MARAT/SADE - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of Monsieur de Sade)

Great Britain, 1966

Director: Peter Brook

Production: United Artists; De Luxe Color; running time: 115 minutes. Released in USA February 1967.

Producer: Lord Michael Birkett with the Royal Shakespeare Company; screenplay: Adrian Mitchell; English translation by Geoffrey Skelton; based on a play by Peter Weiss; assistant director: Anthony Way; photography: David Watkin; editor: Tom Priestly; sound: Robert Allen; art director: Ted Marshall; music: Richard Peaslee; choreographer: Malcolm Goddard.

Cast: Patrick Magee ( Marquis de Sade ); Ian Richardson ( Jean-Paul Marat ); Glenda Jackson ( Charlotte Corday ); Clifford Rose ( Coulmier ); Brenda Kempner ( Mme Coulmier ); Ruth Baker ( Mlle. Coulmier ); Freddie Jones ( Cucurucu ); Robert Lloyd ( Jacques Roux ); Leon Lissek ( Lavoisier ); John Harwood ( Lavoisier ); Jack Steiner ( Dupperet ); Michael Williams ( Herald ); Hugh Sullivan ( Kokol ); Jonathan Burn ( Polpach ); Jeanette Landis ( Rossignol ); Susan Williamson ( Simone Evrard ); Mark Jones ( Abbott ); and others.

Awards: Silver Ribbon for Best Director of a Foreign Film, Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, 1966; Special Mention (Brook), Locarno International Film Festival, 1967.



Brook, Peter, et. al., "Marat/Sade Forum," in Tulane Drama Review , vol. 10, no. 4, Summer 1966.

New York Times , 23 February 1967.

White, John J., "History and Cruelty in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade," in Modern Language Review , vol. 63, 1968.

Roberts, David, "Marat/Sade, or the Birth of Postmodernism from the Spirit of the Avant-Garde," in Postmodern Conditions , edited by Milner, Thompson, and Worth, New York, 1990.

Holderness, Graham, "Weiss/Brook: Marat/Sade ," in Twentieth Century European Drama , edited by Brian Docherty, New York, 1994.

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In 1966, world-famous stage director Peter Brook adapted the visionary play by Peter Weiss, a German dramatist who lived in Sweden until his death in 1982. The full title of the film is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The complexity of the title is matched by the complicated relationship to history and politics it offers. The didactic full title of the play heralds a complex political drama rarely seen on film. This film does not aim at persuasiveness or at presenting an objective analysis of a distinct historical event. Instead, it offers a complicated unfolding of a play within a play about drama and history that simultaneously challenges the spectator to rethink political philosophy and the nature of human nature.

Brook's filmed version of Weiss's play opens in the bathhouse of the insane asylum at Charenton, France, in the year 1808. The asylum's most notorious inmate, Marquis de Sade (Patrick Magee), has been commissioned to write and direct a play for the inmates to perform "as therapy," for Parisian high society. Sade stages a play about the assassination of the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat at the height of the Terror in 1793. The play itself represents four historical levels: the failed revolution in 1793, the asylum where the play was staged in 1808, the filming in 1966, and the spectator's current viewing.

The play is based on two historical truths: that the Marquis de Sade was interned in the asylum in the Paris suburb of Charenton for 13 years (from 1801 until his death in 1814); and that Marat was fatally stabbed in a bathtub by Charlotte Corday at the height of terror in the French Revolution in 1793. The sparse facts form the basis of an imagined performance by members of asylum. The play is performed by inmates of the asylum and overseen, monitored, and intermittently interrupted by the asylum's staff. The patients' white costumes and the white face worn by some of the cast provide a drab background for the opulent aristocratic audience, who have come to the asylum to watch the show. Thematically, this film is about history itself, the events of the French revolution, class conflict, and the conditions of an early nineteenth century asylum, where plays were part of the therapeutic process. But the play-within-a-play is not just a historical drama. Rather, it is clearly concerned with the problem of revolution.

Marat and Sade debate the philosophical and political impact of the French Revolution while surrounded by inmates of the asylum. Their debate circulates around certain compelling and difficult questions: are the things that are true for the masses also true for their leaders? Where, in modern times, lies the borderline of sanity? Marat advocates the need for revolution. Sade (who historically did write while an inmate of the asylum) views the world solely in individualistic terms and voices extreme pessimism about the outcome of revolution.

For Marat, the problems of existence have social and political solutions and revolution holds the potential for transformation. Sade, on the other hand, champions the depravity and perversity inherent in human nature. In addition to these two poles of belief, a chorus of other voices are present: The asylum director is present, with his wife and daughter, to interrupt the action when the revolutionary rhetoric goes too far and the historical revision not far enough. The priest strives to uphold the rules of the church, and the audience is bent on entertainment. The herald provides an ongoing ironic commentary on events, while Charlotte Corday, the narcoleptic heroine and assassin, speaks contemptuously of the slaughter in Paris, with phrases like, "They talk of people now as gardeners talk of leaves for burning."

The collision of existentialism with political fanaticism amid chaos provides no easy answers. Whether a parable of modern society (life is a madhouse in which we are all prisoners) or a deliberate technique designed to shock and push action and dialogue to excess, this film is not a patronizing, overwrought debate; on the contrary, it provides an intellectual, chronological, and visual challenge. In the 34 years since its premiere, the simply staged, one-room film remains unprecedented in its combination of classic Brechtian and Artaudian theory as well as Marxist political critique and experimental vision. The members of the Royal Shakespeare Company provide a compellingly disturbed rendition of the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Parisian insane asylum in the early nineteenth century.

The unusual, minimalist cinematography of Watkins creates a harsh, at times surreal, effect. His skillful camera work varies extreme, lingering close-ups with erratic camera movement to heighten the unpredictability and exacerbate the feeling of uncontrolled violence building beneath the surface. The camera work implicates the spectator in the play's unfolding, revealing that there is no safe place from which to watch the film at a distance. The use of a hand-held camera, especially, makes us feel that we too are inmates involved in the activity of the asylum.

In a similarly innovative manner, the spectator is not given a linear narrative, except in the synopsis of the entire film provided at the beginning of the play by a herald. Thus, one is forced to participate actively in the making of the meaning and message of the play (and the film). According to Graham Holderness, "the play present[s] political violence and human extremity through a philosophical violence and a self-reflexive theatrical medium." The film raises such questions as, who benefits from the revolution? Do the ends justify the means? Charenton, "an intense characterization of the wretched of the earth" writes Holderness, was a place for the socially unacceptable (whether clinically insane or not). This institution was, acording to Weiss, a "hiding place for the moral rejects of civilized society" and was designed to maintain discipline, order, and social control for 'civilized' societies.

Brook's adaptation of the play reveals strong overtones of Antonin Artaud's 'Theater of Cruelty,' which touted a new dramatic language, liberated from the narrative continuity and the conventions of realist theater. The events of the play and its the setting in an asylum jar the senses of both the audience and the performers, agitating viewers at a sensory level and thus involving them emotionally as well as intellectually. One witnesses the use of Brechtian estrangement as asylum inmates constantly forget their lines, fall out of their roles, and have to be prompted. Moreover, the film is divided into episodes, all of which are continuously interrupted by formal debate, political songs, direct audience address, mime, and pageant. The characters break into song, speak in rhyme, have mental attacks (narcolepsy, seizures, itching attacks, and so forth.) This constant interruption and mixing of the different historical levels serves as a reminder of the blurry line between life and representation.

The film concludes with Marat's rising from his death to pronounce final words of faith in revolutionary collectivism: "Others now will carry on/the fight that I Marat begun/until one day the hour shall strike/when men will share and share alike." Sade rejoins with pour individualism "So for me the last word can never be spoken/I am left with a question that is always open." The entirely imagined encounter between Marat and Sade reflects the Marxist belief in history as a conflict between two contradictory forces, represented by the beliefs of Marat and Sade. On one level a historical drama about France in the aftermath of the 1789 revolution, and a philosophical debate between the collective and the individual, Brook's film also pushes the limits, testing whether a film should take up a political stance or maintain a dignified detachment in the interests of objectivity.

—Jill Gillespie

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