This two-act play is divided into thirty-three scenes, with the first few setting the stage for the play and the play-within-the-play. At the Charenton clinic, Sade signs to the Herald for the play to begin. Coulmier explains to the audience, seated on the side and consisting of himself, his wife, and his daughter, that Sade has written this historical play portraying the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday on July 13, 1793. The performance has two purposes: entertainment for the visitors and therapy for the inmates. The performance is July 13, 1808, exactly fifteen years after the assassination. The Herald then introduces those inmates playing major roles, apologizing for their lack of skill. Sade plays himself. Marat is played by a paranoiac. The Marat, in the play, as in life, has a skin disease that necessitates his remaining constantly in a warm bath. Charlotte Corday is played by a woman suffering from sleeping sickness and melancholia.
The play-within-the-play begins with the “Homage to Marat” sung by four balladeers: Kokol, Polpoch, Cucurucu, and Rossignol, who represent the attitudes and grievances of the masses. For them, Marat is the only revolutionary, and they want to be assured that he will never give up their fight. When Roux elevates their cries for bread and freedom, Coulmier demands that Sade keep the performers to the approved script so as not to confuse and unsettle the patients.
Next, Charlotte Corday is introduced as both a character in the play and a historical personage. Corday believes Marat has become the evil genius of France and gains an audience with him through deceit, promising to betray the Girondists of her hometown, Caen. Marat is preparing his “fourteenth of July call/ to the people of France.” On the street, Corday has witnessed the crowd performing a dance of death as they march to the guillotine. A pantomime, narrated by Marat, portrays a history of past executions.
Sade and Marat discuss the meaning of life and death. Sade compares death to the indifference he observes in nature. For him, life and death are purely a matter of the survival of the fittest, without human compassion. Marat, on the other hand, maintains that it is absolutely essential to intervene whenever injustice occurs, especially when perpetrated in society by the Church and the state. When Coulmier objects to this characterization of society, the Herald sarcastically suggests that everything is different now and the comments serve only to provide a historical context within the play. Sade expresses his ambivalence about humanity’s ability to improve its lot through revolution, while Marat maintains that the time has come to put the writings of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” into action. The masses, however, demand an immediate revolution.
Corday continues to believe in her mission, yet now she describes Marat, in her somnambulism, as the image of Napoleon. Duperret attempts to dissuade her, believing that Marat and his revolution will soon be conquered and freedom restored. Sade has lost faith in the idealism of the revolution, while Marat believes in it all the more, a viewpoint vigorously supported by Roux and the masses. They sing, “We want our rights and we don’t care how/ We want our Revolution now.”
Corday and Duperret believe the long-awaited freedom promised by the revolution will soon be realized. Marat, however, delivers a litany exposing those beliefs as lies and attempts to warn the masses against deception. Sade suggests that they are only interested in profiting from the revolution. Sade’s views are substantiated when Corday visits Marat a second time and gives him a letter in which she says, “I am unhappy/ and therefore have a right to his aid.”
The first act concludes with the scene in which Marat’s life is mocked and ridiculed by characters representing his youth, science, the army, the Church, the nouveaux riches, and even Voltaire and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. Roux...
(The entire section is 1,920 words.)