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
A Play by Peter Weiss
I’d heard of this play years ago, and not to put too fine a point on it, it sounds like a complete clusterfuck, and I have been curious about it ever since.
The premise is based on the historical facts that Marat was assassinated during the French Revolution in 1793, that Sade participated in the revolution and even made the memorial address at Marat’s funeral, and that Sade later put on plays with the other inmates during his internment in Charenton Asylum from 1801-1814.
In this fictionalization, Sade is producing a play about the assassination of Marat, casting the various other asylum inmates. It is quite short, just two acts that together are just 102 pages, and it starts off surprisingly funny, with sort of slapstick humor around the extremely amateur production. I was pleasantly surprised, and thus lured quite capably into the subsequent ugliness surrounding the French Revolution and Sade’s personal philosophies.
Both the revolution and Sade committed horrific atrocities, though they came from opposite justifications: the French Revolution declaring that some violence must be committed for the improvement of society (so, basically, a regrettable side effect in the search for good), and Sade declaring that the only way to understand the human condition is to explore the very worst of it (the search for evil as humanity’s defining feature). This basic disagreement is explored through debates between Marat and Sade that appear to happen outside the play-within-the-play, and possibly only occur in Sade’s head.
The back blurb advertises that “It is total theatre: philosophically problematic, visually terrifying…. The play is basically concerned with the problem of revolution. Are the same things true for the masses and for their leaders? And where, in modern times, lie the borderlines of sanity?” My main take-away, however, was to wonder how much of the political and philosophical grandstanding by Marat and Sade was purely self-serving to justify their own personal indulgences. Sade likes to rape and torture, but he wants to see himself as something greater than just a violent sociopath, so he claims that all of humanity has these same urges, but only he has the courage to explore them honestly. And, though I am more sympathetic to Marat’s ambitions, he clings to his ideal of how the revolution will be played out, with himself as the people’s savior, and any deviation from that is treason and must be eradicated violently and completely.
I would pay quite a bit to see this live, actually – the descriptions of the sets, with a rudimentary stage and props within an asylum, the inclusion of a four-person chorus to punctuate points throughout the play, and the wide variety of players, often wandering on their own would make it quite the spectacle. (I would also like to see the movie from 1967, but the library doesn’t have it, and I don’t want to swing $38 for it, which is amazon’s very cheapest offer.)