animal plant or man who dies/adds to Nature a 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...
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Imagination has not vanished from the stage. Nor intelligence. For proof see Peter Weiss's play, which opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater.
The exceptional length of the play's title is not caprice. The play reverberates with overtones even as its name is crowded with words and syllables: The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.
Mr. Weiss has written a play within a play, and in both there are unexpected resonances of comment and meaning. He has used the techniques of Brechts, invoking verse, music and speeches to the audience to produce an effect of standing apart, but has orchestrated them in his own way. In the end one is involved as one stands apart; one thinks when one should feel and feels when one should think.
There is hardly anything conventional about the play. But Mr. Weiss's novel devices are not employed for the sake of novelty. His primary purpose, if one may dare to isolate one aim as the chief one, is to examine the conflict between individualism earned to extreme lengths and the idea of a political and social upheaval.
Spokesman for this sort of individualism is Sade; the voice of upheaval is Marat. But Mr. Weiss has gone beyond a simple confrontation. He has achieved a remarkable density of impression and impact by locating his conflict, in the course of his play within a play, in a mental institution.
The result is a vivid work that vibrates on wild, intense, murmurous and furious levels. It is sardonic and impassioned, pitiful and explosive. It may put you off at times with its apparent absurdity, or it may shock you with its allusions to violence and naked emotions. But it will not leave you untouched.
As the play begins on the wide, lofty uncurtained stage, furnished with a few planks, benches and several pits, the inmates of Charenton wander in. They wear rough, tattered rags, and some are twisted in body and limbs as well in mind. The director of the asylum and two of his ladies in their elegant clothes arrive, and he explains that he has encouraged Sade to direct the inmates in this play for its therapeutic value.
Mr. Weiss has not invented this point. Sade, who was an inmate at Charenton, did write and stage plays there in the early years of the 19th century. What Mr. Weiss has invented is the play that Sade has chosen...
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