Marat/Sade, a Classic Sample of Theater of Cruelty and angst not merely gone mad

Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, 1793. Photo from tumblr.

Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, 1793. Photo from tumblr.

Freedom, freedom, freedom! Long live the revolution! My heart and the chairs are on fire.

Despite its anarchaic ending, my democratic feelings just got high after watching Marat/Sade in its DVD form. I share this rather innate sentiment with awareness that it is a different experience when you watch a play onstage and on film. It is also a different trending from the first conception of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty in the 1930s to the world premier of Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade at Berlin’s Sciller Theater in 1964 to its English adaptation in the same year to the film production in 1967 and to screening in Theater History master’s class under Prof. Jose Estrella in 2013.

One can only imagine the layers of violence within violence in a play within a play. One can only reflect on the logical inner thoughts of Peter Weiss when he wrote the play which was translated to English by Geoffrey Skelton with lyric adaptation by Adrian Mitchell (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). One can only learn focal points in the art of directing from Peter Brook’s raison d’être purging of naked bodies and blazing prison cells at the old Aldwych Theatre. One can only sympathize with actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company and inmate talents as they underwent into series of debriefings after renowned shows that reaped four Tony Awards.  One can only understand audiences who walk out even before the play reached its most filth of languages and most spectacular disorder of human rebelations interpreted as human dysfunction in post-war British theater.

As characters revealed themselves to a curious Filipino student of history and culture, my first question was, why did Charlotte Corday (portrayed by Glenda Jackson) assassinate Marat (Ian Richardson), genius of the French Revolution? Was the Marquis really enjoying this or was it more so intended for the actual audience to watch in pain then rethink about the promises of better life in the process?

Characters in the play are archetypes of Europe between the wars. Abbé de Coulmier (Clifford Rose) would refer to François Simonet de Coulmier (1741 – 1818), a French Catholic priest and legislature during the early part of French Revolution and during the 1st French Empire under Napoleon prior to his post as Director of the Charenton. Marquis de Sade (Patrick Magee) whose full name is Donatien Alphonse François (1740-1814) was admitted in this asylum facility in July 1789, incidentally a week before the storming of Bastille that was one signos in the start of revolution.

I was first introduced to the Marquis in the film Quills (Philip Kaufman-Doug Wright film, 2000) with the stunning portrayal of Geoffrey Rush as the man who defied all forms of repression that he was still able to speak despite losing his pen and throat.  Coulmier was played by Joaquin Phoenix.

Corday or Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont (1768-93) was part of the faction group Girondists that was anti-monarchy and in ideological conflict with the more radical Jacobin Club where Marat was an important philosopher and writer. Corday was guillotined for the murder of Marat in his bathtub immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s neo-classical painting La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat, 1793).

It was sensible for The Marquis to continue writing and even direct patients in theatrical presentations. Coulmier provided him all out support through supplies and directives as a more humane therapy and a healthier system in managing patients. This was quite questionable and considered avant garde during the time. The collaboration of Coulmier and The Marquis as producer and director-writer was a performance act that was both psychological and surreal. Reenacting this event in modern theater and post-war thinking that wants to judge the revolution in terms of the utopia it promised is both investigative and nihilistic.

It is imperative to take the play for its worth in depicting class struggle, imperial clash and human suffering. It remains a good material in theater studies and in sampling pieces that devise Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty along with the films Apocalypto (Mel Gibson- Farhad Safinia film, 2006) and The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson-Benedict Fitzgerald film, 2004). Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt or defamiliarization effect is also considered as an element of eliminating feelings for a more logical understanding.

Corday’s ritual in whipping The Marquis with her hair is a favorite scene being powerfully driven by movement, sound and poetic dialogue. Meanwhile, the nuns’ act of hitting patients is a reminder of the Catholic church’s brutality. The theatrical suspension of the murder, that Corday must accomplish three attempts, is a repetition of evil thoughts that could have been prevented if both the patient-actors and the actual (Parisian) audience had the courage to stand and speak that what is wrong cannot be right or what is right can still be advanced in later period. Conflicts are way too heavy for individuals to handle that chaos comes after glorious discoveries of man’s malfunctions.

In Filipino sensibility, I cannot help but associate the burning of dysfunctional chairs as a symbolic act of youth movement for freedom in the martial law years. This was recently reenacted by students at Philippine Polytechnic University (PUP) Sta. Mesa in protest of tuition fee hikes, low national budget appropriation to State Colleges and Universities (SCUs) and anti-poor education policies. This organized chaos was part of the Black Protest Week in memory of Kristel Tejada, 16 whose forced Leave of Absence due to tuition debt ended her life.

In in Marat/Sade therefore, given the proper context despite extreme presence of violence in audio-visual spectacle, angst gone mad has its roots and still happen for a reason. #


About Joanna Lerio

cultural journalist, multidisciplinary artist, educator, traveller, dreamer, yogini, vegetarian, advocate
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3 Responses to Marat/Sade, a Classic Sample of Theater of Cruelty and angst not merely gone mad

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