The Play

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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...

(This entire section contains 761 words.)

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body, and is about to strike when the herald blows his whistle and suspends the action. Sade wants Marat to hear, before he falls, a grim musical synopsis of France’s history from 1793 to 1808. It is provided by the four singers, with an excited chorale of patients chanting and marching in the background. This fifteen-year span is dominated by Napoleon’s triumphs—with the ideals of the Revolution being severely compromised by his autocratic authority.

Marat’s murder constitutes a brief anticlimax, which is followed by a frenzied epilogue in which all the inmates except Sade burst out of their restraints. They attack their keepers, who respond by striking them with their batons. As the patients spin, march, and hop ecstatically, Coulmier loses his control and “incites the Nurses to extreme violence.” Sade, meanwhile, “stands upright on his chair, laughing triumphantly” as Coulmier frantically signals for the curtain’s descent.

Dramatic Devices

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Most commentators stress a curious fusion—or fission—of the play’s two radically different approaches to theater: The cool, distancing techniques of Bertolt Brecht and the explosively hot Theater of Cruelty of Antonin Artaud.

As a dedicated Marxist, Weiss is naturally attracted to Brecht’s epic techniques of Verfremdung (usually termed “alienation,” but better translated as “distancing”). In Marat/Sade he uses such Brechtian conventions as a choreic narrative and short, disjunctive scenes to keep the public from mistaking the theatrical spectacle for realistic mimesis. Thus the quartet of harlequin singers provides exposition, historical bridges, and musical interludes, supported by an orchestra. They often mime the most dramatic events of the inner play. The herald is a sardonic master of ceremonies, announcing, prompting, and often interrupting the actors. Using his staff like a drillmaster, he is part chorus, part assistant director. The supporting actors, while continuously onstage, only “act” intermittently; they alternate between passive withdrawal and agitated response. Characterization is summary and stylized, presumably with the aim of keeping the audience’s attention on the social implications of the action.

In a Tulane Drama Review interview, Weiss shrugged off the influence of Artaud’s concept of total theater, saying that it influenced Peter Brook’s directorial approach much more than his own techniques: “If there are very strong events on stage, they shouldn’t be acted in either a sadistic or a masochistic way, because either one makes it impossible to analyze the situation.” Again, Weiss the advocate is at war with Weiss the artist, for Artaud’s sensational notions of theater as spectacle do engulf the drama’s coherent, rational structure. The audience is sucked into a Hogarthian bedlam as Weiss has his lunatics frequently threaten to take over the asylum. It is Weiss’s own stage directions that order the patients to make ecstatic and contorted movements, to be seized with convulsions, throw fits, giggle, groan, stamp their feet, hop, howl, hallucinate, and otherwise carry on in a fashion that gives the play its restless kinetic energy—seething and simmering, threatening and finally delivering chaos.

What results is a double exposure of the contrasting devices of involvement and estrangement, with Artaud’s dramaturgy accounting for the stronger image. Sade’s most significant speech, for example—an indictment of the French Revolution’s drive toward dehumanization—is delivered while he is being lashed periodically by Charlotte Corday’s heavy whip. Naturally, the flagellation distracts from, rather than underscores, his words. Weiss’s visual imagination, here and elsewhere, overwhelms his conceptual fancy.

Places Discussed

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*Charenton (shar-in-TON). Mental institution in Paris that provides the play’s main setting. Although the action of the drama is centered on a series of violent encounters between the political radical Jean-Paul Marat and the then-infamous Marquis de Sade, in the madhouse of Charenton, this encounter was entirely imaginary. Jean-Paul Marat, one of the architects of the French Revolution, was never incarcerated at Charenton, he never met the Marquis de Sade, and he was assassinated in 1793—fifteen years before the year in which the play is set. However, de Sade was, in fact, incarcerated there from 1801 until his death in 1814. He was imprisoned not for political crimes but for a variety of acts of violence so shocking that the word sadism has derived from his name. While de Sade was a prisoner, he frequently staged plays that he wrote in Charenton.

Placing infamous Marat and de Sade together in a mental institution in which they converse about important social questions allows the author to improvise short, rapidly shifting and changing scenarios, in which the actors, miming the thoughts and actions of sane people, are actually madmen and women who are, time and again, overcome by their various psychoses. They frequently forget de Sade’s scripted words and discourse wildly and violently on social issues. That they are incarcerated lunatics is a subtle touch, for it allows playwright Peter Weiss to insert social commentaries on everything from the futility of political revolution to the immoral, indeed criminal, mistreatment of society’s poor in ways that are, seemingly paradoxically, both distressing and funny at the same time.

The idea that all the world may be mad is made by an ingenious use of literary place. Marat/Sade is actually a play-within-a play: The “outer action” involves the bourgeois director of the asylum, Coulmier, and his guests, the elite of Parisian society, who have been invited to witness one of de Sade’s plays. The “inner action,” or core of the drama, consists of de Sade, playing himself, and some patients who play the roles of various “normal” people. The reader becomes part of the audience watching, and ironically commenting on, the action of both the outer and inner dramas. This device draws readers in, suggesting that they, too, continue to engage in the horrors of war, of social injustice, and of personal delusion.

Historical Context

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The History of the Play within the Play It's important to understand the historical events chronicled in Marat/Sade. Although part of Sade's drama is fiction it is based on actual events. Jean-Paul Marat was murdered by Charlotte Corday in 1793. He was a physician and journalist who used his newspaper as a platform for his political beliefs.

As a member of the Jacobin party, he played an instrumental part in instigating the French Revolution. The Marquis de Sade was an author living in France during the time of the revolution. He had been imprisoned for his cruel sexual practices (the term "sadism" is a derivation of his name and is used to describe sexual pleasure gained through the causing of pain). He was in residence at the Asylum at Charenton and did write plays while there. He did not know Marat but did give a memorial address at his funeral.

The French Revolution actually took place between 1787 and 1799, with a major climax in 1789, when an outraged mob stormed the Bastille, a fortress and prison. Later the French royal family was forced to flee and the king, Louis XVI, was captured and executed. Leadership in the government thereafter brought about a Reign of Terror in which perceived enemies of the cause were sought out and slaughtered. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte assumed power and built France into a considerable empire. Reasons for the revolution are many, the strongest being the impoverished state of the peasants and the lack of any political power by the middle class. Marat/Sade is set in 1808, when the Revolution was over, but the play reenacts an important event from those bloody days—the assassination of Marat, one of the revolution's key architects.

The Foundation of Weiss's Politics Weiss experienced three major wars in his lifetime. World War I was in full swing when he was born, the second World War sent his family into exile, and, at the time he was writing Marat/Sade, the Vietnam War was escalating into a vicious battle of attrition. Having experienced the cruel effects of dictatorship firsthand, Weiss came to oppose fascist governments of any kind. He found a positive alternative to such oppressive rule in the concepts of communism, which idealizes equality of ownership and government by the people.

At the time he was developing the play, former Nazi leaders were being tried for war crimes committed during World War II. In the United States, the year 1964 was pivotal because it marked the Tonkin Bay incident in Vietnam and the official authorization by Congress to involve U.S. troops in that conflict. The country was recovering from the assassination the year before of President John F. Kennedy.

This timeframe was also the beginning of other significant action in the U.S., most notably the start of the civil rights movement as well as the women's movement. The civil rights movement was marked by violence and race riots in major cities. The energy of the movement gathered steam and rolled over into the antiwar movement. The 1960s were revolutionary times with a preponderance of both peaceful and violent demonstrations against the government.

But like Weiss's play (Marat's concepts), much of the rhetoric of the 1960s was merely that, and although important issues were addressed, things didn't necessarily change. Or not that much. Those in power within the resistance movement, mostly white males, were reticent to accept women as much other than sex objects. So those who were disenfranchised continued in that state. Gains were made in civil rights but it has become apparent in the decades following that racism cannot be legislated away. These events were hard to ignore and many have speculated that they in some way influenced the themes of Marat/Sade.

The Culture of 1960s In literature, the 1950s produced a generation of beatniks, bohemian artists who lived on the edge of society and actively criticized the government and society. This movement spread and spawned the hippies of the 1960s. One notable poet of the Beat Generation, as it was called, was Allen Ginsberg, whose long diatribes against America were laced with profanity and references to sex and drugs. His Howl, which was first published in 1956, started out with this line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...." Another poem titled America starts with this: "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing/America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956/1 can't stand my own mind/America when will we end the human war?''

Artists during this time included Andy Warhol who was shocking and questioning artistic values with his silk screens of pop icons done larger than life, including the Campbell soup can and Marilyn Monroe. The Beatles made their first trip to the U.S. in 1964, wedging a chasm between generations of music lovers. The folk music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez was popular, inspiring musicians to address political and social issues in their compositions. Folk music—and later rock—became a foundation from which to protest such topics as the war and racism.

Literary Style

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Play within a Play Weiss uses the technique of a play within a play to tell his story. This layers the play and creates a certain distance for the audience while providing the playwright with narration to explain the work. Marat is both a character in the inner play and is pulled to the outer play in debates with Sade. Coulmier exists in the outer play and regularly challenges what Sade, the creator of the inner play, is doing.

This technique had been used fairly extensively prior to Marat/Sade—notably in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. As with Weiss's play, the inner play in The King and I addresses issues that are being discussed in the outer play. The slave girl Tuptim acts out Uncle Tom's Cabin, a story that she uses as a thinly disguised critique of the King of Siam, for whom the inner play is being performed, and his policy toward his servants. Plays like The King and I used the play within play technique for a small section of the overall play. Marat/Sade, however, builds its entire foundation on this conceit.

While some critics complained that Weiss's multiple layers were little more than theatrical gimmickry, the majority felt that it was an effective technique that, while failing to answer all questions raised by the plot, made the play a riveting, thought-provoking experience.

Theatre of Cruelty Weiss was a proponent of a form of experimental theatre known as the Theatre of Cruelty. This was developed primarily by Antonin Artaud, a French actor and director. Artaud wanted theatre to go far beyond the written script (just as Sade wants life to be beyond thoughts and ideas), so elements such as lighting, sound effects, and other forms of technology do not just flesh out the text but play an active role in its presentation and interpretation. In Marat/Sade this is employed through the extensive use of special effects such as the gruesome execution sequence.

Albert Bermel wrote in Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty that Artaud "did not care whether his characters won or lost arguments. He wanted to use them in order to expose his audiences to a range of their own feelings that was unconscious and therefore normally inaccessible to them." This is evident in the central conflict between Sade and Marat. While Sade's criticism of Marat leads the audience to believe he will offer a solution that Marat's ideas and thoughts could not, they are confounded in this expectation when Sade offers up the concept of carnality. His alternative does little to solve the problems created by the revolution, but it does offer a glimpse into his psyche. In this sense Weiss provokes the audience to consider the character with whom they most identify and which personality traits are closest to their own.

The concept of cruelty for Artaud was the idea of exposing the audience to danger but then to ultimately free them from it, creating a sort of cleansing transformation. Cruelty, as he was using the idea, did not mean actual physical assault but that the energy of the production made as a sort of attack on the defenses of the viewer; it threatened their concept of normality, exposing them to the fragile nature of human interaction. Theatre of Cruelty seeks to make its audience aware that the balance can topple at any moment and everything can be thrown into utter chaos.

In Marat/Sade Weiss employs these ideas by creating an environment that is unruly and unsafe. While he allows the actual audience a degree of distance and safety—putting the audience of the inner play at the greatest physical risk—they will nevertheless identify with the inner audience and empathize with their fearful situation. The inmates are odd, ugly, obviously insane. They seem ready to spill over into riot at any moment.

Weiss creates unease with a number of techniques meant to disturb. The play is written in verse form and has song and dance laced throughout it. The Corday character delivers her lines with a sing-song effect, seeming to sleepwalk through her part. This gives her a ghostlike persona that contributes to the surreal effect of watching a play within a play. Added to this is the increasing unrest of the patients, their songs and screams, their threatening behavior. The sum effect of these elements is to unnerve the audience, place them off-balance so that they do not know what to expect. Through this Weiss hoped to confront the audience, make them think, by vicariously putting them through a hellish process he sought to provoke feelings that would not dissipate when the houselights came up.

By many accounts, the impact is significant. The audience may not like it, but they do not forget the experience. As director Brook said of his staging in the introduction to the published version of Marat/Sade, "I know of one acid test in the theatre. It is literally an acid test. When a performance is over, what remains? Fun can be forgotten, but powerful emotion also disappears and good arguments lose their thread. When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself—then something in the mind burns. The event scorches onto the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the play's central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are rightly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say."

Brechtian Influence Weiss readily admitted his debt to Bertolt Brecht, a German dramatist who lived from 1898-1956. Brecht was known for an approach to epic theatre which he used to make social criticism while using a technique called "Alienation." Brook explained this concept in the introduction to Marat/Sade: "Alienation is the art of placing an action at a distance so that it can be judged objectively and so that it can be seen in relation to the world—or rather worlds—around it.''

Compare and Contrast

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1787: Responding to increasing economic pressures caused by war, poor harvest, inequitable taxation, and the extravagances of the monarchy, Louis the XVI of France convenes the Estates General. Although this seems a victory for the aristocracy, it is really the beginning of the revolution.

1964: Following the directions put in place by the late President Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson calls for victory in the "war on poverty" and signs into law The Economic Opportunity Act, creating an Officer of Economic Opportunity. This office was to oversee a myriad of agencies providing services to the poor, ensuring better nutrition, health, and education for the underprivileged.

Today: Conservative leadership has eroded funding for government programs aiding the poor. Welfare and programs for health and education to inner cities have been severely curtailed or completely phased out. The disparity between the poor and the wealthy grows.

1793: The French Revolution begins, as the poor rise up to overthrow the monarchy in one of the bloodiest wars of the eighteenth century.

1964: North Vietnamese fire at a U.S. destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is passed giving the President authority to take military action; this essentially launches the Vietnam War, in which U.S. forces fight in South Vietnam, opposing the communist threat from North Vietnam.

Today: The Communist Party has dissipated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. East and West Germany are reunited. The U.S. continues to wage small military actions, mostly in the Middle East, but where Vietnam was long and bloody, current wars rely on technology and have resulted in minimal loss of American life.

1789: The National Assembly of France introduces the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen."

1964: The Civil Rights Bill is passed after a lengthy and bitter fight by southern senators. The bodies of three civil rights workers are discovered in Mississippi, the victims of white supremacists. Race riots erupt in Harlem and Philadelphia. Atlanta restaurant owner Lester Maddox closes his restaurant rather than be forced to serve blacks. His stance against integration leads him to the governorship of Georgia. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today: Although schools and neighborhoods have been integrated, racism has not been eliminated. The conservative agenda includes elimination of affirmative action measures which insure fair and even preferential treatment for minorities. Neo-Nazis and other white supremist groups are on the rise. African Americans have attained positions of power, including seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and Supreme Court appointments.

Media Adaptations

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A filmed version of Brook's staging of Marat/Sade was produced in 1966. The original cast is featured, including Glenda Jackson as Corday. Video is available from Waterbearer Films, Lumivision, and I.S. Productions.

Caedmon produced a sound recording in 1967 called Peter Weiss Reading from His Works. This includes several scenes from Marat/Sade.

An audio recording of the Brook production of Marat/Sade was issued by Caedmon and includes original cast members from the early productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Available from Caedmon.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bermel, Albert, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, Tallinger, 1977.

Brook, Peter, The Empty Space, Avon, 1965.

Brook, Peter, Introduction to Marat/Sade, by Peter Weiss, Atheneum, 1965.

Clurman, Harold, Review of Marat/Sade in the Nation, January 17, 1966.

Ellis, Roger, Peter Weiss in Exile: A Critical Study of His Works, UMI Research Press, 1987.

Gilliatt, Penelope, "Peter Brook: A Natural Saboteur of Order" in Vogue, January 1, 1966.

Ginsberg, Allen, Howl and Other Poems, City Lights Books, 1956.

Hewes, Henry, Review of Marat/Sade in the Saturday Review, January 15, 1966.

Hilton, Ian, Peter Weiss - A Search for Affinities, Oswald Wolff, 1970.

Jones, David Richard, Great Directors at Work: Stamslavsky, Brecht, Kazan, Brook, University of California Press, 1986.

Kushner, Tony, "The Art of the Difficult" in Civilization, August/September, 1997.

Painter-Downes, Mollie, Review of Marat/Sade in the New Yorker, September 19, 1964.

Review of Marat/Sade in Newsweek, January 10, 1966.

Review of Marat/Sade in Time, January 7, 1966.

Further Reading Cohen, Robert, Understanding Peter Weiss, University of South Carolina Press, 1993. This work provides a good biographical overview of Weiss's life as well as a critical study of his work, including a whole section on Marat/Sade.

Connor, Clifford D., Jean-Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary, Humanities Press, 1993. This is a biography of Marat, looking at his life both before and after the Revolution.

Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Vintage Books, 1988. This book provides some insight into the events and significance of the French Revolution. It offers a useful overview of the events depicted in Sade's play within the play.

Weiss, Peter, Exile: A Novel, Delacorte, 1968. This is an English translation of two of Weiss's autobiographical novels, The Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.


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Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A well-balanced introduction to Weiss’s life and works, recommended as a beginner’s source.

Ellis, Roger. Peter Weiss in Exile: A Critical Study of His Works. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. A comprehensive study of Weiss’s dramas, with special emphasis on Marat/Sade.

Hilton, Ian. Peter Weiss: A Search for Affinities. London: Oswald Wolff, 1970. A brief discussion of Weiss’s earlier life and works; includes selected translations from essays, novels, and dramas.

Sontag, Susan. “Marat/Sade/Artaud.” In Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. The most important and influential discussion on the reception and performances of Marat/Sade in the United States. Also examines how Brecht’s and Artaud’s dramatic theories can be used in producing this play.

White, John. “History and Cruelty in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.” Modern Language Review 63 (1968): 437-448. Outlines Weiss’s use of the historical materials in Marat/Sade, illustrating how facts and documents of the French Revolution are integrated to reveal later periods in history. Discusses how Artaud’s concepts of the “theater of cruelty” were adapted in Brook’s first London production.




Critical Essays