The curtain rises on the bathhouse of the Charenton asylum; a circular arena is front stage center. To its right is a dais for Marat’s bathtub, to its left a dais for Sade’s chair. One raised platform will seat Coulmier and his family; another, four singers who have added grotesque bits of costume to their hospital uniforms and wear French Revolutionary caps. A small crowd of patients fills the background. According to Peter Weiss’s direction, “they make habitual movements, turn in circles, hop, mutter to themselves, wail, scream, and so on.” Male nurses, sisters, and actors who do not appear in a particular scene sit on benches in the stage’s middle area.
The Marquis de Sade—sixty-eight, fat, short of breath, institutionalized for his bizarre sexual writings—has composed the play about to be performed for the entertainment of asylum director Coulmier, the amusement of a fashionable audience of sensation-hungry Parisians (represented by the actual theater audience), and the therapeutic advancement of the inmates, who serve as his acting company. The outer play’s date is July 13, 1808, fifteen years after the action of the inner play: Marat’s historic murder in his bathtub by knife-wielding Charlotte Corday, a twenty-four-year-old Girondist determined to liberate France from what she sees as Marat’s beckoning despotism. Directing and casting his own play, Sade has chosen for the role of Marat a fifty-year-old paranoiac. Since Marat suffered from a painful skin disease, his portrayer spends almost his entire stage time seated in a filled bathtub, his temples bound by a white, wet bandage, which is frequently changed by his mistress, Simonne Evrard. A herald announces the scenes and often comments ironically on their content.
What transpires between the prologue and Marat’s death is not a causally connected sequence of events leading up to and accounting for the assassination, but rather a succession of choreic songs and commentaries, tiradic outbursts (by the violently radical Jacques Roux and others), philosophical discussions, and the fantastical antics of melancholiacs, erotomaniacs, idiots, spastics, and paranoiacs. When the play’s action becomes too chaotic, it is interrupted by Coulmier, who seeks to keep it inoffensive to his audience and safe for his patients. He therefore remonstrates with Sade over the latter’s inclusion of such cruel deeds as the simulated chopping off of a revolutionary victim’s hands and head, with which the overexcited inmates then play football.
Central to the text’s structure is the clash, both temperamental and ideological, between Sade and Jean-Paul Marat. “I am the Revolution,” Marat announces, and declares that he seeks to overcome man’s evil and nature’s indifference: “I don’t watch unmoved I intervene/ and say that this and this are wrong/ and I work to alter them and improve them.” For Sade, man’s first task is to know himself, to distinguish between the hangman and the victim that coexist within the solitary individual. “Marat,” he replies to the Revolutionist,
these cells of the inner selfare worse than the deepest stone dungeonand as long as they are lockedall your revolution remainsonly a prison mutinyto be put downby corrupted fellow-prisoners
Weiss concludes act 1 with a flashback scene wherein figures from Marat’s past, some historical (his abusive parents, Voltaire, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier), others fictitious (a schoolmaster, representatives of science, the army, the church, the newly rich), combine to condemn Marat’s character as vicious, arrogant, greedy, and hypocritical. They diagnose his resort to a revolutionary career as the desperate course of a charlatan who has failed in all his previous endeavors.
In act 2, Charlotte Corday finally gains entry to Marat’s house, raises her dagger against his naked body, and is about to strike when the herald blows his whistle and suspends the action. Sade wants Marat to hear, before he...
(The entire section is 4,412 words.)