The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

(The entire section is 761 words.)