Written by Peter Weiss Produced by special arrangement with THE DRAMATIC PUBLISHING COMPANY of Woodstock, Illinois Randy Baker, director
Illness has been historically associated with revolution. The conservative powers of Europe spoke of the necessity of containing the “revolutionary contagion” that “broke out” in 1848. Historian Mary K. Matossian famously attempted to link the consumption of ergot-ridden (possibly hallucinogenic) grain with the outbreak of the Great Fear during the French Revolution. Crane Brinton describes great revolutions with explicitly therapeutic terminology—a symptomatic phase, a rising fever, a crisis and, finally, a convalescence in which the patient/society returns to some semblance of the pre-revolutionary order.
Setting Marat/Sade in the famous “lunatic asylum” of Charenton, Peter Weiss could not have chosen a more appropriate setting for his showdown over the conflicting ideas of the revolution. While the Marquis de Sade and his imagined Marat are squaring off over questions of external and internal destruction and renewal, they are surrounded by patients who appear to be experiencing psychosis and various derangements.
The patients of Charenton not only physically manifest the inherently foreign state of revolutionary fervor; they also bring our relationship with history into high relief through the power dynamic inherent in our position as “sane” visitors to an asylum. We are the viewers at the center of the panopticon, able to dissect these individuals with our gaze. We have the power to construct a normative, “sane” mental state and determine how these patients deviate. This mirrors our ability to look back at history and see the people of revolutionary France as aberrational, swept up in some sort of freak psychotic fit. Thus, by using our privileged gaze, the revolution can be safely dissected, explained, and filed away, much in the same way a mental patient might be analyzed, drugged, and quietly removed from our society.
The genius of Marat/Sade is that it that it invites the patients to stare back.