The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
The curtain rises on the bathhouse of the Charenton asylum; a circular arena is front stage center. To its right is a dais for Marat’s bathtub, to its left a dais for Sade’s chair. One raised platform will seat Coulmier and his family; another, four singers who have added grotesque bits of costume to their hospital uniforms and wear French Revolutionary caps. A small crowd of patients fills the background. According to Peter Weiss’s direction, “they make habitual movements, turn in circles, hop, mutter to themselves, wail, scream, and so on.” Male nurses, sisters, and actors who do not appear in a particular scene sit on benches in the stage’s middle area.
The Marquis de Sade—sixty-eight, fat, short of breath, institutionalized for his bizarre sexual writings—has composed the play about to be performed for the entertainment of asylum director Coulmier, the amusement of a fashionable audience of sensation-hungry Parisians (represented by the actual theater audience), and the therapeutic advancement of the inmates, who serve as his acting company. The outer play’s date is July 13, 1808, fifteen years after the action of the inner play: Marat’s historic murder in his bathtub by knife-wielding Charlotte Corday, a twenty-four-year-old Girondist determined to liberate France from what she sees as Marat’s beckoning despotism. Directing and casting his own play, Sade has chosen for the role of Marat a fifty-year-old paranoiac. Since Marat...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Most commentators stress a curious fusion—or fission—of the play’s two radically different approaches to theater: The cool, distancing techniques of Bertolt Brecht and the explosively hot Theater of Cruelty of Antonin Artaud.
As a dedicated Marxist, Weiss is naturally attracted to Brecht’s epic techniques of Verfremdung (usually termed “alienation,” but better translated as “distancing”). In Marat/Sade he uses such Brechtian conventions as a choreic narrative and short, disjunctive scenes to keep the public from mistaking the theatrical spectacle for realistic mimesis. Thus the quartet of harlequin singers provides exposition, historical bridges, and musical interludes, supported by an orchestra. They often mime the most dramatic events of the inner play. The herald is a sardonic master of ceremonies, announcing, prompting, and often interrupting the actors. Using his staff like a drillmaster, he is part chorus, part assistant director. The supporting actors, while continuously onstage, only “act” intermittently; they alternate between passive withdrawal and agitated response. Characterization is summary and stylized, presumably with the aim of keeping the audience’s attention on the social implications of the action.
In a Tulane Drama Review interview, Weiss shrugged off the influence of Artaud’s concept of total theater, saying that it influenced Peter Brook’s directorial approach much more than...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Charenton (shar-in-TON). Mental institution in Paris that provides the play’s main setting. Although the action of the drama is centered on a series of violent encounters between the political radical Jean-Paul Marat and the then-infamous Marquis de Sade, in the madhouse of Charenton, this encounter was entirely imaginary. Jean-Paul Marat, one of the architects of the French Revolution, was never incarcerated at Charenton, he never met the Marquis de Sade, and he was assassinated in 1793—fifteen years before the year in which the play is set. However, de Sade was, in fact, incarcerated there from 1801 until his death in 1814. He was imprisoned not for political crimes but for a variety of acts of violence so shocking that the word sadism has derived from his name. While de Sade was a prisoner, he frequently staged plays that he wrote in Charenton.
Placing infamous Marat and de Sade together in a mental institution in which they converse about important social questions allows the author to improvise short, rapidly shifting and changing scenarios, in which the actors, miming the thoughts and actions of sane people, are actually madmen and women who are, time and again, overcome by their various psychoses. They frequently forget de Sade’s scripted words and discourse wildly and violently on social issues. That they are incarcerated lunatics is a subtle touch, for it allows playwright Peter Weiss to insert social...
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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...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
1787: Responding to increasing economic pressures caused by war, poor harvest, inequitable taxation, and the extravagances of the monarchy, Louis the XVI of France convenes the Estates General. Although this seems a victory for the aristocracy, it is really the beginning of the revolution.
1964: Following the directions put in place by the late President Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson calls for victory in the "war on poverty" and signs into law The Economic Opportunity Act, creating an Officer of Economic Opportunity. This office was to oversee a myriad of agencies providing services to the poor, ensuring better nutrition, health, and education for the underprivileged.
Today: Conservative leadership has eroded funding for government programs aiding the poor. Welfare and programs for health and education to inner cities have been severely curtailed or completely phased out. The disparity between the poor and the wealthy grows.
1793: The French Revolution begins, as the poor rise up to overthrow the monarchy in one of the bloodiest wars of the eighteenth century.
1964: North Vietnamese fire at a U.S. destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is passed giving the President authority to take military action; this essentially launches the Vietnam War, in which U.S. forces fight in South Vietnam, opposing the communist threat from North Vietnam....
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Topics for Further Study
Research the French Revolution of the eighteenth century and the civil rights and antiwar movements in the U.S. in the 1960s. Discuss the similarities and differences in these events and the two time periods.
Were Sade and Marat insane? Why or why not?
Research how the Nazis treated artists in the 1930s and 1940s. How may this have influenced Weiss's work?
Look at the characters of Sade, Marat, and Coulmier. Name three contemporary characters, real or fictional, that seem most similar to them and illustrate how they are alike.
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A filmed version of Brook's staging of Marat/Sade was produced in 1966. The original cast is featured, including Glenda Jackson as Corday. Video is available from Waterbearer Films, Lumivision, and I.S. Productions.
Caedmon produced a sound recording in 1967 called Peter Weiss Reading from His Works. This includes several scenes from Marat/Sade.
An audio recording of the Brook production of Marat/Sade was issued by Caedmon and includes original cast members from the early productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Available from Caedmon.
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What Do I Read Next?
Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) is a well-known and often performed play by Bertolt Brecht. The play is set during the Thirty Years War and is considered a masterpiece.
Herman Hesse's Beneath the Wheel (1906) is a good example of the work of this writer who was a friend and mentor to Weiss. This book looks at the duality of man through a story of two students.
Martin Esslin wrote a small book titled Antonin Artaud (1976). This work offers a quick look at Artaud's ideas about the Theatre of Cruelty.
Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution (1984) deals with an historical event and is produced in an experimental fashion.
Written in 1951, Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw looks at the life and ultimate execution of Joan of Arc. Like Weiss's drama, Shaw's work is very political.
Janet Frame's Faces in the Water (1961) is a novel that examines the mentally ill residing in institutions.
Another German writer who influenced Weiss was Franz Kafka. Complete Stories and Parables (1946) is a good introduction to this important writer.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bermel, Albert, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, Tallinger, 1977.
Brook, Peter, The Empty Space, Avon, 1965.
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: Stamslavsky, 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...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A well-balanced introduction to Weiss’s life and works, recommended as a beginner’s source.
Ellis, Roger. Peter Weiss in Exile: A Critical Study of His Works. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. A comprehensive study of Weiss’s dramas, with special emphasis on Marat/Sade.
Hilton, Ian. Peter Weiss: A Search for Affinities. London: Oswald Wolff, 1970. A brief discussion of Weiss’s earlier life and works; includes selected translations from essays, novels, and dramas.
Sontag, Susan. “Marat/Sade/Artaud.” In Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. The most important and influential discussion on the reception and performances of Marat/Sade in the United States. Also examines how Brecht’s and Artaud’s dramatic theories can be used in producing this play.
White, John. “History and Cruelty in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.” Modern Language Review 63 (1968): 437-448. Outlines Weiss’s use of the historical materials in Marat/Sade, illustrating how facts and documents of the French Revolution are integrated to reveal later periods in history. Discusses how Artaud’s concepts of the “theater of...
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