The confrontation and debate between Sade and Marat lies at the heart of the play’s nature as a drama of ideas. At issue is the value of social violence, specifically the utility or futility of the French Revolution.
Marat is passionately committed to collective action for social reform, while Sade, once prorevolutionary, has skeptically withdrawn into anarchic individualism. A romantic activist and proto-Marxist, Marat asserts man-made absolutes of value. Sade is a cold voluptuary who finds the root of social evil not in any collective community or system but in man himself; his nihilistic solipsism finally puts him beyond both indignation and despair, into the realm of detached cynicism. Together, this pair incarnates a number of crucial contrasts reaching beyond their historic functions: action versus imagination, progress versus stasis, communism versus anarchism, the commissar versus the yogi, Marx-Bakunin-Lenin versus Freud-Jung-Klein.
In a 1966 article in The New York Times Magazine, Weiss explicitly proclaimed his hard-left, communist-oriented ideology and his consequent dramatic didacticism: “Even if I had the most brilliant theatrical idea, I would not turn it into a play . . . if I could not also make it express a message.” He declared his preference for East German stagings of Marat/Sade, in which Marat was shown the hero and Sade downplayed “as representing the doomed Western way of life.” In Western productions, on the other hand, Sade has emerged as the protagonist.
Most critics regard the play, whether in its final textual form (Weiss wrote five versions of it between 1963 and 1965) or in Peter Brook’s London or Ingmar Bergman’s Stockholm stagings, as heavily weighted in favor of Sade. His understanding of the hidden connection between cruelty and sensuality makes him a more agile and cogent debater than the fanatically dogmatic Marat. In particular, the concluding scenes support the view that Sade dominates the drama. Immediately before Corday’s fatal third call, Marat acknowledges his perplexity: “Why is everything so confused now/ Why does everything sound false.” Marat’s murder prevents him from fulfilling his radical program; Napoleon’s ascendancy aborts the Revolution altogether, with the populace cheering him as lustily as it had Georges-Jacques Danton, Robespierre, and Marat. And the phantasmagoric ending finds only Sade smiling and satisfied.
Marat/Sade leaves one with many unanswered questions. Weiss has publicly sided with Marat’s commitment to social revolution. Why, then, does he give Sade the better lines? Why does he undermine Marat by dramatizing man’s inclination to savage and irrational violence? Why does he permit his central debate to be submerged in theatrical delirium? Why does he have Sade and Marat encounter each other in a madhouse, with mad actors continually falling into and out of their roles? The real conflict seems to be between Weiss the radical political propagandist and Weiss the absurdist playwright, who is appalled by man’s capacity for barbarism and destructiveness.
In this retelling of the French Revolution's aftermath, Weiss raises questions about the struggle between classes, between the aristocracy or privileged class, and the poor, lower class. The picture that he paints is a grim one. The much-needed, much-touted Revolution in France has come. Heads have rolled—literally—and changes in France's government have been introduced. But the question is raised, have things really changed or have the new ruling class adopted the ways of the old aristocracy? The play notes the actions of the ruling class and how the poor are treated. The situation has slightly improved but not enough to merit the loss of life in the revolution.
The church is scrutinized for aiding the ruling class by encouraging...
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