23 March 2002: Weiss, Marat/Sade

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Janos Szasz.

A very high energy production of a play — the play — that made Weiss’s reputation in 1964. Christopher Innes, author of the entry on Weiss in the Cambridge Guide to World Theatre, says there that the play bridges early surrealist, Kafka-influenced plays and documentary drama, and notes the complexity of the effort represented in its long title: The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Innes adds, “the multilayered action continues the two contrasting poles of twentieth century theatre, Artaud and Brecht, to present conflicting theses of revolution and repression, psychological freedom and social equality in the image of a mad-house world.” (p. 1063) Innes goes on to point out important differences in interpretation in three early mountings: the West Berlin premiere (“the need for compromise and the danger of dictatorship”); Brook’s London production, 1965 (“the extreme individualism of Sade’s position”); and the East German premiere of later that year (“the accuracy of Marat’s arguments on the martyred spokesman of Communist liberation”).

It’s a good lesson in the extent to which directorial vision, clearly realized in the mounting, can almost definitively condition the viewer’s response — sometimes, so fully that there is no discernible difference between the play text and its realization.

Szarsz’s production falls into that category. I haven’t read Geoffrey Skelton’s translation (if indeed it has been published), but in performance it is clear, idiomatic, and quite functional. The scenic surround is truly striking. The stage is an exceptionally deep platform, metal-clad, the two halves canted up at the sides so as to form a shallow “V”. (As I write it occurs to me that this formed a kind of gutter, or channel, down which the blood of victims of the guillotine flowed.) In Act I an enormous black iron cage runs up and down on a track on either side of the center of the gutter; in it, even before the house lights go down and the action begins, are perhaps two dozen inmates of Charenton, in various conditions from fully catatonic trance to uncontrollable mania. Out of it, as the action begins, the chief characters: Sade (Thomas Darrah), Marat (Will Le Bow), Charlotte Corday (Stephanie Roth-Haberle): and a few others. De Sade controls the show: down right, against one of the several I-beams that hold up the frame, the superstructure of the open set, is mounted a large electric box with an on-off handle; Sade announces each scene and throws the handle to the “Up” position, so setting the scene in motion. This basic convention remains in Act II, where the cage has been removed, Marat’s tub (an unusually large, squared off lozenge-shaped affair made, seemingly, of galvanized iron or tin), present on the stage in the down-right quadrant, has been moved to the center track, and a number of large, metallic folding tables are up-ended, vertically or horizontally as staging needs require.

This in principle is the scenic surround. But, outside the perimeter of the stage proper, in the aisles of the theatre, are present a man in a motorized wheelchair — Coulmier, the director of the asylum, dressed in an up-to-date four-button suit (Jeremy Geidt), who is equipped with a microphone and a sort of lap desk, with a small light, on which lies the open script for Sade’s play — and two prison guards, dressed in dark, modern warder uniforms and carrying large batons used to intimidate any inmate who seems to be about to step off the platform. Occasionally these two warders have to mount the stage to restore order — or what passes for order in this vibrant, chaotic world of insanity (our own world, in fact, we are given to understand from the outset). Coulmier is not a constant presence, but he is there, cruising the aisle at the front of the stage or hovering menacingly at the side, frequently enough to remind us that he and his warders represent the “time present” frame within which we view the representation of Sade’s “history play.”

This is a very clear and effective convention, involving a doubling over of the history of the French Revolution. The inmates of Charenton, including Sade himself, of course, are contemporaneous with the Revolutionary period; but Sade has written a script that captures, through reenactment, the bloody events of the time, centering on the murder of Marat by a crazed woman from Caen (a murder immortalized — captured in a frozen moment outside of time by David’s painting of the dead Marat in his tub). And so, in this framing of the historical event, we are presented with the putative Sadean scene of the murder and its significance. To this, Szasz has added an additional frame, a view of the above proceedings from the removed perspective of our own, “peaceful” time. The result is a kind of doubling over of the time frame. All that we see takes place in “the present”; the inmates of this asylum are, to be sure, certifiably insane, but we see them only as inmates of the old Charenton asylum because they are dressed in “the habits of the time,” as eighteenth-century playbills would have it, in order to enact Sade’s script. That script is, we understand, the one on Coulmier’s lap-desk, and we see him turning the pages, following closely the action as it transpires on stage and warning Sade that he is persisting in mounting scenes that, they had agreed, were to be cut; and Coulmier at one point threatens Sade that he will stop the proceedings altogether if another cut scene is performed.

This is a brilliant, transparent concept of Szasz’s that has the effect of simultaneously transporting us back in time to the catastrophic events of the late eighteenth-century in France and bringing those events forward to our own time, where, Coulmier reminds us more than once, in an irony clearly part of Weiss’s rhetorical scheme, we live safe, peaceful, untroubled lives, free from the violence and strife sadly characteristic of the former age.

There is a slight anachronism in this concept, since the last decade or two has seen the effective disappearance of “insane asylums,” replaced by hospitals whose inmates — sorry, patients — are so heavily medicated that scenes of the sort represented on the A. R. T. stage no longer occur. Never mind all that. We cannot remain safely sequestered in the sanitary precincts of our own lives, as spectators here. We cannot really claim to any sense of separateness from these poor miserable wretches. They are a deeply troubling microcosm of our own world, and we end up proving ourselves to be, wily-nillly, Hamlet’s “guilty creatures sitting at a play.”

If we pay close enough attention, moreover, we notice that, in the climactic moment of the play, when Charlotte Corday arrives at Marat’s house for the third time, on the pretext of hearing important news from the country, to do him in with a sharp knife, Sade’s script calls for an astonishing departure from historical fact. Instead of murdering Marat, she murders the Marquis himself, and it is clear that he is complicit in this sudden reversal: as she stands in Marat’s bathtub, a sort of malevolent Angel of Death, unseen by Marat himself because, as Charlotte explains, he is “dead already.” Sade climbs into the tub at its upper end (Marat is sitting at its downstage and with his back to the audience) and woos her away from her intended victim, offering himself instead. In a dazed state she obliges, plunges the gleaming knife — guided by Sade’s own hands — into his chest. He dies quickly, collapsing, with his right arm flung over the side of the tub in an exact imitation of the pose given to Marat himself in David’s painting.

What can be the interpretative valances established by Weiss’s deliberate departure from the historical record? My sense of it, mulling the idea over afterwards, is to see Weiss suggesting that the outcome is the same, despite the alteration in the fact of history. Plus ça change. plus c’est la même chose. The Deliberate distortion of fact is a sort of Brechtian device intended to distance us and so to induce some cool, independent thinking about what was involved in the uprising of the French people against tyranny. But that distancing seems, in the end, to have the effect of convincing us of the common, unalterable plight of human kind. To adapt an idea of Artaud’s, this is the message signaling to us through the flames. It’s a message distinctly different from those identified by Innes in the three early productions of the play. One thinks — searching for historical analogy — of the abortive uprising of the Czechs in Prague in 1968, a surging attempt at freedom ruthlessly quelled by Communist Russian forces whose ideology had been presented so forcefully in the East Berlin premiere of Weiss’s play only three years before.

Performances in this present production were almost uniformly excellent. Thomas Derrah gave one of his trademark performances, expertly crafted, supremely particular. Will Le Bow, who sometimes falters and whose voice sometimes seems to be under less than perfect control, was just right in the difficult, notably understated role of Marat. Stephanie Roth-Haberle was a powerful Charlotte Corday, combining a tall, lithe, yet soft femininity with an almost monomaniacal intensity of will and purpose. The cast as a whole were extremely well rehearsed. There is much choreography, much exact timing called for in this play, with its emphasis on complex ensemble work, in which both discipline and fast pace are prime goods. I liked this production greatly, and seeing it near the end of the run (it opened on February 15) I had the sense that it had settled in, had gelled, and that everything was working perfectly. What a pleasure, to see such competence in the service of a play that retains its hold on our thoughts and feelings after over thirty-five years, especially considering their mark in those tumultuous sixties have not fared so well. The success of this production suggests that some other work from this period — David Rabe’s Vietnam plays Streamers and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel — might well bear revisiting.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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