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M/SOS

Marat/Sade
or 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* (1964)
Author's Note on the Historical Background to the Play

Peter Weiss


Author's Note on the Historical Background to the Play
Characters Glossary
Marat/Sade: Opening scenes 1-8
Marat/Sade: Closing scenes 31-33
Literal Verse Translation of the Original Text from the Four Singers

Even before his confinement in the stronghold of Vincennes and the Paris Bastille Sade had produced plays in his residence La Coste. During the thirteen years of his imprisonment, between the ages of 33 and 46, he wrote seventeen plays in addition to his large prose works. In later years he brought out a further dozen tragedies, comedies, operas, pantomimes and one acters in verse. Out of all these pieces only one, Oxstiern ou les malheurs du libertinage, was performed in a public theatre during his years of liberty 1790-1801 and taken off at once after a scandal.

From 1801 until his death in 1814 Sade was interned in the asylum of Charenton, where over a period of years he had the chance of producing plays among the patients and appearing as an actor himself. Charenton (to follow J. L. Casper's description in his Charakteristik der franzŲsischen Medizin, published in 1822 in Leipzig) was an institution which catered for all whose behaviour had made them socially impossible, whether they were lunatics or not. Here were locked up 'perpetrators of crimes' whose handling in open court would not be in the public interest, as well as others who had been arrested for serious political misdemeanours or who had allowed themselves to be used as the evil tools of high intrigues:

In exclusive Paris circles it was considered a rare pleasure to attend Sade's theatrical performances in the 'hiding place for the moral rejects of civilised society.' It is of course probable that these amateur performances consisted in the main of declamatory pieces in the prevailing style: the bulk of Sade's dramatic work does not reach up to the boldness and consistency of his prose. But in his Dialogue entre un prÍtre et un moribund and above all in La philosophie dans le boudoir there are analytical and philosophical conversations, carried out against a background of bodily excess, which clearly show his dramatic perception. His visual mode of thought is also seen again and again in the exceptionally realistic descriptive passages of the novels.

Sade's encounter with Marat, which is the subject of this play, is entirely imaginary, based only on the single fact that it was Sade who spoke the memorial address at Marat's funeral. Even in this speech his real attitude towards Marat is questionable, since he made the speech primarily to save his own skin; at that time his position was in danger, his name on the list of those marked out for the guillotine.

What interests me in bringing together Sade and Marat is the conflict between an individualism carried to extreme lengths and the idea of a political and social upheaval. Even Sade knew the Revolution to be necessary: his works are one single attack an a corrupt ruling class. He flinched however from the violent methods of the progressives and, like the modern advocate of a third approach, fell between two stools. He did indeed, and his release from prison in 1790, place himself at the service of the National Assembly and became an official in the Section des Piques, where he was put in charge of hospitals. He was even made a judge. But the long years of imprisonment had left their mark on him: he remained an outsider and found contact with his fellow men difficult.

His claim that he had suffered at the hands of the old regime cannot be taken as evidence of heroism, since his imprisonment was due to charges of sexual extravagance and not to political acts. These excesses, in monstrous written form, were once again to cause his downfall under the new regime.

Sade's own picture of himself as a rebel can be seen in a letter written from prison to his wife in 1783, in which he says: 'You say that one cannot approve my mode of thought. What does that signify? Anyone who imagines he can prescribe a mode of thought to another must be quite out of his senses. My mode of thought is the result of my own reflections, it is a part of my life, of my own nature. It is not in my power to alter it, and if it were in my power I should not do it. This mode of thought which you condemn is the only comfort of my life: it relieves all my sufferings in prison, it provides all my pleasure in this world; it means more to me than my own life. It is not my mode of thought that has caused my misfortunes, but the mode of thought of others.'

It is difficult to imagine Sade in the role of a worker for the common good. He felt himself obliged to adopt a double faced attitude. On the one hand he approved Marat's radical arguments, an the other he saw the dangers of totalitarianism. His views on the fair division of worldly goods did not go to the length that he could contemplate giving up his own house and property, and he did not submit tamely when forced to give up La Coste after it had been plundered and burnt.

Sade's plays represent his last attempt to communicate with his fellow beings, but with advancing age he relapsed entirely into solitariness. A doctor at Charenton wrote, 'I frequently encountered him as he walked alone, with heavy dragging steps, very negligently dressed, through the corridors near his home. I never saw him speak with anybody. I would greet him as I passed by and he would return my greeting with a cold politeness that precluded any thought of conversation.'

If the idea of bringing Sade into contact with Marat in his final hour is my own invention, the picture of Marat at this time accords with fact. The psychosomatic skin disease from which he suffered in the last years of his life a legacy of privation in the cellars in which he hid forced him to spend many hours in the bath in order to soothe his itching. And here he was on Saturday, 13 July 1793, when Charlotte Corday came three times to his door before she gained entry and stabbed him.

Marat's words in the play correspond in content and often almost exactly in expression with the writings he left behind. What is said about the various phases of his life is also authentic. He left home at the age of sixteen, studied medicine, lived for some years in England, was renowned as a physician, misunderstood as a scientist, won social honours. Subsequently, however, after subjecting society to the shafts of his criticism, he placed himself entirely in the service of the Revolution and, an account of his violent and uncompromising character, was made the scapegoat for many acts of cruelty.

It was not until the beginning of the present century that writers like Rosbroy, Bax and Gottschalk began to revise the usual one sided view of Marat and to draw attention to the acuteness of his political and scientific arguments. Scarcely any other personality of the French Revolution has been depicted in so revolting and bloodthirsty a light by the bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century as Marat. This is not really surprising, since his ideas lead in a direct line to Marxism, though they also come perilously near to the idea of dictatorship, even when he himself protested, 'Dictator: the word must be abolished. I hate anything to do with masters and slaves.'

From our vantage point today we must bear in mind that Marat was one of those who were in the process of building the socialist image, and that much in his ideas of change by forceful means was still undigested or overreached itself. Beside him in the play I have placed the former priest Jacques Roux, who surpassed Marat in his rabble rousing and passionate pacifism. I have ignored the fact that Marat in the last days of his life turned away from Roux and, perhaps in an attack of persecution mania, disowned him. Roux, one of the most fascinating personalities of the Revolution, is here given the function of a champion and perfectionist, an alter ego against whom Marat's ideas can be measured.

I have also taken liberties in the portrayal of Duperret, the Girondist deputy. Here he is shown as the conservative patriot, one of many thousands of similar sort. He is also pressed into service as Charlotte Corday's lover, a role held in reality by a M. Tournelis, who left Caen to join the royalist refugees in Koblenz. In leaving him out of account I have acted entirely in the spirit of the Revolution itself, in the confusion of which no one was very exact in the matter of accusations and recriminations: poor Duperret himself, for instance, to whom Charlotte Corday has been recommended by the rebel group in Caen, had to pay for their brief encounter with his head. Charlotte Corday had in fact let nobody into her secret. Schooled by convent life in the art of ecstatic withdrawal, she went her way alone and, with thoughts of Joan of Arc and the biblical Judith in mind, made a saint out of herself.

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