This 1967 film adaptation of Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade (its full title is 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) is based on the play’s famous 1964 theatrical production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Translated from German by Geoffrey Skelton and directed by Peter Brook, the RSC production starred Patrick Magee as de Sade, Clive Revill as Marat, and Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday, Marat’s killer. The original cast and director from the ’64 staging came together for the film in 1967, with Ian Richardson stepping into the role of Marat. It’s a jarring experience, with masterful performances and some very dark humor.
The play imagines the Marquis de Sade in 1808, fifteen years after the French Revolution, staging the death of Jacobin hero Jean-Paul Marat as a play and enlisting as actors his fellow inmates at the Charenton Asylum, where de Sade was confined from 1801 to his death in 1814, and where he did, in fact, write and direct plays. The film is essential viewing for fans of confrontational Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (distancing or alienation effects) and the dizzying device of sustained mise en abyme. Marat/Sade still unsettles theater audiences nearly 50 years after its first production. The RSC recently revived the play at their newly-refurbished theater in Stratford and sent several audience members fleeing; at one preview, 80 theatergoers left at the intermission. Wherever and whenever Marat/Sade is performed, it offers a bracing critique of political violence with its unsparing depictions of madness, torture, and revolutionary fervor.
Josh Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.