The Debate Between the Play's Title Characters

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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...

(This entire section contains 1634 words.)

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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.

Marat suffers intense anguish, as does Sade. Part of his suffering is physical, with a skin disease that leaves him fevered and itching, unable to find relief. The disease is a metaphor for the disease of the times, of mankind, a condition which can be eased but never completely cured. Yet Marat professes himself a believer in man's ability to change. He withstands the cynicism of Sade. While Sade has dug into his criminal self, Marat digs into his skin for words to give France a new beginning:

my head's on fire/I can't breath/There is a rioting mob inside me/l am the Revolution.

Marat counters Sade's cynicism about death and the insignificance of the individual by claiming Sade is without compassion. It is his compassion that is tormenting Marat, as he sees people killed, oppressed beneath the wheel, just to support the lifestyles of the aristocracy. Marat agrees with Sade that the revolution hasn't succeeded."We're clogged with dead ideas. We stand here more oppressed than when we've begun.'' In his tortured state, he hallucinates. For him, the answer is in his mind because he's determined the soul is in the brain. Salvation then lies in ideas.

But Marat who has been writing feverishly, collapses, defeated, confused now about his ideas. Why is everything so disjointed, he questions:

Everything I wrote of spoke/was considered and true/each argument was sound/And now/doubt/Why does everything sound false.

Yet even with this admission of hopelessness Marat digs for his pen, for the words that he can say to save both France and himself. To the end he clings to the belief that the will of the individual is important and can change things:

against Nature's silence I use action/In the vast indifference I invent a meaning/The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair/to turn yourself inside out/to see the whole world with fresh eyes.

The doubts that Marat seems to voice, his confusion, seem to most represent those of the author. Yes, "Marat/Sade is full of doubts, my doubts," Weiss admitted. "The only alternative is that I give my doubts, that I show my situation of doubtfulness and the great difficulties I undergo to find some way out of it. That is the only thing I can reach."

Certainly Weiss wanted his audience to experience madness. Pandemonium reigns in the background of this ongoing debate between Sade and Marat, as the play marches forward to its conclusion. It is clear that Weiss is referring to the madness of the times. Although set in the early 1800s, post-Revolutionary times during Napoleon's reign, he laces the text with references to the present (when he was writing the play) and to recent history. There's mention of "anonymous cheapened death which we could dole out to entire nations on a mathematical basis," and the idea of a "final solution." These are both clear references to the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

At the core of the play is the question between Marat and Sade: "The central question about the debates was, Who wins? Was Marat correct when he said society must change before humanity can change? Or was it more important, as Sade believed, to change the self before changing society?" Peter Brook asked in the play's introduction, noting that audiences in America were divided in their response. Weiss himself, Brooks asserted, wanted that uncertainty in the play. Brook believes that the words of Sade best describe it.

Before deciding what is wrong and what is right/first - we must find out what we are/I/do not know myself.

The uncertainty that Sade voices, as the more eloquent of the two debaters, seems to be the message that Weiss is giving his audience. There is no certainty. There is no complete knowledge. Weiss after several productions of Marat/Sade placed his sympathy with Marat, but even in tipping the balance in favor of the radical who believes society can change, the play ends in a riot, with insane patients chanting "Revolution, Revolution, Copulation, Copulation" while nurses bludgeon them with sticks.

"Nothing, we feel, could ever stop this riot. Nothing, we conclude, can ever stop the madness of the world," said Brook. And that pervasive image of madness stays in the mind of the viewer. All polemics and diatribes aside, the madness is the most memorable aspect of Weiss's work.

Although Weiss may want us to take away some hope for change, it is hard to be a true believer. One may walk away with the thought, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," a refrain that runs throughout the book of Ecclesiastics in the Bible, a refrain arrived at by King Solomon, who had done extensive research into life—concluding that none of it really made sense.

And that, in a way, is Marat/Sade's ultimate message: Nothing makes sense. Peter Brook, referring to the New York production, stated that "it wasn't affirming what was good and glorious in life, but something that most spectators would relate to very directly, violence and madness."

This is what Kushner labeled "Difficult Art." He described the concept in Civilization: "It insists on its spectators doing some of the work.... We are meant to learn that we are born into a world in which what is easy, commonsensical and evident is very often a lie and that labor is required to make sense as much as to make shoes and houses and superhighways."

Source: Etta Worthington for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Worthington is a professional writer who specializes in drama.

Review of Marat/Sade

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Imagination has not vanished from the stage. Nor intelligence. For proof see Peter Weiss's play, which opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater.

The exceptional length of the play's title is not caprice. The play reverberates with overtones even as its name is crowded with words and syllables: The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.

Mr. Weiss has written a play within a play, and in both there are unexpected resonances of comment and meaning. He has used the techniques of Brechts, invoking verse, music and speeches to the audience to produce an effect of standing apart, but has orchestrated them in his own way. In the end one is involved as one stands apart; one thinks when one should feel and feels when one should think.

There is hardly anything conventional about the play. But Mr. Weiss's novel devices are not employed for the sake of novelty. His primary purpose, if one may dare to isolate one aim as the chief one, is to examine the conflict between individualism earned to extreme lengths and the idea of a political and social upheaval.

Spokesman for this sort of individualism is Sade; the voice of upheaval is Marat. But Mr. Weiss has gone beyond a simple confrontation. He has achieved a remarkable density of impression and impact by locating his conflict, in the course of his play within a play, in a mental institution.

The result is a vivid work that vibrates on wild, intense, murmurous and furious levels. It is sardonic and impassioned, pitiful and explosive. It may put you off at times with its apparent absurdity, or it may shock you with its allusions to violence and naked emotions. But it will not leave you untouched.

As the play begins on the wide, lofty uncurtained stage, furnished with a few planks, benches and several pits, the inmates of Charenton wander in. They wear rough, tattered rags, and some are twisted in body and limbs as well in mind. The director of the asylum and two of his ladies in their elegant clothes arrive, and he explains that he has encouraged Sade to direct the inmates in this play for its therapeutic value.

Mr. Weiss has not invented this point. Sade, who was an inmate at Charenton, did write and stage plays there in the early years of the 19th century. What Mr. Weiss has invented is the play that Sade has chosen to write and direct, though certain details of the Marat story used in Sade's play are facts of history.

The play unfolds in a series of episodes. The basic action involves the events leading up to the slaying of Marat by Charlotte Corday. But the episodes do not follow an ordinary continuity. Songs, scenes that at first view seem irrelevant, the unpredictable movements and sounds of the patients, weave around the main action to provide a remarkable richness of texture.

Marat, his body angry and blotched with a feverish ailment, sits in his bathtub, a bandage on his head and a sheet over his shoulders, but the tormenting pains and memories cannot be appeased. Since Marat is played by a Charenton paranoiac, his fierce outbursts have a deepened anguish. Sade, of course, is Sade, but despite his worn, faded finery, he is also an inmate, and the fury of his worship of self becomes both heightened and oddly pathetic.

They are both rebels. Sade is in revolt against accepted notions because he needs to believe in and explore himself. Marat is the social revolutionary. Their ideas clash, but Mr. Weiss does not choose between them.

He lets passionate, burning truths emerge from their feverish preoccupations. Out of the mouths and actions of other inmates in this madhouse come other insights.

Mr. Weiss, a German who fled Nazism and who now lives in Sweden, has written in a kind of singsong vernacular, which rises often to eloquence. Geoffrey Skelton's English version and Adrian Mitchell's verse adaptation establish the flavor of the playwright's style.

This is a work, that demands all the theater's arts and artifices, and this production by Great Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, staged with savage brilliance by Peter Brook, translates Mr. Weiss's writing into throbbing theatrical terms.

The images of life in a mental institution are weird and moving. An inmate who raves like a mad animal and utters searing truths is not an oddity, he freezes the blood. Inmates going through a make-believe guillotining and falling pell mell into a pit are horrifying and piteous. A quartet of inmates done up as clowns caper and cavort amusingly and piercingly. Even the whipping of Sade by Charlotte Corday with her long hair, though not literally painful, stings.

Mr. Brook has used sound like a conjurer. There is not only Richard Peaslee's evocative, simple music for the songs and for the band, dressed like inmates and seated in boxes on opposite sides of the house. There are also the clanging of chains, the pounding of boards, the eerie moans of the inmates.

The visitors from Britain are performing Mr. Weiss's play with conviction and intensity, in taut, colorful ensemble. The entire company deserves to be noticed, but there is time only to speak admiringly of Ian Richardson's flaming Marat, Patrick Magee's cold, sinuous Sade, Glenda Jackson's wild Corday, Clifford Rose's elegantly superficial asylum director, and Michael Williams's subtle Herald.

Mr. Weiss's play expresses a fresh, probing sensibility in original stage terms. Like its title, it will give you original stage terms. Like its title it will give you pause, stir your imagination and provoke your mind. It is good to encounter a playwright who dares to challenge the theater and its audience to full participation.

Source: Howard Taubman, review of Marat/Sade (1965) in On Stage - Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp 485-86.


Critical Overview