Essays and Criticism
The Debate Between the Play's Title Characters
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...
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Review of Marat/Sade
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...
(The entire section is 997 words.)