Saturday, July 08, 2006

Marat/Sade Directed by Peter Brook


Marat/Sade is a German play written by Peter Weiss first published in 1963. Actually, the complete title of the play 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, which must surely be the longest title of any play ever. Jean-Paul Marat was a revolutionary Jacobin, one of the main architects of the French revolution and along with Robespierre, mainly responsible for the violence and the Great Terror that followed the revolution. He was murdered in 1793 by a female royalist supporter Charlotte Corday. The play is a dramatization of the event of his assassination. It was first performed in the early sixties in Germany and it got widespread acclaim after the legendary theatre director Peter Brook adapted it for the New York stage. This is a film version of that stage adaptation directed by Brook himself.

The play is essentially a dramatization of the event of the death of Marat but what makes it intriguing is its setting and its style. The director of the mental asylum at Charenton has decided to use art as a therapy for the inmates and for that he chooses their most distinguished and intellectual inmate Marquis de Sade to write and direct the play. Sade chooses the episode of the death of Marat and directs it with his fellow inmates. So this is basically a play within a play. Stylistically it is far from being conventionally realistic. Influenced by Brechtian ideas, Brook (or de Sade) reminds us in every scene explicitly that what we are watching is an artificial representation, a staged reality, not the reality itself. For example, in a scene where the aristocrats are being guillotined, the actors just pretend to show that their heads are being cut off. Even the guillotine is signified through the sounds the characters make. Then one of them pours down a bucket of red liquid signifying the blood. Every scene is set in the same bathhouse (that was where Marat was murdered in real life too) and no attempt is ever made to make the background realistic. Characters pretend to knock on the door by making a sound, whereas actually they are knocking just in the air. Much like the recent Lars von Trier movies, specially Dogville. No attempts are made to make dialogues realistic too. Much of it is in monologue and expository speeches. There are four vocalists who lend their voices to musical interludes as a chorus.

What is also interesting from the acting point of view is that every actor plays two roles, first of the inmate in the asylum and then the other of the character in the play. The girl playing the role of Charlotte Corday is suffering from melancholia and sleeping sickness and she falls asleep at key moments in the play after which other characters have to whisper to wake her up! The actor who plays Marat similarly has a paranoiac streak. There are also the characters of the director of the asylum who intervenes at key moments when he thinks the play is getting two radical, as in when an ex-priest turned rabble-rousing radical anarchist starts singing praises for Satan. Sade himself intervenes in the play and has conversations about "life and death" with Marat. The acting is uniformly superlative and not in the conventional sense. It is not surprising actually, the troupe is from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The intellectual ideas explored in the play are too complex to be summarised fruitfully here. It is actually very heavy, it almost feels like a crash course in the history and philosophy of the French revolution. I was reminded of the Albert Camus's book The Rebel (which was equally heavy). Camus has long chapters in his book on de Sade and Jacobin revolutionaries too. Sade is shown as the philosopher of extreme freedom and also a nihilist as opposed to Marat who is a deluded idealist, who has no qualms about violence and is willing to go to any lengths for the cause of revolution. Also in the chorus some very heavy questions are asked about violence, individual freedom, human suffering, role of religion, role of state and many other things (they even get into the questions of private property!). I had to rewind a few scenes to really listen to the dialogues more carefully. I guess, reading the book would have been more fruitful. Overall, the intellectual heaviness apart, I found the movie to be extremely satisfying, radically innovative and a highly provocative work.

Some links: Wikipedia link for the play. And for Marat and Sade too. This is a nice article on the life and career of Peter Weiss. Also contains a short review of stage adaptation of the play in Berlin. The original review of the play from the new york times here and this is what Roger Ebert had to say about the movie. And finally a great article on the surrealist painter and playwright Antonin Artaud some of whose ideas influenced Brook in this adaptation.

4 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

I remember the heaviness too. One certainly empathizes with the Charlotte Corday character :)

Alok said...

Yes. even Marat and Sade were very affecting. Strange, given how heavily stylized their acting was!

Vidya said...

Sounds Interesting..And Talking of Dogville how did you like it? I was almost ready to abandon the movie after the first hour but then persevered.Quite different from the others.This post for some reason reminded me of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and its typical realitic and fourth-wall kind of enactment.

Alok said...

I liked Dogville a lot even though I found its misanthropy, cynicism and anti-capitalist rhetoric slightly knee-jerk and shallow. What I admired was its audaciousness and experimentalism and the way von Trier handled his actors.

In fact von Trier had mentioned somewhere that Wilder's Our Town was one of the influences along with Brecht. I haven't read Wilder's book though...

Marat/Sade is far more intellectual and even more experimental. The debates and monologues here are right out of Rousseau, Paine, Nietzsche, Camus and their likes...