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Peter Weiss’ “Marat – Sade”

First published and performed in Germany in 1963 by Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade, which full title 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, was highly acclaimed by the critics. In 1964, the play was staged in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Peter Brook.

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Profound, thought-provoking, and powerful, Marat/Sade belongs to the theatre of absurd raising the complex themes inherent in the 20th century society and philosophy that embraced new tendencies in the philosophy that lost its faith after the massacres and terror of two World Wars. It should be specially stressed that the 20th century is characterized by the crises of belief in institutions and notions that former were regarded as unshakable truth.

A lot of new philosophical theories appear to fit the new reality. Thus, Albert Camus’s work “The Myth of Sisyphus” based on the ancient Greek myth of a man who was destined to continuously lift a huge stone on a mountain without any chance to succeed provides the author’s suggestions concerning nihilism, one of the leading philosophical theories in the 20th century.

Another prominent philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche examines the theories of deism and Enlightenment providing his famous statement that God is dead that triggered a lot of controversial debates over religion and its place in life. Nietzsche stressed that people become adherents of religion only to feel safe. As far as Jean-Paul Sartre is concerned, the writer and philosopher focuses on the theory of existentialism identifying humans by their experience, not their nature drawing attention to the fact that no higher power can control man’s fate and, thus, rejecting religion and god. According to Sartre, a human is responsible for his/her life choosing their way in life on their own.

Another profound contributor to the theories of the 290th century is Sigmund Freud who examined human sexuality and its influence over man’s decisions. Moreover, Freud suggests that civilization and society are not inherent in human nature as people form the social order only to escape suffering, which appears to be counter-productive. Similar to other 20th century philosophers and writers, Freud attaches much importance to a human, his nature and behaviour, rejecting spirituality.

The last but not the least theorist, Erich Fromm bases his work The Individual in the Chains of Reason on the works of Freud and Marx providing his thought on progress, warfare and individual’s resistance and disobedience towards higher institutions of power. It is noteworthy, that Fromm suggests that the survival for humans may be achieved only by collaboration and oneness of all humanity.

As far as Marat/Sade is concerned, Weiss examines revolution on a wide scale, taking the French Revolution as a lens for the appalling events of his century. Many theorist and philosophers mark the decay of the convictions and beliefs which were formerly regarded as unshakable truth explaining the need for the emergence of an array of political, social and philosophical movements which aimed at providing solutions to the crisis in belief.

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Comprising various themes and motifs, the major theme that runs all through the play is the tough choice that the viewer is forced to make, i.e. the choice between Marat’s beliefs and pursuit towards the collective changes by any means, even in a violent way through revolution and Sade’s views on nihilism and individual-led changes.

It is impossible to refuse this choice, so the only possible way is to approach it philosophically, to trace the motifs of Marat and Sade separately, and to focus on the historical background and its premises of the events described in the play and their relation to the events of the 20th century. As a director, I am faced with the same choice so I am going to outline the arguments for both sides and provide my concluding choice. I would also like to point out that I do not justify or accuse of both of the characters, trying to dwell on the premises that underlie their views and behaviour.

As it has already been mentioned, Weiss’s play is based on various philosophical questions and suggestions which have never lost their topicality and urgency since the French Revolution until these days. Twentieth century witnessed massive destruction of nations, unexpected shattering of beliefs in the intrinsic balance of the world, which inevitably entailed the urgent need to formulate new attitudes towards human being, objective reality and consciousness. Thus, the worldviews provided by Camus, Nietzsche, Lenin, Marx, Sartre, such as existentialism, nihilism, alienation, absurdity and total depreciation of human life and hope have been reflected in Weiss’s play through the words of Sade and Marat each supporting the opposing point of view.

As far as Marat’s viewpoint is concerned, a radical rebel is a passionate advocate of social changes led by collective claiming the rights and freedoms whose main objective is to achieve liberty and equality between people. Jean-Paul Marat’s standpoint implies violent fight as the last resort that can implement significant alternations in the structure of society. However, regardless of the form of his ‘weapon’, the main Marat’s concern is people whom he considers to be brothers making no difference between racial or any other belonging and calling to stand for revolution immediately.

Moreover, Marat also dwells on the theme of the extreme disparity of social classes, the struggle between the highest class characterised by obsessive and excessive indulgence in luxury and the lower class suppressed and suffering, which, in fact, caused the French Revolution. Calling for action, Marat compares the revolution with the sufferings of Christ during the crucifixion, stating that only at the cost of loses and suffering the result can be achieved. Despite the fact that Marat claims people to stand their ground without complaint, he explicitly accuses people who stand aside of the problem calling them hypocrites who pretend to be common people but, in fact, this is only a mask. On the whole, Marat expresses solid faith in his ideas and actions striving to better society.

On the other hand, can the revolution change the fundamental principles of the former society and implement the new one. It is obvious that a new society inevitably is derived and based on the old one. In the nineteenth century Karl Marx dwelled upon this controversial point stating that the new society commences on the remnants of the broken old society (Marx). As far as Marat’s attitude to death and life is concerned, it is not of a detached observer but of a person who needs to act and contribute to life as it is very short.

Taking into account Marat’s views, it is easy to see that he ardently believes in revolution but he never explicitly states the results he wants to achieve. Moreover, Marat is confined to the asylum and his revolution-oriented views are also confined to the tight space of the room remaining on the paper and producing little effect and eventually only betraying him.

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On the side of the coin is de Sade’s views characterised by nihilistic approach to life and revolution. Despite de Sade is presented as the opponent to Marat’s radical beliefs, he is adherent to radicalism and revolution of his own, i.e. in the power of individual. Throughout the play de Sade dismisses the idea of revolution as a means to achieve equality for the classes perceiving it with great amount of cynicism.

De Sade advocates the idea of individualism that drives the society as opposed to the viewpoints of collective that, from de Sade’s perspective, only triggers chaos and further suppression. In Sade’s point of view, revolution and suppression of individuality by bringing out the collective entails the continuous circle of struggling and violence. As opposed to Marat’s views, Sade expresses the ideas similar to Camus claiming that man’s life is limited so the main purpose in life should be passion.

In addition, Sade points out that the changes commence in the man’s nature, in the change of the inner world. It should be pointed out that de Sade suggestions echo the views of nihilists that claimed that the happiness in life can be achieved only in case one takes the absurdity of life for granted. Moreover, the understanding of life comes only with overcoming the existentialism obstacles, such as absurdity, alienation, fright. According to nihilistic principles, de Sade denies any power that is claimed to be in control of human life. Thus, he dismisses the significance of religion and God stating that Christ is not capable to change human life, since only individual takes responsibility for his/her life.

Contrary to Marat’s viewpoints, de Sade is convinced that man’s passion fosters the advancement of the society and the suppression of feelings and passion results in violence and revolutions. De Sade’s views are greatly supported by Albert Camus who was the adherent of nihilistic theory stating that that happiness and the awareness of the absurdity in life are inextricably linked and only on conditions that people ignore the absurdity of awareness, they can ultimately experience happiness. In addition, de Sade states that human civilization cannot be guided by some forces as progress commences in the inner nature of a man that is led by irrational instinct rejecting such qualitative changes as revolution. These Sade’s views are based on Freud’s convictions about rational and irrational egos.

Taking into account the arguments provided above, I tend to take the side of de Sade however difficult this decision may be. Despite the fact that de Sade’s position is often accused of excessive egoism and selfishness or the lack of compassion based on the nihilistic approach to life and addiction to passion, Tom Stoppard’s suggestions concerning collective violent revolutions and individualism support de Sade’s perspective emphasizing that reforms commence with human’s intentions and not guided by some higher power.

On the other hand, Marat’s convictions and strong beliefs into the urgent changes that could bring the better society may seem very appealing for his advocacy of the lowest classes and strive for improvements. However, despite his good intentions the violent means by which the results should be achieved could not be justified as violence only creates more violence. Moreover, Marat is presented as a last radical rebel that has the objective to save the remnants of hope that people seem to lose once and for all and inspire people to struggle.

From this point of view, nihilistic views of de Sade may be regarded as futile but in the light of horrific and terrifying events of the 20th century his points of view reflect the views of a man who suffered greatly and got devastated by wars. In addition, Marat’s revolution remains confined in the asylum and triggers little action. On top of that, Marat claimed equal rights for people of every social level which seems to be humanistic but, in fact, it appears to be impossible. Thus, I tend to think that however sadistic or extremely nihilistic and relativistic Sade’s views may appear, they are valid in the society.

All things considered, Marat/Sade is the play that highlights the major philosophical questions that are relevant in any time and involves the viewer into the tough choice between collective and individual, representing the conflict of social classes, of physical and moral, body and mind, which makes the play absorbing for any viewer explicitly appealing to his moral judgements and demanding taking sides of Marat or de Sade.

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