Sade’s Theater

The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade

by Peter Weiss. Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Peter Brook
at the Martin Beck Theater

Corday Marat
Corday Marat; drawing by David Levine

There can be no doubt that Peter Weiss’s play The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade provides a theatrical experience of the first order: at least this is true of the play as it is performed at the Martin Beck Theater. This is evident fact; thereafter argument and opinion begin. This play, in this production, ought to be seen. It gives pleasure and it is interesting. The question is: Why and what is interesting about it?

It is possible to love the theater and to revel in theatricality, to find the pretense and unreality of the stage wholly absorbing in its own right. It must be supposed that most actors and directors, if left to their own tastes and impulses, would strive after theatrical effects before all else. The satisfaction of any broader human interest might be quite secondary in their performances. But they are not left to follow their own addiction; they need an audience, and they cannot assume that every member of their audience will be as interested in the purely theatrical experience as they are. Some of them may be interested in something that exists principally outside the theater: in social change or political power, or in certain moral conflicts, or perhaps in poetry. A satisfactory play therefore, which will continue to attract an audience and by this means keep men of the theater busy inside the theater, must pander to one or more of these outside interests. So, obviously, Shakespeare and Molière did; but not so the Marquis de Sade, the complete man of the theater, consumed with theatricality, who all his life had difficulty in finding audiences to share, and to provide an occasion for, his endlessly planned theatrical effects. But at last, in the asylum at Charenton, he had a captive audience. He had also a cast that was ideal for his theatrical purposes, since their grip upon unrepresented reality was likely to be as loose as his own. Sade could never tell the difference between lust and the play-acting of lust, between cruelty and the play-acting of cruelty, between being free and the play-acting of an ideal freedom. So completely was he a man of the theater that he needed an audience before even the most elementary of his desires or emotions was real to him. All the world was for him a theater, not only in the sense that he required a script and an audience for everything that he did, but also because he knew no distinction between acting and acting out, and between acting because he felt a certain emotion and acting as if he felt a certain emotion. Although he was an apostle of Nature in the eighteenth-century sense, his life was a theatrical artifice, its incidents a series of set scenes and illustrative…

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