Even longer than Marat/Sade’s plot-synoptic full title is the shadow British director Peter Brook casts across it. In 1964, the same year that Peter Weiss’s 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 made its debut in the playwright’s native Germany, Brook created his celebrated staging of the work. Part of a Royal Shakespeare Company " Theatre of Cruelty " season, the production, sporting shuffling madmen and buckets of blood, slipped Weiss’s Brechtian nugget into an Artaudian shell. The next year the RSC production took Broadway by storm, and in 1967 Brook transferred his asylum-bathhouse-set exercise in " total theater " to film.
Since then, taking on Marat/Sade — which in the Brook staging was something of a landmark on the journey of modern drama from naturalism toward a more imagistic æsthetic — has been like trying to beef up the Gettysburg Address. But the play is worth revisiting, if only as a landmark. Certainly it’s a fine match for the American Repertory Theatre’s visceral, stylized æsthetic (some would say it’s a wonder how many traditional plays the troupe makes look like Marat/Sade). And Hungarian director János Szász, who made his ART debut last season with a visually and aurally spectacular Mother Courage, is not afraid of the Brookian bogeyman. Neither is he afraid of Peter Weiss, it would seem, daring as he does to reinvent the play’s ending, turning Weiss’s vividly graphic debate between extreme individual freedom and collective political upheaval into the theatrical equivalent of a snuff movie orchestrated by the Marquis de Sade.
Szász’s staging, elaborately choreographed by his Hungarian colleague Csaba Horváth, is physically striking, opening on a cageful of loonies huddled in a stark space outfitted with dangling chains and meat hooks that morphs at intermission into a shifting field of metal tables. As befits the material, the locale, which is also fitted with loudspeakers and harsh lights loudly switched on and off, suggests a prison or a concentration camp as much as it does a 19th-century clinic bathhouse graced by " instruments of mental and physical hygiene. "
But the director’s stated goal, to eliminate the distance between audience and action, eludes him. This is a sometimes grimly or even whimsically beautiful but remote Marat/Sade, with Jeremy Geidt’s unctuous madhouse director, Monsieur Coulmier, patrolling in a motorized wheelchair a U-shaped demilitarized zone between us and the thrust stage on which Weiss’s lunatic thespians cavort. One never feels particularly threatened or seduced by the spectacle. And Horváth’s muscular, sometimes disconcertingly merry choreography for the inmate chorus can make the Marquis, who is running the show, seem more like Busby Berkeley than a hedonistic philosopher out to air his libertine ideas and get a whipping.
Weiss’s conceit is brilliantly rooted in history, not only that of the Terror in the wake of the French Revolution (some of whose principals figure in the play within the play that constitutes most of the action) but in the situation of the play itself. From 1801 until his death, in 1814, the Marquis de Sade was indeed interned, for his lewd writings, at the asylum of Charenton, which is described in Weiss’s notes as a " hiding place for the moral rejects of civilized society, " whether they were lunatics or not. While there he wrote and produced plays in which his fellow inmates performed for audiences consisting of the Paris demi-monde.
In Marat/Sade, Weiss imagines an entertainment of Sade’s conception depicting the 1793 murder of the radical French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat by an inflamed young Girondist named Charlotte Corday (who was immediately arrested and sent off to that oft-blabbed final word of the times, the guillotine). The play within the play is ostensibly offered by Charenton’s liberal-to-a-point warden for the audience’s " delectation/and our patients’ rehabilitation. " We, the audience, stand uncomfortably in for the Parisian swells of 1808, visiting Charenton for a bit of tirade-and-tickle as Monsieur Coulmier patrols the borders of the stage, threatening to shut things down if " history " veers too far toward criticism of " our " more civilized times.
Sade plays himself, interacting with the revolutionary leaders of 15 years earlier and their attendant rabble, all of whom are personated by a cast that’s variously depraved or bonkers. Marat is portrayed by " a lucky paranoiac. " Corday is undertaken by a narcoleptic who must be waked for her cues. And as her platonic ally, the Girondist deputy Duperret, Sade casts an erotomaniac who, between flourishy bows coached by the Marquis, tries to grab the young woman’s privates. The principals are bolstered by a horde of bewildered, oft-intimidated nuts — though at the ART few are compellingly individualized nuts.
In Sade’s fever dream, which is riddled with religious allusion, Corday must come three times to the rabble-rousing revolutionist’s door before stabbing him in the bath where he frequently works to soothe the itch of a skin disease. Before that can happen (and it doesn’t quite happen here), " director " Sade will debate " character " Marat, the foil into whose mouth he himself puts words. Sade argues for the primacy of the body over Marat’s fanatical ideals, objecting less to the bloodbaths of the Terror than to the mechanical, passionless means of its killing. The entertainment is jarringly fleshed out with songs that were created for the Brook production; rendered in Richard Peaslee’s jaunty score, they’re played by a four-person " asylum band " off to one side of the arena.
At the ART, the audience enters to find the denizens of Charenton already front and center, crammed into a cage like a surfeit of Hansels. Amid their ticks and whimpers, only Thomas Derrah’s wigged and bespectacled Marquis seems calm. Once the cast is let loose (under the watchful eye of a couple of 20th-century guards), Sade seems to will the performance into being, manipulating the actors like rag dolls, mouthing their words, and at one point pulling the heavy cage forward as if it were Courage’s wagon. Although Derrah presents a stony, even neurasthenic sadomasochist, there is a lot of elbow grease in his direction. In the end, its spur seems an elaborately ritualized and sexualized death wish not imagined by Marat/Sade’s author. The new twist, out of which a lurid lunatic rebellion springs, is creepy and surprising though out of keeping with Weiss’s conceit, which, albeit imagined, does not defy the facts of history.
As with Mother Courage, Szász, abetted by Horváth, creates some striking imagery (though the simulated guillotining looks more like fun at the swimming hole). Corday makes her entrance into Paris floating downstage over an undulating ocean of horizontal bodies. Marat’s liturgy is underscored by a swelling mockery of chant. There is a Colosseum-worthy face-off between Corday and Duperret in the cage in which the narcoleptic, roused to an ugly friskiness, taunts the sex maniac, almost getting more than she bargained for. She gives as well, whipping the Marquis with his own soaked shirt with a determination that borders on relish. And the final march down an elevated walkway of steel tables toward the tin tub where Marat awaits his fate is almost stately, Corday advancing in a dim, smoky light, pushed and then preceded by the Marquis.
Among the ART performers, Alvin Epstein makes a precise and ghoulish Herald, the Marquis’s foolscap-topped narrator. And Will LeBow manages to marry the fierceness of the pamphleteering Marat with the bewilderment of his inmate character, eyes darting apprehensively as his tin bath is scooted about (at one point he ducks under the upturned tub, wearing it like a turtle’s shell). But the driving performance of the production is Stephanie Roth-Haberle’s as the long, languid, grimily Isadora-ish inmate playing Corday (the role that made Glenda Jackson a star). When not acting she slumps on bench or table like a limp doll. And the greasy-locked beauty in filmy, soiled finery has to be forcibly prodded into a tremulous rendition of the haunting " Corday Waltz. " But Roth-Haberle moves beautifully, cutting like a knife through the chaotic jumble and simulated sex of Horváth’s choreography. And once aroused, her Corday rises to mayhem with a fervor that’s surprising. The Marquis may have to light a fire under her, but once ignited she burns.