The Debate Between the Play's Title Characters
Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade presents us with a very bleak world where madness and pessimism prevail. This is a grey world in which range of color is absent and where there seems to be no salvation. Just reading the play, however, makes it difficult to get the full impression, since plays are meant to be seen not merely read. Writing in Civilization, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) described a recent play he had seen and said reading the text "is an incomplete experience of the work, as reading any play must necessarily be, since a play in book form is a little like an octopus out of water."
Book in hand, we grapple with the text but have a much more distant experience with the action described. In Marat/Sade, the background of mentally ill patients on the brink of violence creates a disturbing experience in which we have to deal with the concept of madness while, simultaneously, interpreting the central action as the two main characters duke it out in an intellectual sparring of ideas.
A critic from Newsweek responded to the 1965 New York performance of Marat/Sade with a claim that the play appealed to a contemporary audience who wanted to be in on "wicked, important happenings, but offering no light and no resurrection." But both Sade and Marat purport to offer salvation. Marat, on the one hand, stands for revolutionary idealism. Yet it is an idealism that has him locked in his head, swimming in his bath—a critic but not a creator.
Sade is a disillusioned, washed-out old man, cynical and preoccupied with death and pain:
Any animal plant or man who dies/adds to Nature a compost heap.
This bleak outlook on human existence is followed by a rhapsody in which Sade speaks of slow, torturous death and complains about anonymous cheapened death. Clearly to Sade, suffering and pain bring significance. And while Sade goes on to question his experience and how anything can be known, a patient prances around claiming "the earth is spread thick with squashed human guts" and then says he is a mad animal.
Although Sade himself is also mad, he sees himself above it all, better than the patients around him. Yet his very dependence on his inner world makes his form of insanity no better than the others. While he says he cannot trust his own experience, he tells Marat that the only thing that is real is his imagination and the world inside his head. He disavows any belief in revolution, claiming to only believe in himself.
But the self in which Sade believes has a distinctly sordid side. He admits to Marat that he sank to the depths during his imprisonment in the Bastille, in which he imagined the worst of society. "I dug the criminal out of me," he claims, "so I could understand him." And the criminal that he discovered both enjoyed creating pain in others and also having discomfort inflicted on himself. But he sees himself flawed because even in finding the criminal inside he could not bring himself to murder "although murder was the final proof of my existence."
Despite being mired in his madness, Sade can still taunt Marat about how useless the revolution has been. This massive social change has not really altered the heart and soul of man. He claims that people join a revolution for reasons quite trivial, quite apart from the ideals of the masterminds. "A poet runs out of poetry and desperately gropes for new images." He along with the man with ill-fitting shoes and the woman with a too-short husband tack their faith on a revolution that will bring them salvation. Sade points out to Marat that the revolution has failed and has only produced a greater evil. Words, he contends are also without value. All that is anything is in the body:
Marat forget the rest/there's nothing else/beyond the body.
And so Sade has distanced himself from the revolution, this beacon, this chance for mankind to be saved. He cannot see worth in anything that does not address man's carnal nature; "What's a revolution without general copulation," he asks.
(The entire section is 2,631 words.)