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...
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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.