In the play-within-a-play, the dramatic fate of Jean-Paul Marat is emblematic of the fate of the French Revolution. In the debate between radicals and moderates, there's also a part for the Girondist deputy Duperret and the rabble-rousing ex-priest Jacques Roux.
There is an extended debate between Marat and de Sade — playing himself, as a participant in the Revolution — in which an extreme individualism is pitted against a uncompromising commitment to the cause of the dispossessed. More corporeally, Marat's skin disease forces him to write in a bathtub, while de Sade is whipped while describing his disillusionment with the Revolution.
"At first I saw in the revolution a chance
for a tremendous outburst of revenge
an orgy greater than all my dreams
[CORDAY slowly raises the whip and lashes him. SADE cowers]
But then I saw
when I sat in the courtroom myself
[Whiplash. SADE gasps]
not as I had been before the accused
but as a judge
I couldn't bring myself
to deliver the prisoner to the hangman
It was inhuman it was dull
and curiously technocratic
And now Marat
[Whiplash. SADE breathes heavily.]
now I see where
the revolution is leading
And in the outer frame, there's a struggle between de Sade, director of the play, and Coulmier, director of the asylum — de Sade has left in some passages that he'd previously agreed to cut, and some of the sentiments of 1790 are inappropriate in the Napoleonic France of 1808. The setting also provides elements of farce to balance the otherwise serious tone: Marat's assassin Charlotte Corday is played by a narcoleptic and his mistress Simonne Evrard by an obsessive-compulsive, while patients interrupt proceedings several times.
Geoffrey Skelton's translation has been widely criticised, but perhaps the dramatic and intellectual power of Marat/Sade make a loss of lyrical effect less significant. The assumption of at least an outline knowledge of the events and politics of the French Revolution may be a bigger obstacle for English-speaking audiences.
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