The Canadian College of Performing Arts (CCPA) opened its 18th season with “Marat / Sade” a play in two acts by the German dramatist Peter Weiss, originally performed at the Schiller Theater in West-Berlin in April 1964, entitled Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (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).
Based on the English translation by Geoffrey Skelton, with verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell, and directed by James Fagan Tait, this play-within-a-play combines musical theatre with the retelling of the assassination of the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror as portrayed by the inmates of a mental asylum. Interestingly, Tait equated the play’s political themes of freedom and civic responsibility to the current political upheaval experienced in Canada leading up to the federal election, “With the election coming up, we hope to provide an intriguing and entertaining social commentary,” says Tait.
Masterfully performed by the very talented “Company C” advanced students of the CCPA, who are trained in all aspects of performance, theatre and stage management, production, and maintenance, who keep the audience at the edge of their seats until the very end, the play is a high-energy spectacle of music, song, rhyme, and high-calibre emotional performances.
Peter Weiss was influenced by the avant-garde theatre of Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, where the songs comment on themes and issues of the play. Weiss explored themes of class struggle and human suffering, asking whether true revolution comes from changing society or changing oneself. But unlike in traditional musical theatre, the songs in Weiss’ play do not further the plot or expositional development of character. Instead, they often add an alienation effect, interrupting the action of the play and offering historical, social, and political commentary.
As Charlotte Corday sings: “Once both of us saw the world must go / And change as we read in the great Rousseau / But change meant one thing to you I see / And something quite different to me.”
Historical Background: The French Revolution grew out of the National Assembly in 1783 in Paris and developed the first “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” for the whole world. There were many faction in the French Revolution: a hero today could be beheaded tomorrow. Jean-Paul Marat was a pamphleteer who criticized every faction. The Girondists were those of the upper middle class who believed in the revolution but were still protecting their class.
The play is set in the asylum of Charenton, where the Marquis de Sade is held incarcerated (as he was from 1801 to his death in 1814, and where he indeed directed performances with other inmates) and where on July 13, 1808 (after the French Revolution, the eve of fifteenth anniversary of Bastille Day) he organizes a group of inmates to show how Jean-Paul Marat was killed in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, in a drama portraying the last hours of the revolutionary on July 13, 1793 fifteen years ago. The director of the asylum, Coulmier, brings his family to watch this performance, which turns out to be more political than the director had hoped, and which eventually gets out of hand as the revolutionary fervor infects the patients. Coulmier repeatedly insists that the post-revolutionary times have changed under Napoleon’s government, but de Sade’s philosophical and political arguments with Marat on the nature of revolutions, power, abuses, and violence demonstrate that post-revolutionary society may not be as advanced as it likes to think.
The play concludes with de Sade positioning the murdered Marat in his bathtub to resemble Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting La Mort de Marat (1793).