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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

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 tableaux. Every sexual experience had to be a complete drama in itself; that is why he needed odd combinations, carefully presented in his text for the occasion. The dictates of Nature could not be evaded; but they could be dramatized and expressed, with the only freedom possible, in play. To him the injunction “Be natural” meant “Dramatize Nature.” It has been difficult for his biographers to make his wife, mistresses, mother-in-law, the prostitutes and others, seem real to us, more than the trappings of one of his own dramas; his interminable writings, his stories and plays, are like stage directions for his life, and they outweigh the text itself.

It is therefore altogether appropriate that Sade, a largely unreadable writer and a man who had little or no influence on his contemporaries, should now be a household name and an emblematic figure. He was the precursor of show business, of the private life publicly acted. He was, in his life and his teaching, and, above all, in the relation between them, the philosopher of theatrical curiosity, the man whose life was intended as a play, and whose actual plays were dead from the moment that they were conceived. His actions were commentaries, without intended practical effect, and his sexual exploits were histrionics. His life, both inside and outside prison, was a kind of phenomenological reduction, in which all the normal consequences of action were “bracketed,” placed in inverted commas.

Peter Weiss’s original idea was therefore one of extraordinary brilliance: to make Sade the center, and the commentator, of a play within a play, which would illustrate the full range of theatrical effects which the modern stage, after Büchner, Pirandello, Brecht, and Genet, can now provide. The material of the outer play is solid historical fact: Sade at last realizing his theatrical ambitions in the asylum at Charenton. There are two main intertwining, purely theatrical themes that connect our modern theater with Sade’s: first, the Revolution, or revolution, or the strategy of the élite of birth, race, and educated speech in the face of the inarticulate mob; secondly, the possibility of sexual licence, or the strategy of the ego in the face of the inarticulate instincts. For Sade, the proper strategy, whether within the body politic or within the individual, is to put on a show, to invite the high-minded, progressive audience, and to have fine speeches made, about war and poverty and freedom, and to wait for the audience to applaud noble, subversive sentiments, which, at the Martin Beck Theater, it duly does. Thereby the conflicts, simultaneously public and private, are tamed, sublimated, purged, acted out, rendered fictitious, and become vicarious satisfaction for the perpetual audience, bland and smiling on its raised seats, always ready to peer in at any lively representation of lust or suffering. Three elegant figures, seated at the side of the stage, the Governor, his wife and daughter, bestow their smiling patronage on the licensed antics and outrages of the psychotic inmates. This is what we officially call Art and Theater. The performance, being art, must of course be beautiful, if it is to earn aristocratic, discriminating applause, and if the audience is to be moved: moved, that is, not to action, nor indeed in any particular direction, but just moved. Peter Brook’s stage is consistently beautiful, both in color and in grouping; it is a constantly changing tableau, which subdues the violent, obscene, uncoordinated movements of the asylum’s inmates to an aesthetically satisfying pattern, reminiscent of Géricault. The stage is treated like a canvas which is at all times kept lively and coherent. Even the indication of semen on the trousers of the erotomaniac, Duperret, can be seen as decorative, and the utmost horrors of alienation and abjectness are subtly stylized. The musical accompaniment, although appropriately strange and discordant, is also very pleasing, and contributes to the aesthetic unity. The flogging of Sade by Charlotte Corday is stylized, too, conveying a filtered erotic excitement to the audience. Mr. Brook has arranged that the lines be delivered in a careful stage diction, inexpressively, thus underlining the extreme theatricality of the performance within a performance. Patrick Magee gives Sade a languid, aristocraticlisp; he plays with his English vowels and coolly experiments with words, listening to himself, amused by his own rhetoric. He recounts the unspeakable tortures to which the assassin, Damiens, was subjected, in detail, quietly and slowly, in the reflective spirit of Jaques telling the ages of man. He has known long ago that this is the nature of man; he is a torturer rather than a killer, the over-strained beast, with a nervous itch, an incurable irritability, that is always generated anew in the cells of his body. This he chooses to call morality. All punishment is torture, whether it is the work of the courts or of the citizen’s guillotine. Sade cannot moralize, and Peter Brook and Patrick Magee, who plays Sade, carefully indicate, in style of performance, that he is now a self-absorbed and curious commentator, not a revolutionary nor a reformer.

His sexual cruelty was an exacerbated curiosity, a childlike desire to see the springs of the mechanism working beneath the skin. It could be argued that there is in fact one minor lapse in this performance: Magee delivers part of the Damiens speech with rather too much venom, as if Sade were Savonarola. Sade was a physiological determinist and accepted the normal implications of this philosophy: that all plans for moral improvement or for the liberation of men, are self-deception. Weiss respects this fact, and has written a Lucretian speech for him. Love and war and social domination, and the fantasies that accompany them, issue from the imperatives of the body, the haphazard concatenation of the cells, and can have no solution on a political plane. Politics itself is an illusion, at best play-acting, a theater for the display of a given temperament. Only a chemist could calculate the exact intervals that divide the sane from the insane, the feverish and ascetic reformer from the erotomaniac and the sadist. We are temporary configurations in the mad whirl of atoms, and our pretended civilization is only fear of Nature. The only real contact between persons is the sexual act, which is itself always a kind of rape, “the contact of two skins and the exchange of two fantasies.” From Chamfort to Sade the step is from wit and worldliness to a grimly consistent metaphysics; Sade had seen the revolution fail.

Marat, Sade’s foil, the paranoiac reformer with the irritable skin, is seated in his bath throughout the play, waiting for the predetermined climax—for the famous picture to come true, for Charlotte Corday’s coup de théatre. He rants, staring straight ahead with unseeing, already dead eyes, solitary and impotent, a man of words who makes no human contact, lapped in the illusion of free-will which still cannot soothe him. He has desperately to refuse to understand his own pathology, to keep talking, projecting in the form of a political program his irritability and sexual deprivations. He must believe that the naked, natural man might be free, if he once throws off the trappings of his history; he is for a moment symbolically naked on the stage. But this hope, Sade implies, is a metaphysical mistake: Freedom is not a historical and social category and cannot be a historical and social achievement. We can be free only if we suspend the reality principle and the control of the ego; a free man is at home only in the madhouse and, best of all, acting out his private fantasies on a madhouse stage. In the only gesture of normal communication on stage, Sade lays his hand on Marat’s shoulder in sympathy; the social revolution is inevitably about to fail, to die, killed by its own children; but it was at least an illusion of freedom. At the postponed climax, when Charlotte Corday goes through the predetermined motions of stabbing Marat in his bath, the whole cast sighs voluptuously. The insane are new free in the ultimate disorder to attack the aristocratic and sane spectators; Sade smiles with satisfaction. The play-acting has done its work of liberation and is complete. It remains only for the cast of the outer play, as a sign of alienation, to reject the patronage of the audience in the Martin Beck Theater with applause that ironically answers their benevolent appreciation.

It is a subtly contrived, superbly self-confident performance, almost faultlessly acted, continuously alive and interesting in many details that I have not mentioned: a theatrical success, a demonstration that a stage director can now again rival both cinema and opera in density of suggestion. Yet, as a play, Marat-Sade is in some ways deadening and depressing, or at least may be found so by someone who comes to the theater for something other than the delight of theater. This is because the play itself, beneath the glittering production, is cagey, allusive, and mannered in its treatment of its political themes. The central weakness, I think, is a lack of conviction and clarity in the writing of Marat’s part. Mr. Weiss seems to be uncertain what a real and formidable political radicalism would now be. Facing Sade, who had descended from the superstructure of politics and society to the nether-world, Marat becomes merely a figure of superficial pathos and of the past, defeated and dead before he begins. And this is plainly not what the author intended or the argument requires. The old conflicts and arguments of the Thirties in Europe, between the liberty of the individual to follow his private madness and the needs of disciplined social revolution, are toyed with in a retrospective, civilized, detached way; Marat is, in most of his speeches, tinsel, stage scenery, or an element in a great painting. Again, the Brechtian songs are touching, but ironically and allusively touching; Charlotte Corday, the mad, beautiful country girl mouthing her lines, is again an element in a picture, an aesthetic contrivance. If one comes to the theater with a coarse appetite, and not as an aesthete, one expects to be disturbed by a represented conflict, or by poetry, as by Danton’s Death or Rosmersholm or The Blacks. Even in Pirandello the theme of theatricality and play-acting is explored as a problem of Italian life and with a sharp, somber realism. Marat-Sade is, in this production, an aesthetic delight and an apt historical pageant; but it is static, and the audience will leave the theater without being assaulted or disturbed, comfortably appreciating the delicacies of theatrical technique. That, in a kind of bluff and double-bluff, this very theme is written into the play does not finally alter the impression. Weiss-Brook’s Marat-Sade is a glowing spectacle and a luxury, and Sade and Brook dominate the scene.

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