Let’s face it: “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” sounds like a daunting reading for your next history seminar. But the play of that title, typically abbreviated Marat/Sade and produced by undergraduates this weekend, offers greater intellectual stimulus than any such article could provide.
Peter Weiss’ play revolves around intellectual debate between French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat and the now-infamous writer and philosopher Donatien Alphonse Francois, the Marquis de Sade. Although contemporaries, the two men of history left little evidence of interpersonal discussion, save a eulogy Sade wrote upon Marat’s death, controversially influenced by the tense political times.
In Weiss’ interpretation, however, the men are given a chance to speak face-to-face, albeit in another potentially-biased circumstance; the play takes place in an insane asylum, where patients perform Sade’s interpretation of Marat’s death. But Marat (Serena Gosden-Hood ’08), ostensibly played by a paranoiac, is soon overtaken by the persona of his role and debates with Sade (TD Smith ’07) over questions of individual responsibility, the purpose of the written word and censorship in times of political unrest. The audience is continually called to further entangle itself in the action by choosing sides in the debate; the narrator-figure of the herald (Tessa Williams ’10) entreats, “Two champions wrestling with each others’ views … You must choose.”
But choosing between Gosden-Hood and Smith poses quite a challenge; their emotional commitment to their often-cerebral dialogue brings energy and vigor to the competing philosophies. Even more startling is junior Adrianna Villa’s ’08 portrayal of Charlotte Corday, Marat’s assassin. Although introduced as a narcoleptic in the play-within-a-play, Corday’s waking moments herald the production’s most powerful and threatening scenes. The distinction between theatricality and reality becomes blurred, despite the constant reminders of the dramatic situation, as Corday’s emotion transcends her mere role and dominates her entire self. Although we first see the players as asylum patients, Corday forces the audience to recognize that we are all living in a theater of the insane.
Unfortunately, this passion is at odds with the antics of the Greek chorus, which comments on the debates between Sade and Marat with rhyming dialogue and intermittent unaccompanied song interludes. Although the unnatural quality of these remarks is intentional, meant to increase our awareness of the illusion, the meaning behind the words is absent; the words become sing-song and the choreography, often literal enactments of the words, becomes mundanely contrived. Without this attention to the text, the audience receives little of the impact intended to force viewers into self-questioning; insanity merely becomes yelling.
The Pierson-Davenport Auditorium lends itself well to the production; the exposed beams and pipes of the building make the theatrical illusion of the play transparent and highlight Weiss’ Brechtian influences. The sets are spare and give little means of distraction, save the wooden tub — made iconic by Jacques-Louis David’s portrayal — in which Marat sits throughout the play, in order to soothe his debilitating skin disease. The cast uses all corners of the space, running up steps and climbing up walls, but director Sam Kahn ’08 manages to consistently create some semblance of order in the chaos that ensues, a sizeable task with a cast of 11 that is constantly on stage.
The intimacy of the theater also serves the work’s design, as audience members are forced to commune physically, as well as emotionally, with the actors. It allows for “an assault on the audience [that is manifested] closer to literally than any other play,” Smith notes. “You should actually have a visceral reaction.”
And though this effect is inconsistent, “Marat/Sade” makes an impact. Vacillating between insanity and the mundane, the audience only remembers the madness.