Critical Overview

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When the work Marat/Sade was first produced, it became a bit of a joke to some. A common jibe was often directed at the play's lengthy name: "No, I haven't seen the play, but I've read the title." The first production of the play was staged in West Berlin, Germany, under the direction of Konrad Swinarski. From the start the work was controversial, which is often the best publicity. In its initial run, many critics saw the influence of fellow German Bertolt Brecht on Weiss and his play. Weiss admitted his debt to the great playwright, stating "Brecht influenced me as a dramatist. I learnt most from Brecht. I learnt clarity from him, the necessity of making clear the social question in a play. I learnt from his lightness. He is never heavy in the psychological German way." Of this first production, the London Times claimed it was "the most ambitious example of the Theatre of Cruelty yet to appear. Practically every influence current in operation in intellectual high fashion is to be found in this play."

It was the direction of Peter Brook and his London production of the play, however, that brought Marat/Sade to the highest level of international critical acclaim. Brook attended rehearsals for the first production in West Berlin and there met Weiss. The two agreed to take the play to London, where Brook would reinterpret it and later move the production to New York. The Brook-directed version made its debut at the Aldwych Theatre in 1964.

As with the German production, the London performances almost immediately sparked controversy, including a verbal attack on the play by a member of the theatre company's executive council. Critics also had a good deal to say about Weiss's work. Millie Painter-Downes of the New Yorker called it "a dazzling theatrical experience" and a "stunning production." She ended her favorable review by stating, "It is an electrifying show, which would have been a hit even without the present controversy."

While most reviewers conceded the work's originality, their appraisals were mixed. A critic from Newsweek questioned whether Weiss should be considered a revolutionary playwright: "Beneath all the business, all the violence and startling gestures, is a vacuum. Weiss, for all his pretensions, is a conventional socialist and an extremely limited philosopher." The critic went on to say that although the play is impressive,"it establishes a kind of frenetic dance, a choreographed quest for the truths of the imagination, flattering our sense of the fashionable, our desire to be at wicked, important happenings, but offering no light and no resurrection, Marat/Sade is to be seen but not believed." A reviewer for Time labeled it "inspired sensationalism," while Harold Clurman of the Nation called it "fascinating entertainment.'' Clurman both praised and questioned the work, seeing it as a dialogue with the spirit of the playwright yet he also appraised that the text, when removed from Brook's theatrics, was trite.

One of the most disturbing parts of the Brook production followed the play's proper ending. At the curtain call, the actors would clap back to the audience in a rhythmic pattern which had the effect of shutting up the audience, "dismissing us scornfully as representatives of a public that has evaded its responsibility to recognize the horrendous atrocity of life within us and around us," claimed Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review.

While such gestures were startling and unconventional—and many critics found them patently offensive—few could deny the power of such theatrics. While a critical consensus could not be reached regarding the artistic merits of Marat/Sade, most agreed that it is a singular work deserving attention. Thirty years after its initial production, Weiss's play is still considered innovative and shocking: it is regarded as a hallmark of progressive theatre.

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism