Places: Marat/Sade

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1964 as Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter der Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (Marat/Sade: 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, 1965)

First produced: 1964, at the Schiller Theater, Berlin

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social morality

Time of work: 1808

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Charenton

*Charenton Marat/Sade (shar-in-TON). Mental institution in Paris that provides the play’s main setting. Although the action of the drama is centered on a series of violent encounters between the political radical Jean-Paul Marat and the then-infamous Marquis de Sade, in the madhouse of Charenton, this encounter was entirely imaginary. Jean-Paul Marat, one of the architects of the French Revolution, was never incarcerated at Charenton, he never met the Marquis de Sade, and he was assassinated in 1793–fifteen years before the year in which the play is set. However, de Sade was, in fact, incarcerated there from 1801 until his death in 1814. He was imprisoned not for political crimes but for a variety of acts of violence so shocking that the word sadism has derived from his name. While de Sade was a prisoner, he frequently staged plays that he wrote in Charenton.

Placing infamous Marat and de Sade together in a mental institution in which they converse about important social questions allows the author to improvise short, rapidly shifting and changing scenarios, in which the actors, miming the thoughts and actions of sane people, are actually madmen and women who are, time and again, overcome by their various psychoses. They frequently forget de Sade’s scripted words and discourse wildly and violently on social issues. That they are incarcerated lunatics is a subtle touch, for it allows playwright Peter Weiss to insert social commentaries on everything from the futility of political revolution to the immoral, indeed criminal, mistreatment of society’s poor in ways that are, seemingly paradoxically, both distressing and funny at the same time.

The idea that all the world may be mad is made by an ingenious use of literary place. Marat/Sade is actually a play-within-a play: The “outer action” involves the bourgeois director of the asylum, Coulmier, and his guests, the elite of Parisian society, who have been invited to witness one of de Sade’s plays. The “inner action,” or core of the drama, consists of de Sade, playing himself, and some patients who play the roles of various “normal” people. The reader becomes part of the audience watching, and ironically commenting on, the action of both the outer and inner dramas. This device draws readers in, suggesting that they, too, continue to engage in the horrors of war, of social injustice, and of personal delusion.

BibliographyCohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A well-balanced introduction to Weiss’s life and works, recommended as a beginner’s source.Ellis, Roger. Peter Weiss in Exile: A Critical Study of His Works. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. A comprehensive study of Weiss’s dramas, with special emphasis on Marat/Sade.Hilton, Ian. Peter Weiss: A Search for Affinities. London: Oswald Wolff, 1970. A brief discussion of Weiss’s earlier life and works; includes selected translations from essays, novels, and dramas.Sontag, Susan. “Marat/Sade/Artaud.” In Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. The most important and influential discussion on the reception and performances of Marat/Sade in the United States. Also examines how Brecht’s and Artaud’s dramatic theories can be used in producing this play.White, John. “History and Cruelty in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.” Modern Language Review 63 (1968): 437-448. Outlines Weiss’s use of the historical materials in Marat/Sade, illustrating how facts and documents of the French Revolution are integrated to reveal later periods in history. Discusses how Artaud’s concepts of the “theater of cruelty” were adapted in Brook’s first London production.
Categories: Places