The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charendon under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade
Written by: Peter Weiss
Directed by: Wes Martin
Performed by: The Shakespeare Theatre Company
Venue: Phoenix Theatre’s Little Theater
Reviewed by: Callen Shutters
Attending the Marat/Sade play offered me a direct application of key elements of post-structuralist theory we have focused on this semester. By transporting me beyond the pages of a philosophical text, the play enabled me to experience first-hand an active portrayal of the deconstruction of Enlightenment norms in a play set, with purposeful irony, at the end of the Enlightenment. Specifically, Marat/Sade highlights, among many other elements, the breaking down of structures by critiquing and questioning norms about representation, power, and narrative form.
Representation plays a key role in the action of the play. One source of commentary on representation stems from the very format of the play. Marat/Sade is a play within a play, a metanarrative, in which the audience is actually the audience of the production that is put on by the asylum Charendon and directed by the Marquis shortly after the French Revolution. Players with The Shakespeare Theatre Company are actually residents of the asylum who perform as Revolutionaries in Sade’s play. Therefore, players and audience members have multiple roles in the action. Audience members are directly addressed and engaged by the chorus, players, and patients and also act as the audience in the actual play. Players are Revolutionaries, asylum residents, and actors. By forcing audience members and actors to take on multiple personas and simultaneously sort and analyze these roles, Marat/Sade creates tension and reflects the crumbling of structural norms about identity and representation. Other post-structural elements of representation in the play include objectivity, identity, spectatorship, and the notion of the gaze. Post-structural elements allow audiences to take in all the information and create their own descriptions of what is seen and unseen.
Another element the play highlights, which correlates to ideas about representation, is a concentration on real people and human nature. By giving voice and action to lower classes - even the “lowest” rung on the social ladder - the play allows the voiceless to be heard. One case in point is Duperret, who is in the asylum on charges of sexual predation. His needs as a patient overwhelm his role in Sade’s play and he masturbates throughout, not being capable or willing to mask his human desires. Strikingly human aspects of the play reflect other post-structuralist notions of representation including difference, being, and the science of humankind.
Power is also an important post-structural aspect of the play. Though the director of the asylum holds a position of control over the inmates, he lacks all ability to manage the activities of his patients. In fact, after the play about Marat concludes, the patients beat the director and ravage his wife and daughter as they conduct their own revolution on stage. Another stunted figure of power within the play is the Priest. As an icon of the church and religion, the priest continues to preach, though in the confines of a straightjacket. Presumably once a commanding figure in shaping morality, the priest is now subject to the guards of the institution who create order through muscle power. The priest’s limited movement and interrupted sermons cripple his influence over people and he is often the target of laughter on stage. Figures of authority are unable to contain the activities of those under their control, thus reflecting the inability of certain power structures to function in society.
Power is also correlated to post-structuralist ideals in the reintroduction of history through a new lens. As already stated, the history surrounding the events of the French Revolution are told and represented in a new perspective, through the eyes of people who experienced it and were imprisoned and defeated. This brings about a critique of Enlightenment political values, which are presented through the political discourse between Sade and Marat. These elements in the Marat/Sade play all serve to decentralize the rigid power structures of the Enlightenment.
A final example of how the play resonates with post-structuralist ideas is the restructuring of narrative norms. In addition to offering a play within a play and thereby altering roles of actors and audience members, other narrative norms of theatre production are played with and critiqued. For instance, the set of the internal play is forced to be imprisoned within the confines of the insane asylum. Political rhetoric spewed by Marat and Sade is surrounded by madness that resulted from these political stands, the French Revolution, and the Enlightenment. The “tools” to cure and deal with this madness, such as straightjackets, nurses, and bars, all are required to enable the players to cope and show the results while simultaneously showing the causes of the “madness” in the asylum. Even internally, the players are imprisoned by their maladies. Of the many examples include Marat’s relentless twitching and Corday’s inability to stay awake, not to mention Duperret’s powerlessness to keep his hands off himself. These elements all serve to destabilize preconceived notions of narrative by intermixing many layers of personas and narratives. Another element of the play that redefines notions of narrative is the division of the play. Specifically, the intermission is not in the middle but rather at the climax of the inner play, which serves to heighten tension and speculation within the audience. The many choices about narrativity in Marat/Sade serve to destabilize norms of narrative exposition.
Representation, power, and narrativity are just a few of the many elements of post-structuralism revealed in Marat/Sade. This play offered me a unique opportunity to see how some of these elements can be revealed through a narrative piece that, although set in the past, reveals much about a state of mind that resonates today.