Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926
With Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss became an internationally acclaimed and highly respected dramatist. Prior to writing plays in the 1960’s, Weiss had spent many years as a painter, novelist, filmmaker, and translator. Born in Germany, he lived most of his adult life in Sweden, making only short visits to Germany—then both East and West—to lecture, read, and participate in the production of his plays.
Weiss began Marat/Sade in 1963 and prepared at least five versions before the play premiered on April 29, 1964, in West Berlin. The East German premiere was on March 26, 1965, in Rostock. In the fall of 1964, Peter Brook produced Marat/Sade for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, making the play an international success in the English-speaking world. Brook also produced the film version in 1966. An operatic version of Marat/Sade premiered in 1984 in Kassel, Germany.
There are many highly complex dramatic devices in the play. Whereas the early German stagings tended to rely on Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater of alienation for their overall structure, Brook and many English productions were influenced by Antonin Artaud’s concept of the theater of cruelty. Both approaches must deal with the difficulties of presenting a multilayered play and a play-within-a-play, unpunctuated language ranging from doggerel and popular balladry to sophisticated free verse, song, dance, and pantomime, and scenes that are tragic, comical, melodramatic, and highly lyrical.
As Weiss indicated in his “Note on the Historical Background to the Play,” certain parts of the drama are based on actual events. The record shows that Sade, now known primarily as the author of erotic novels, was imprisoned at the Charenton asylum from 1801 until his death in 1814. While Sade did write many plays, some performed by the inmates of Charenton, he never wrote a play about Marat. Another historical fact, in no way associated with Sade, is Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Marat. Although not a radical agitator, she sympathized with the Girondists in the French Revolution. Corday felt that Marat, as a supporter of the more extremist views of the Jacobins and their waging a deadly war on the Girondists, had become the evil dictator of France. She resolved to emulate the biblical Judith and went to Paris, where she assassinated Marat on July 13, 1793. She was sent to the guillotine shortly thereafter.
With these basic historic facts at hand and a thorough understanding of Marat’s and Sade’s philosophical viewpoints, Weiss wrote this play. As the title states, the outer framework is a play about Marat’s assassination written by Sade and performed by the inmates of Charenton. This dramatic activity becomes the play-within-the-play. Of course, there is a third level to this play, namely the contemporary audience. Thus, three real times are presented: 1793 and the assassination of Marat, 1808 with the presentation of Sade’s play, and the present.
The actors represent these various time periods. For the present time audience, all actors on the stage play specific roles. Those who play the parts of Coulmier and his family represent France in 1808 as well as in the present time. The actor in the role of Sade is more complex. He plays the historical Sade as playwright and director of this play, and the philosophical sparring partner with the character playing the historical or real Marat. The role of Marat is likewise manifold. The actor must play the role of a paranoiac, play the historical person of Marat, and, occasionally, he must engage the real Sade in philosophical discourse. The other actors each have two roles to perform: the inmates and the historical roles that have been assigned to them.
It is not difficult to understand those aspects of the play that deal with the historical events of either 1793 or 1808. It can be difficult, however, for the present time audience to always know exactly what role the performers playing Marat and Sade are presenting, but that is basically Weiss’s intent. One major purpose in this play is to examine the aims and goals of the French Revolution and why the movement failed despite its noble “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and its advocacy of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!”
The battle cry of the masses—“Revolution Revolution, Copulation Copulation”—epitomizes the conflict and confusion that prevailed after the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1798, which marked the outbreak of the French Revolution. Neither Marat nor Sade, however, articulated decisive plans that would lead to a successful revolution. Marat, in his idealism, advocated action that was unreasonable for the masses since their most basic needs remained unfulfilled, proclaiming, “The important thing/ is to pull yourself up by your own hair.” Sade, on the other hand, believed that humans are by nature incapable of acting beyond themselves. Both stressed an ideological point of view: Marat believed in the perfectibility of society; Sade was convinced that humanity was impossible to perfect. This is the philosophical dilemma that Weiss presents to the audience. Ultimately, he gives the last word to Roux, the most politically aware among the masses, refusing to accept defeat and attempting to continue Marat’s revolution.
Weiss’s intention in Marat/Sade was to provoke and engage the audience in discussion, not to make statements or present answers. His main question centered on the failure of revolutions: the French Revolution, other liberation movements in nineteenth century Germany, the great October Revolution (1917) in Russia, and revolutions and national liberation movements in various developing world nations. In Marat/Sade, Weiss investigated the potentiality of establishing a more humane society, a possibility he regarded as feasible in an ideal socialist world.