Saturday, December 11, 2004

Marat/Sade Play Review (Sana)

Sana Haque
Play Review: 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
Playwright: Peter Weiss
Performance: The Shakespeare Theatre Company - Phoenix, AZ (October 2003)

Peter Weiss' play 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 is a fascinating starting point for the analysis of many poststructuralist concepts and themes. Among these are the multiplicity of narratives and voices, the body as a site for the construction of identity, the deconstruction of authoritative truths, the exercise of power, structures of authority, and the ultimate ambiguity of all textual "meanings".
The play utilizes a complex structure in which the audience in the theater observes a play within a play that already has an "audience" present on the stage, as the inmates of the asylum at Charendon attempt to perform a play directed by the Marquis de Sade and focused on the life and times of the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. This element of "stories within stories" reflects the poststructuralist emphasis on multiple narratives and voices, destabilizing essentialist truths such as the ideology of the French revolution advocated by Marat in the play, which itself mirrors the revolutionary social ferment of the 1960's at the time Weiss wrote the play. As in poststructuralist thought, the diverse narratives that claim to speak the truth about the world (Marat's revolutionary fervor versus Sade's anarchistic nihilism, for example) are allowed to compete for the audience's attention without any one "truth" being established with absolute certainty. In fact, the verbal articulation of these narratives is itself often drowned out by the sheer physicality and incoherence of the inmates and their distracting actions and utterances (squeals, hysterical laughter, masturbation, facial tics, etc.).
This emphasis on the body and its materiality is another poststructural preoccupation that is amply explored in the context of the play. The inmates embody various forms of physical and mental disorder, sickness, and neurosis that reflect the chaotic breakdown of meaning and order in other aspects of human society, whether at the time of the French revolution or in the present day. The inmate who plays Marat, for example, is convulsed by severe itching and skin inflammation that obliges him to remain in a bathtub in order to find relief for his symptoms. The body also serves as a site for the exercise of power, as witnessed in the beating of inmates by prison guards who repeatedly intervene to assert their authority over them, the priest imprisoned in a straitjacket and physically silenced and constrained, and the chaos that breaks out when the prisoners revolt at the end, inflicting violence such as rape and assault upon the bourgeoisie family witnessing their stage performance. Power is also an element in the class struggle championed by Marat, the Marquis' desire for sexual sadist/masochist games, and the complex relationship between audience and performers throughout.
The confusion of identities and roles is another key theme of the play. As the audience, we are drawn into the "madness" on stage, as it becomes difficult to differentiate between the actors and their roles as asylum inmates playing additional roles, or between ourselves and the other audience present on stage for whom the secondary performance is ostensibly intended. This reflects the poststructuralist view that meaning is contingent and dependent upon interpretation, as texts are always ambiguous and open to multiple possibilities and that our social roles and identities are constructed by means of discourse and our placement in structures of power and relationship. Both the process of writing and performance are also deconstructed in a self-reflexive manner, as we witness Marat's struggle to develop his writings within the text of the play and the Marquis' attempts at staging a production in the context of a staged performance itself. This self-consciousness about process and the disruption of both narrative and audience identification that it entails is characteristic of the construction of postmodern texts.
In conclusion, the Marat/Sade play is a valuable complement to serious study on poststructuralism as it constructs a complex narrative that explores key elements of poststructural thought through its physical structure as well as themes in the stories it portrays.