Themes and Meanings

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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is passionately committed to collective action for social reform, while Sade, once prorevolutionary, has skeptically withdrawn into anarchic individualism.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.


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Class Conflict
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 those in...

(This entire section contains 957 words.)

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poverty to turn to God and see merit in suffering. Churches should be made into schools, the play suggests, at least they might then make some positive contribution to society. The lives of the new ruling class are examined, pointing out a basic pattern. Once in power, those who may have started out with good intentions become corrupt. Power corrupts, greed corrupts. The wealth resides with the minority who control society; the pattern is repeated with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.

These messages are couched in the surreal setting of an insane asylum with three major factions (represented by Marat, Sade, and Coulmier) debating the reality of the times and the issues. While this occurs, the insane inmates become agitated and threaten the security of the institution. Coulmier, representing the status quo and those in power, continually defends the present, pointing out the improvements; he is the one most threatened by the unruliness of the patients, who represent the poor masses. Weiss uses the similarities between the oppressed poor and the incarcerated patients to show that inequity existed not only in the French Revolution but in all social situations—even ones as microcosmic as the power structure of an insane asylum.

Weiss held many communist sympathies, and he employs socialist ideology to the events he depicts. He illustrates the theory that oppressed people will rise up to better their conditions in life. In the play within the play, the actors/patients praise Marat's efforts in the revolution, yet they also criticize him for not going far enough. They want continued revolt to the point that real change takes place. While these exhortations seem directed at Marat and the circumstances following the revolution, they can just as easily be applied beyond the setting of Sade's play. Criticism is also leveled at the ruling class of the French society that is represented by the audience members visiting the asylum. More succinctly, the patients' calls for change can be focused on the asylum director, whose efforts at progressive therapy are appreciated but who could also do much more to make life in the asylum better.

Body vs. Mind
Yet the major conflict of Marat/Sade is not found between the patients and Coulmier. It lies in the contrasting ideas of Sade and Marat. Sade, as the author of the play within the play, gets to confront Marat and his ideology. Their division is the conflict between the physical world and the mind—or inner world.

Marat represents a deep faith in ideas and ideals. He is tortured at times with the ineffectiveness of words but nonetheless defends their power. Words are a representation of ideas. But he insists he has not fallen back on verbiage to avoid action. Clearly the masses are swayed by words but the sympathies of the crowd are fickle; Marat and his ideas can be rejected. While his concepts were inspiring, Marat's theories of revolution did not go far enough to address the potential for history repeating itself; they have not wrought the revolution that was desired. "We want the revolution NOW," demand the patients. The impoverished and disenfranchised demand that Marat get out of his head and bring change through action. Is the pen mightier than the sword? The play presents the pen as basically impotent. Marat's revolution yields a society too similar to the one he sought to vanquish.

Sade argues with Marat about the ineffectiveness of his thoughts and words. He points out the failure of the revolution to bring real change. Sade believes that the revolution failed because its architects failed to address human nature. He tells Marat that change in society cannot be wrought without first changing man's nature, starting with the body and working outward. To this end Sade proposes his theory of pleasure gained through a combination of agony and ecstasy. By pushing the body to its threshold, one will gain complete knowledge of oneself. Only at that point can humankind hope to change the way they interact.

Appearance vs. Reality
Throughout the play, the traditional barriers between the stage and the audience are broken down. Several times during the course of Sade's play, Coulmier interrupts the action to criticize the work's content. Sade also invades the play's action with his own comments, taking the opportunity to engage Marat in debates on mind and body. Perhaps most unsettling and surreal for the actual viewer (as opposed to the onstage audience represented by Coulmier and his family) are the performances of the inmates enacting the various roles in Sade's drama. It is never clear if their actions are dictated by the Marquis's script and direction or by their own, insane motivations. Similarly, the actors' call for revolution is ambiguous. Weiss does not clarify if the call is directed toward the action in Sade's play, toward Coulmier and his class, or to the actual audience. Many have theorized that it is unimportant who the target is as long as the message is understood.


Act Summaries