Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784
Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade (mahr-KEE deh sahd), a French writer and libertine. While Sade, at the age of sixty-eight, is confined at Charenton asylum for his nontraditional views on sex and violence, he stages a play about Marat’s death, which took place on the same date fifteen years earlier. He both directs the actors—the asylum’s inmates, who are either mentally disturbed or confined for political reasons—and participates in the action. In his conversations with Marat, Sade expresses a certain amount of sympathy for the goals of the French Revolution, but he also shows himself as Marat’s philosophical opponent by professing an extreme form of individualism and strong faith in the power of subjective imagination.
Jean-Paul Marat (zhah[n]-pohl mah-RA), a French physician and revolutionary leader. He is forty-nine years of age and spends many hours sitting in the bathtub to cool his skin, which is afflicted by an illness. Like the historical figure he represents, the actor playing Marat at Charenton suffers from paranoia and undergoes hydrotherapy. Although he is a strong advocate of the revolution, Marat has a vision of a just society directed toward the future. He is, nevertheless, perceived as the revolution’s central catalyst in the public eye because of his inflammatory speeches and articles, and he is killed by Corday in his bathtub on the eve of Bastille Day.
Charlotte Corday (shahr-LOHT kohr-DAY), an attractive virgin, twenty-four years old. Because her role at Charenton is played by an inmate suffering from sleeping sickness, she must often be awakened and supported in her movements by two sister-nurses. As in the case of the historical figure, she repeatedly appears at Marat’s door before she is admitted by his mistress and finds the opportunity to thrust her dagger into his chest.
Jacques Roux (zhahk rew), a former priest turned social radical. The inmate playing his role at Charenton has a history similar to that of the historical figure, which is the reason the asylum guards have tied together his shirt sleeves, as a way of restricting his movements. Roux calls for immediate violence and for the takeover of shops and factories by the people of France and thus functions as the alter ego of Marat, whose radicalism is restricted by both his illness and his political prudence. Roux repeatedly interrupts the play within the play with his call for radical action, and he has the last word during the uprising of the inmates with which the play ends, as he shouts his call for a political decision into the audience.
Duperret (dew-peh-RAY), a deputy of the Girondists, the more conservative wing of the French revolutionary parliament. He dresses in the ostentatious manner of an incroyable and is played at Charenton by an erotomaniac. In contrast to the platonic love of the historical figure, the actor in the play constantly makes sexual advances toward Corday, who completely disregards them. He also is out of place because of his reactionary political and social views.
Simonne Evrard (see-MUHN eh-VRAHR), Marat’s mistress. The actress playing Simonne at Charenton wears both a hospital uniform and a housewife’s apron, and she constantly wrings a cloth in her hands when she is not in the process of changing Marat’s head bandage. She sees her task as trying to persuade Marat to refrain from future political activities (including writing) and to keep him shielded from the public, although she fails during Corday’s third visit.
Coulmier (kewl-MEEAY), the asylum director. He is dressed in elegant clothes and carries a walking stick. Coulmier throws out Napoleonic phrases and sees (or tries to see) no connection between the events in Sade’s play and his own time, thus repeatedly admonishing the marquis to stick to the previously censured text.
The Herald, a man who wears a harlequin’s smock over his hospital shirt and a two-pointed cap with bells and spangles. Playing the roles of both narrator and stage manager, the Herald often interrupts and comments on the action of the interior play. His views express both an ironic distance from the historical events and a warning against their recurrence in the present.
Rossignol, collectively known as the Four Singers, who are dressed grotesquely, representing partly comedians and partly figures of the Parisian mob. Although they hail both Marat, for his political views and actions, and Sade, for his advocation of complete sexual freedom, they participate in the glorification of Napoleon as much as they do in the revolt of the inmates of Charenton at the end of the play.