I was lucky enough to come by the last ticket to the last performance of the Peter Weiss play Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade—or 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—in the recent production by The Classical Theatre of Harlem. Along with the definitive Gate Theatre production of Waiting for Godot, which N and I saw for her birthday last year, this was one of the best performances I have seen for a very long time. At once visceral and conceptual, in your face and ambivalent, Marat/Sade is that most endangered of aesthetic creatures—a work satisfying in every last respect.
In the Oxford English Dictionary entry under theatre, theater, n. there appears the following paragraph:
(b) Phrases: theatre-in-the-round: see ROUND n. 5d; Theatre of Cruelty [tr. F. théâtre de la cruauté (A. Artaud (1932) Manifeste du théâtre de la cruauté)], a collective term for plays in which the dramatist seeks to communicate a sense of pain, suffering, and evil through the portrayal of extreme physical violence; Theatre of the Absurd, a collective term for plays (chiefly French) portraying the futility and anguish of man's struggle in a senseless and inexplicable world (cf. ABSURD n.); also fig.; Theatre of Fact, documentary drama.
Marat/Sade satisfies every one of these definitions. The play is set with spectators surrounding the stage (theatre in the round), Weiss was strongly influenced by Artaud (theatre of cruelty), the play is an icon of anti-theatre and includes a philosophical dialogue between de Sade and Marat that makes L'Étranger seem like self-help (theatre of the absurd), and—perhaps most remarkably—the entire play, including the play within a play structure, is based in part on the real life story of de Sade, who spent thirteen years in the insane asylum at Charenton (theatre of fact). As if that weren't enough, it's also a musical.
The central among many themes in the play is the tension between human nature and political progress. de Sade on the one hand expresses a cynical, atoms-in-the-void determinism while ordering his actors around the stage like puppets, while Marat—seated in a bathtub in the middle of the stage (the real version of which can be seen in the Musée Grévin), pen and paper in hand, for the duration of the play—urges on the French revolution. Eventually Marat is stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, who visits him under the guise of offering inside information about an imminent counter-revolutionary uprising. Symbolically, the play represents the triumph of realism over idealism. Weiss, having lived through the—for him, personally heartbreaking—failure of communism, clearly sides with de Sade over Marat, and the play delivers an aesthetic statement designed to ram this message home to a complicit audience.
The New York debut of the play was reviewed in the April 1966 edition of Harper's (p. 124):
It was reported that two women fainted at different performances, a third had a heart attack, and I know of at least one gentleman who stalked up the aisle midway through the evening, muttering, "It's nothing but a Goddamn freak show," to his wife.
There is also an interesting review of this same production by Stuart Hampshire from The New York Review of Books in February 1966, though he gets it all wrong, mainly by misunderstanding the relationship between the theatricality of the play and the political themes. The problem is that he completely ignores the historical context in which Weiss is writing—though in his defence, the 3 volume Weiss masterpiece Die Ästhetik des Widerstands was still more than a decade from seeing the light of day. He also, bizarrely, says that "the audience will leave the theater without being assaulted or disturbed". I don't know how this could be possible; at the Harlem production, I was literally soaked with an industrial strength hose sprayed by one of the asylum inmates into the crowd.
The highlight of the production, though, was the end. The play finishes with a riot, the asylum inmates revolting against the director of the asylum, the Abbé de Coulmier—another real life character—who is killed while his daughter is raped. The inmates then flee, leaving corpses strewn around the caged stage. It isn't clear whether the play has ended. Very, very gradually, the corpses stand up and sarcastically applaud the audience, looking into our eyes, and walk away. de Sade strolls casually off stage, smirking. Eventually the crowd, deciding there is no further entertainment forthcoming, starts to dissipate.
I was reminded of the play when Mike and Giovanni and I recently visited the Strand, where I was delighted to find an autographed copy of David Markson's The Last Novel. Markson writes that Artaud himself "spent nine of his last eleven years in insane asylums" (p. 32) and died "sitting up at the foot of his bed" (p. 128). On the way out of the store there was a card lying alone on the top of some books, with a print of Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat.
Poetic harmony demanded that I steal it.