Saturday, August 13, 2016

Marat/Sade: A Play About a Play About the Marquis de Sade

            The full title of this truly unique film is 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. For obvious reasons it tends to be shortened to Marat/Sade. This play is without a doubt one of the finest commentary on revolutionary politics and man’s inability to resolve the critical issues of our existence. It fully captures the unending struggle between the politics necessary to obtain freedom versus that which enslaves, and demonstrates how one could easily become the other.
Set in the historical Charenton Asylum, Marat/Sade is almost entirely a "play within a play". The main story takes place 15 years after the French Revolution, when de Sade was indeed committed to the insane asylum. It depicts the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday.  The actors of the play within the play are all meant to be inmates of the asylum, with various nuns and guards around who occasionally step in to maintain order when the action gets out of hand. It is directed by de Sade himself, who take parts in it- offering up his philosophies and debating with Marat on the merits of his claims (or lack thereof) and revolution in general. It is overseen by the bourgeoisie director Abbé de Coulmier who occasionally steps in to object to some of the material presented in the play.

This is all based on actual events (though the substance of the play was entirely created by the author Peter Weiss. De Sade did perform plays with the inmates at the asylum at Charenton (now called Esquirol Hospital), encouraged by Coulmier- who viewed it as a form of therapy. Coulmier incidentally was widely praised for his new revolutionary ideas of asylum reform, as opposed to the old ways of just locking them up.
The Death of Marat (1793)
Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most radical voices of the French Revolution. His first political work, Chains of Slavery: A work in which the clandestine and villainous attempts of Princes to ruin Liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of Despotism disclosed was hailed and hated throughout France, depending on your social status. His other works contained many radical ideas, including the argument that society should provide basic needs such as food and shelter if it expected all its citizens to follow its laws, that the king was no more than the "first magistrate" of his people, that there should be a common death penalty regardless of class, and that each town should have a dedicated "avocat des pauvres" and set up independent criminal tribunals with twelve-man juries to ensure a fair trial.
During the revolution he started a newspaper championing it, after he continued attacking (and promoting violence against) those he considered too moderate or those he deemed counter-revolutionaries. Advising, "five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom and happiness." During the turmoil that occurred after the execution of Louis XVI, Marat was arrested, acquitted, arrested again, acquitted again and the political landscape shifted from one dictator to the next. His life was eventually cut short by Charlotte Corday, who gained admittance to his home under false pretenses of having information on his political enemies. She stabbed him to death in his bath, where he spent much time due to a skin disease.
Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade- from whose name the word sadism is coined- was a proponent of extreme freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion, or law. He was one of the seven prisoners freed when the Bastille was sacked by the crowd and numbered among the few aristocrats to survive the French Revolution. During his imprisonment in the jail he had been working on his magnum opus The 120 Days of Sodom (which was made into the film Salo). To his despair, he believed that the manuscript was lost during his transfer, but he continued to write. Indeed for a time he even thrived, acting as a judge, part of a hospital reform committee, and was elected to the National Convention as a member of the far left.
His works were, and still are, provocative to say the least. He often dealt in terms of sex, rape, and the abuse of power by the wealthy elite class. These were applauded by the founders of the revolution, then condemned by those same men after they took power, realizing that the vilification of the powerful now applied to them. He eventually was committed to Charlenton by Napoleon after the printing of Justine and Julliet- which were published anonymously. He stayed there until his death, apparently having an affair with the 14 year old daughter of an employee. After death his skull was removed from his grave for a phrenological examination. The bumps on his head showed nothing of interest.
The use of music in the film comments on themes and issues of the play. Unlike a traditional musical format, the songs do not further the plot or expositional development of character in the play. By contrast they often add an alienation effect, interrupting the action of the play and offering mocking historical, social and political commentary. Richard Peaslee composed music for the original English-language production of Marat/Sade directed by Peter Brook in the film below. There is no official score to the play in any language.
Marat/Sade is the best example of avant garde in the style known as “theater of cruelty” ever put on film. If you are looking for something truly different then you can do no better than this.
 The entire film is below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor!