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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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

(Drama for Students)

The History of the Play within the Play
It's important to understand the historical events chronicled in Marat/Sade....

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1013 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1787: Responding to increasing economic pressures caused by war, poor harvest, inequitable taxation, and the extravagances of the...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the French Revolution of the eighteenth century and the civil rights and antiwar movements in the U.S. in the 1960s. Discuss the...

(The entire section is 90 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A filmed version of Brook's staging of Marat/Sade was produced in 1966. The original cast is featured, including Glenda Jackson as...

(The entire section is 84 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) is a well-known and often performed play by Bertolt Brecht. The play is set during the Thirty...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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

Brook, Peter, The Empty Space,...

(The entire section is 269 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 196 words.)