A play by Peter Weiss. The full title of this play is: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Directiong of The Marquis de Sade. As you can tell from the title, it’s quite insane, but also quite amazing. The original English-language production of this play was by Peter Brook, who wrote the last book I read, and his essays were riddled with references to this play. I’m reading this with Ginny, so hopefully afterwards I will rethink some of my thoughts about it, but here are my initial impressions.
The play is exactly what the title suggests. The Marquis de Sade has written a play to be performed by his fellow inmates for the head of the asylum and his family. The performance consists of many episodes, monologues, songs, and so on. Every time the politics becomes too inflammatory, the authorities try to clamp down on it. The prisoners are supposed to doing this drama to rehabilitate them, but instead it serves to agitate them further. The scenes are often violent (Sade being whipped), grotesque (Marat picking at his scabs), and disturbing. The way in which the actions of the characters interact with the words they are speaking is really profound at times, which is one of the major strengths of the play.
I think that in order to really appreciate this play you have to be able to see it performed, and have an idea of what it might look like. A lot of the conventions Weiss uses are Brecht-like in nature, especially announcing the scenes, the actors commenting on the action, etc. But there is this incredibly rich extra layer that the actors are playing crazy people who are playing historical characters in this reenactment of Marat’s murder. As a result, the alienation works on multiple levels, and there are multiple “truths” to be found depending on how you want to interpret the action.
What I feel I learned the most from this play is that there are ways to make a series of images or tableaux almost to tell a story, and that the text can serve these images or it can accompany them, or even subvert them. That is, I shouldn’t feel obligated to cajole the text to serve up the images. The images form their own truth, and the text its own truth. I think if I rewrote A Head for Ganesh I would gut it and come up with some more images and do it almost in this style, but less insane/homicidal and more insane/burlesque. The beauty of the play was in its extremes.
I am particularly excited that Berkeley is doing Marat/Sade as the spring production, and that I have done a Brecht before and can sing. The goal is to get myself into a sufficiently prepared academic state so as to audition and get a part, because I think that doing this play could possibly be one of those life-altering theater experiences. That’s how I felt after doing Good Person of Sezuan, certainly.