Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade presented the most original take on the “play-within-a-play” concept that I’ve ever read. The fictitious historical drama described the events leading up to the bloodthirsty firebrand of the French Revolution’s assassination. One of literature’s more infamous writers penned the work. An asylum served as the setting. Should I even continue with this review? I’d be surprised if a number of readers haven’t logged off to find a copy of the book by now.
Mr. Weiss selected a rather verbose title. Most refer to The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by the abbreviated Marat/Sade. While lengthy I give the playwright credit: the drama corresponded with what I expected from the label.
That’s where the ‘easy’ reading ended, however. As someone familiar with both the French Revolution and de Sade’s writing, I anticipated a philosophical take on the historical events surrounding this pivotal event in human history. Once again, the playwright didn’t disappoint. He presented a deep intellectual exploration of conditions during the Revolution in 1793 when the Marat story occurred. He then contrasted them to French life on the fifteenth anniversary of Marat’s murder when de Sade directed the play. Mr. Weiss cleverly inserted his own leftist views into the 1965 text, too. The Herald character noted:
The Revolution came and went
And unrest was replaced by discontent. (Page 26)
Four of the asylum’s patients followed this up with their thoughts.
Patient: We’ve got rights the right to starve
Patient: We’ve got jobs waiting for work
Patient: We’re all brothers lousy and dirty
Patient: We’re all free and equal to die like dogs (Page 26)
While I disagree with Mr. Weiss’ political leanings I respect his excellent use of subtext.
I didn’t read the play in the original German. Geoffrey Skelton’s English translation contained some outstanding usage of language.
I found Marat’s assassin’s–Charlotte Corday’s—view of her target expressed exceptionally well. In the following dialog she alluded to Marat’s medicinal baths where he wrote his invectives calling for more and more violence.
Corday (sleepily and hesitantly): Poor Marat in your bathtub
Your body soaked, saturated with poison
Poison spurting from your hiding place
Poisoning the people
Arousing them to looting and murder. (Page 30)
I liked the interesting way of describing his venomous words.
Marat described his country’s upheaval in unflattering terms.
We stand here more oppressed than when we began
(Points across the auditorium)
And they think the Revolution’s been won. (Page 56)
Mr. Weiss’ used the character of the Marquis de Sade in amusing ways. Not only did he write and direct the play-within-the-play he also took part in it. Several times he interjected his own views on the subject; in some cases directly speaking to the Marat character. Sade opined the following on the killing of aristocrats.
Look at them Marat
These men who once owned everything
See how they turn their defeat into victory
Now that their pleasures have been taken away
The guillotine saves them from endless boredom
Gaily they offer their heads as if for coronation
Is that not the pinnacle of perversion (Page 41)
I enjoyed the touch of irony with the character’s use of that final word.
De Sade also explained his thoughts on public opinion to his protagonist.
Today they need you because you are going to suffer for them
They need you and they honor the urn which holds your ashes
Tomorrow they will come back and they will smash that urn
And they will ask
Marat who was Marat (Page 71)
While not expressed in the text, I wonder if those words hurt Marat more than Ms. Corday’s dagger.
I thought the playwright used exposition too liberally in the play. It opened with the asylum’s director (Coulmier) delivering a prologue. The character explained the setting, the date and the set-up as well as other aspects of the Marat/Sade show. Later in the drama, various characters from Marat’s past described various aspects of his personality during his formative years. While already familiar with the story of Marat’s assassination, I would’ve preferred the playwright interspersed these incidents into the narrative itself. A parade of characters coming on stage to talk about the main character stopped the story too abruptly for me.
I’d also encourage readers unfamiliar with Marat to learn about him before reading. Those lacking knowledge about his publication L’Ami du people, his murder by Charlotte Corday and his medicinal baths won’t understand the story. Some background in the Marquis de Sade’s political philosophy and writings would help in that regard, as well. Reading Marat/Sade with this context would give the play more impact as it’s cerebral instead of action driven.
Marat/Sade succeeded on multiple levels. It presented a philosophical take on political and social conditions in Revolutionary France with parallels to the modern era. The playwright framed them through the perceptions of two of history’s most notorious figures. It impressed me that he achieved all this using the play-within-a-play technique. I enjoyed reading and would welcome the opportunity to watch it performed. I won’t do either of those things from a bathtub, though.