Adapted from his own theatrical production of Peter Weiss’ play entitled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, Peter Brook directs this fascinating meditation on the nature of revolution, on power and its abuses, means and ends. Focusing around the assassination of the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson) in 1793, Marat/Sade offers a complicated reading of a play within a play about drama and history that simultaneously challenges the spectator to rethink political philosophy. Retaining the original script, Brook employed members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in their original roles, and reproduced the large communal cell of the stage production. Much like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Marat/Sade plays out in long, twisted monologues and expository speeches. Moreover, the play is acted out exactly as if it were performed by the inmates of the asylum, as a form of drama therapy, where, during the 19th century, fashionable theatergoers would pay to see staged performances by asylum inmates. Throughout, the film addresses both the ideology of performance and the performance of ideology with regards to government, justice, violence, aesthetics, sex and the grotesque.

The boldness of Brook’s cinematic production – which used no props and no black out – is based on two historical truths: that the Marquis de Sade (Patrick Magee) was interned at the mental institution in the Paris suburb of Charenton for 13 years (from 1801 until his death in 1814); and that Marat was fatally stabbed in a bathtub by Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson) at the height of the French Revolution. These sparse facts form the basis of an imagined performance by members of the asylum. The lead ‘actress’/inmate playing Corday is a narcoleptic manic-depressive, the ‘actor’ playing Marat is a paranoiac, and another ‘actor’, playing Duperret, is a sex maniac, who is kept in chains throughout the production. ‘Written’ by that institution’s most notorious resident, de Sade, the play itself represents four historical levels: the failed revolution in 1793, the asylum where the play was staged in 1808, the filming in 1966, and the spectator’s current viewing.

The film opens with Monsieur Coubnier (Clifford Rose), the officious head of the Charenton asylum, introducing that evening’s entertainment to the audience.A supporter of the post-revolutionary government led by Napoleon, in place at the time of the production, Coubnier believes the play he has organised to be an endorsement of his patriotic views. His patients, however, have other ideas, and they begin to speak lines he had attempted to suppress. As the play continues, the inmates enact the events leading up to Corday’s assassination of the French activist. Influenced by Brechtian ideas, Brook’s filmed version reminds us in every scene explicitly that what we are watching is an artificial representation, a staged reality, which is frequently interrupted by formal debate, political songs, direct audience address and mime. By revealing strong overtones of Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty,’ the events of the play and its setting, jar the senses of the audience at a sensory level, involving them emotionally as well as intellectually.1 The deployment of a hand-held camera, creates an erratic, harsh, at times surreal effect, where lingering close-ups heighten and exacerbate the feeling of uncontrolled violence building beneath the surface. In addition, all sound is generated by sources on-screen and on-stage. These techniques implicate the spectator in the film’s unfolding, revealing that there is no safe place from which to watch the film at a distance.

Brooks’ nightmarish-looking residents of the asylum, with their head’s partially shaven, are so cinematically captivating and believable that a viewer cannot help but engage emotionally with their plight. As Brook moves us through the white-walled room with its crude wooden floor-boards and benches, we are ushered in with these inmates, who are constantly forgetting their lines, falling out of their roles, and having to be prompted by de Sade. Thus, we are forced to participate actively in the making of the meaning and message of the play (and the film). As the inmates talk of rights and justice; the film is interrupted by occasional philosophical exchanges between Marat and de Sade. Though both men were early supporters of the revolution, their ideas of the shape of the movement took very different courses. Here, Marat is presented as a dour, intellectual figure, emotionally disconnected from the violent implications of an unimpeded government bent on murderous class revenge. Unlike Marat, de Sade – who cares little for practical politics – preaches his own brand of epicurean cynicism. He not only recognises the inherent weakness and perversities of the human character, but he revels in it. However, the collision of existentialism with political fanaticism amid chaos provides no easy answers. As the film progresses, the revolution depicted soon develops into an outright revolution on the stage. Here, the aristocratic spectators (kept safely away from the prisoners by iron bars) cackles to itself as various cast members occasionally lose control or launch into anti-government tirades, while the nurses and supervisors periodically step in to restore order. In due course, the production unravels, anarchy prevails, and the patients become impossible to control, finally turning against their audience in an orgy of violence; while de Sade stands back and laughs at it all.

Whether a tale of modern society – life is a madhouse in which we are all inmates – or a deliberate technique designed to shock and push action and dialogue to excess, Marat/Sade is an intensely profound, and provocative exploration of human nature, which offers a bold critique on political violence, mental illness and revolutionary fervor.

 

Endnote

  1. The idea of a theatre of cruelty was first introduced by Antonin Artaud to describe a form of theatre that he hoped would unleash unconscious responses in audiences and performers that were normally inaccessible. Artaud was opposed to productions based on venerated classical texts or established literary forms and thought they merely represented highly artificial worlds that were irrelevant in their construction. The theatrical solution in his theory and practice was to push the envelope of human sensitivity so that the spectators would be shocked and repulsed by the content unfolding on-stage and confronted with an irresolvable conundrum at the end.

About The Author

Amy Simmons is a freelance film critic based in Brighton, UK. She has written for Time Out London and the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine. Her monograph on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is published by Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series.