Power and Corpses: Marat/Sade and the Cruelty of History

March 18, 2024 Slavcho Balabanov.
Power and Corpses: Marat/Sade and the Cruelty of History

The Death of Marat, oil on canvas by Jacques-Louis David, 1793; in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment for ENG 3406 Counterculture with Professor Michael Cohen in the Fall semester of 2023 by Slavcho Balabanov.

Act I

 The asylum bell rings behind the stage. The curtain rises.


I begin by directly addressing you, the readers (audience). As you will come to understand, a stage is not merely a construction in a theatre. The stage here is built on words and sentences. I have invited a variety of concepts to this stage, which I will self-indulgently call my own. A play such as Peter Weiss’ 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 cannot be earnestly analysed in cold, academic form. The play’s confrontational nature means one must meet it on its own stage. At the beginning of each part of this paper, there will be an intended song to listen to while reading (seeing) the section. This can be done at the reader’s (audience member’s) discretion. Additionally, the sections are intended less as progressing parts than as separate scenes, and can be read (seen) in any order, apart from the thesis and conclusion. With this, I step back, and allow the concepts to take the stage.


Marat/Sade, as it will be referred to from now on, is a play that stands in the realm of history, examining the nature and affect of the progression of history, especially concerning revolutions. Additionally, the play’s perspective is constructed of two clashing artistic ideas – Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre, two connections literary critics often make (Sontag 122; White 441). Brecht and Artaud are quite disparate in both the style and goals each artist strived to achieve, but Weiss here attempts a synthesis of them. Artaud affects the primal, Brecht the intellectual, but by mixing the two into the play, we are left with an understanding of how closely linked the primal and intellectual are. Through this, the play retains the protest quality of Brecht, while acknowledging the primal affect of politics. The play engages the audience both primally and politically, thus further underscoring the connection between the two. The weight of the wheel of history, the violence and death associated with it, all weigh on the characters. On account of the play being a representation of a representation of historical events, the characters in it are aware and concerned with the future, and how their actions will remain in historical memory. This reflects the situation many found themselves in during the period after the second World War. The French Revolution, its recency in the context of the play, inevitably invites a parallel to the second World War and the post-war generation, a comparison that exists implicitly in the play, and has been pointed out by some critics (Sontag 116). The importance of the events is placed on how they’re felt by characters, reflecting the primal aspect of politics. This ties to the main conflict of the play, between Sade and Marat, with Sade being associated with the primal drives of human beings and Marat with violent, idealistic revolution. The ideals of the revolution both derive from and clash with the primal urges. They derive from them, in the anger against injustice and in the desire for liberty, but clash in the cases where the need for power is concerned. Sade, having been a supporter of the revolution, reflects a middle point between the two. Sade’s revolutionary character stems from his primal desires, despite how cynical he is of revolution. His cynicism reflects the concerns one is met with when thinking of revolution. The potential for it to be subverted, the historical weight it holds, measured in corpses. Nevertheless, the play still clearly stands on the side of revolution. The desire for power corrupts revolutions, but their core is a primal urge of resistance, one which persists despite subversion. Even if a revolution dies, the impulses that spark it remain. However, the debate between Sade and Marat is never actually resolved. If there is no resolution, we cannot speak of a synthesis between influences and the two opposing sides. Rather than synthesis, the interplay between these oppositions is more complex. To understand what it is, we must first explain the text briefly.

Character List

(Or a Brief Description of Marat/Sade)

Recommended listening: Waiting Room by Fugazi

 Marat/Sade depicts a staging of a play within the play by the Marquis de Sade in 1808 while he was historically detained in the Charenton Asylum. The play being staged is one written by Sade about the days leading up to the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.   It is structured around the three times Charlotte Corday visits Marat, assassinating him the third time. All characters are played by inmates of the asylum and often need the Herald to remind them of their lines. The Marquis de Sade, demoted to Monsieur at the time the play takes place, frequently interjects and debates Marat on his ideals, even if Marat in the play is a character written by Sade. Coulmier, the director of the asylum, oversees the play and often objects to its contents, as Sade builds ironic parallels between the events of the play and the Napoleonic government Coulmier supports. The play ends with a reenactment of Marat’s assassination. Following it, the inmates break out into a riot in the asylum as Sade watches gleefully. The conflict between Sade and Marat, central to the play, doesn’t receive a complete resolution. From this point on, their debate will take the central stage of this paper, as it will analyze the methods through which this conflict is expressed.

The Intellectual Has its Turn

Recommended listening: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron

Brecht’s Epic Theatre plays a large role in how the play tackles its themes. In order to examine this connection, let us turn to Brecht himself in The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre, his earliest published detailed definition of Epic Theatre. Among the defining differences between Dramatic Theatre and Epic Theatre is the role of the spectator. In Dramatic Theatre, the spectator is immersed in emotion but not roused into action or provoked; whereas Epic Theatre alienates the spectator from the action, in order to engage with them intellectually and provoke them into action and critical thought (Brecht 37). The play within a play aspect of Marat/Sade is quite similar to how Brecht’s alienation effect is used, distancing the play from the actual events it represents, calling attention to the fact it is a farce of sorts. The characters mistake historic events (Weiss 39) and must be fed lines or kept in check, with the frequent interjections by Sade and Coulmier reminding us of the level of artifice present. Two other distinctions Brecht makes between Dramatic and Epic Theatre are that the latter “provides [the spectator] with sensations – forces [the spectator] to take decisions” and “the spectator is involved in something – he is made to face something” (Brecht 37). We can quite clearly see the components of Epic Theatre described here throughout Weiss’ play, most explicitly in Jacques Roux’s frenzied final words as the riot begins: “When will you learn to see/When will you learn to take sides/When will you show them” (Weiss 100). These words appear directed more toward the audience than to the inmates in Charenton. Later in Brecht’s essay, when discussing the use of music in Epic Opera, he distinguishes it from Dramatic Opera’s in how it relates to the text. Music in Dramatic Opera “proclaims the text,” whereas music in Epic Opera “takes the text for granted” (Brecht 38). The songs in Marat/Sade are often portrayed by the chorus of mimes (Weiss 57) or are carried out by the unenthused inmates (Weiss 94), not proclaiming the text’s value but rather exposing its artifice once again. These elements reveal an intellectual interpretation of the play, one purely on the plane of political debate, just as Epic Theatre intended. However, some complications appear if the play is to be viewed purely as Brechtian intellectual theatre. One distinction discussed earlier is that of “sensations” and “taking decisions,” and while Marat/Sade has a clear political conviction behind it, the lack of resolution to its central conflict, and the elements of the play clearly meant to affect the senses rather than the intellect, suggests this interpretation is incomplete. As Susan Sontag points out in Marat/Sade/Artaud, “Weiss’ play cannot be treated like an argument of Arthur Miller, or even of Brecht” (120). This isn’t to discount its clear influence from Brecht’s intellectual theatre, as she makes clear (Sontag 118), but rather moves us to an understanding of the core conflict and contradiction of influences in the play. How are these elements of Brecht’s cold, argumentative theatre reconciled with the Theatre of Cruelty’s sensory theatre?

The Primal Has its Turn

Recommended listening: Atrocity Exhibition by Joy Division

In criticism of the play, Marat/Sade is often seen as a “director’s play” (White 442; Sontag 117), one whose quality heavily relies on the staging, with Peter Brook’s famous production in London being used as an example of this (Sontag 117).  John White in “History and Cruelty in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade” presents this criticism as stemming from a lack of analysis of the play as Theatre of Cruelty, rather than didactic political theatre. To quote: “In the light of this idea, some criticism of Marat/Sade seems to miss the point” (White 442). Indeed, Marat/Sade’s reputation as a “director’s play” would be accounted for by its influence from Artaud. The development of a “theatre” distinct from “literature” is one of the main aspects of the Theatre of Cruelty described in Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double, with the emphasis being placed on developing an experiential theatre, focused on the effect upon an audience that a spatial art such as theatre is capable of (63). This theatre is meant to transcend the written word, affecting the audience on a primal level: “Theatre can still derive possibilities for extension from speech outside words, the development in space of its dissociatory, vibratory action on our sensibility” (Artaud 63). Likewise, Artaud’s definition of “cruelty” should be defined before we can understand how Marat/Sade employs it. “Cruelty” is not understood colloquially as a case of sadistic violence, but as a primal expression, intended to shock the audience and engage with their senses. Artaud’s cruelty “will be bloody if need be, but not systematically so, and will therefore merge with the idea of a kind of severe mental purity, not afraid to pay the cost one must pay in life” (88). This is employed many times in Weiss’ play, for example the scene of mass guillotine executions (Weiss 22-23), the whipping scene with Corday and Sade (Weiss 46-50), and Sade’s description of Damiens’ brutal and bloody execution (Weiss 24-25), which is, importantly, described and not portrayed. Another aspect of the Theatre of Cruelty involved in the play is the use of language as incantation. Rather than spoken literary dialogue, language is to be employed to reach the audience’s senses: “Abandoning our Western ideas of speech, it turns words into incantation. It expands the voice. It uses vocal vibrations and qualities, wildly trampling them underfoot” (Artaud 64). In the same way, Weiss employs often poetic language repetitively, transforming it into incantations, such as the refrain of the inmates:

Marat we’re poor and the poor stay poor

Marat don’t make us wait any more

We want our rights and we don’t care how

We want our revolution NOW

(Weiss 11)

To draw another comparison to Artaud’s work, his final play was a radio play named To Have Done With The Judgement Of God and includes a long rant about Americans harvesting sperm from children for artificial insemination. This is a seemingly disconnected, disturbing part of the text, which is exactly the intention of the Theatre of Cruelty. Later in the broadcast, in a farce interview, Artaud announces one of his reasons for making the play to be denouncing “social obscenities,” chief among which, of course – “[T]his emission of infantile sperm donated by children for the artificial insemination of foetuses yet to be born and which will be born in a century or more” (Artaud). This is an obviously false, shocking statement, but it is one that engages the audience strongly and then proceeds to extend their outrage to militarism and chauvinism: “[I]n which the sperm of all artificial insemination factories will make a miracle in order to produce armies and battleships” (Artaud). The events represented in Marat/Sade exist in the same realm of fictional non-fiction, with the events of the play being a representation of a representation of a particular historical period. The Theatre of Cruelty is clearly a vital aspect of this play, but an analysis of only that aspect would be incomplete. The interplay between Brecht and Artaud is what strengthens Marat/Sade’s exploration of history.

Requiem for Illusions

Recommended listening: Station to Station by David Bowie

Marat/Sade combines elements from Brechtian theatre and the Theatre of Cruelty despite their inherently contradictory nature. Susan Sontag focuses on this contradictory character of the play: “How could one reconcile Brecht’s conception of a didactic theatre, a theatre of intelligence, with Artaud’s theatre of magic, of gesture, of ‘cruelty,’ of feeling?” (122). Nevertheless, the play builds a connection between the two in how it relates to history. History in Marat/Sade weighs on the characters, as they imitate the events of the past. The cycles of history are shown to be cruel and painful, with the pain and death that exists between the lines of history books given center stage. A patient’s monologue about the violence committed by humans throughout history encapsulates the image it has in the play: “I’m a thousand years old and in my time/I’ve helped commit a million murders […] We few survivors/We few survivors/walk over a quaking bog of corpses/always under our feet/every step we take/rotted bones ashes matted hair/under our feet” (Weiss 32).  History is filled with death and violence which we often overlook. With this in mind, observe how Coulmier interjects when more violent aspects of the post-revolutionary government are mentioned: “Times have changed, times are different/and these days we should take a subtler view/of old grievances” (Weiss 12). This is undeniably a political point, one with an intellectual line of communication to the audience, but it also reaches us on a different, primal level. We are shocked out of our complacency by the brutality of history and this shock leads us to the political statement of the play. We stand atop the piles of corpses of history, tripping over them even as we aim for something better. Marat speaks, with a mix of indignation and horror, “Once we thought a few hundred corpses would/be enough then we saw thousands were still too few/and today we can’t even count all the dead/Everywhere you look/everywhere” (Weiss 15). This, however, differs from some interpretations of the text, such as John White’s “History and Cruelty in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade”. White re-examines the Theatre of Cruelty aspects of the play, believing they have been ignored in favour of a Brechtian interpretation (White 440). The conclusion he comes to in the context of the conflict between Marat and Sade, however, is that Marat is ultimately shown to be equal to Napoleon in his harm upon the world (White 439). The interpretation of this conflict is related quite strongly to how one views the joining between the Theatre of Cruelty and Epic Theatre. White reaches this conclusion by claiming the play as primarily one in the field of the Theatre of Cruelty, though he does explain there are other aspects to it (White 442-443). In analysing the text of the play however, such a clear-cut image of Marat is not possible. Any argument of achieving synthesis between the two contradicting styles and ideas in the play is ultimately undone by the lack of resolution. A denunciation of Marat would also be difficult to infer from the text, especially when the last words spoken in the play are said by Jacques Roux, one of Marat’s most devoted followers in the play (Weiss 101). Further, these words are not ones of defeat, but an impassioned call for action.

A historical parallel pointed out by White (440) is that to the events of the French Revolution and the Nazi regime. This is an interpretation which stands quite strongly, as the political discourse of post-war West Germany, where Weiss lived, was highly related to its past in the second World War. The bloodshed and history lined with corpses seen in the inmates of Charenton imitating the events of the Revolution are the historical weight of the post-war generation. White’s interpretation however, asserts that the whole of the revolution, including genuine elements of it such as Marat, are a part of the parallel with the Nazi regime. There is another element of history missing, the conflict remains unresolved.

Act II

 The handbell is rung behind the curtain. Curtain goes up. The German Revolution Casts Its Long, Dark Shadow

Recommended listening: A Gang of Wolves by Black Eyes

An apparent historical parallel of Marat/Sade which seldom gets mentioned is to the German Revolution of 1918-1919. This revolution, led by radical elements of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and soldiers returning from the war, put a stop to Germany’s involvement in World War I, and began the experiment of the Weimar Republic (Harman 154-155). The brief period of revolutionary action and organisation was followed by the slow undoing of many of the revolution’s gains by people who had previously participated in it among the SPD (Harman 145-147). Those who now held power would later employ a proto-fascist organisation of WWI veterans in order to persecute radical leftists, with the example of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebniekht’s killing being the most well known (Harman 86-87). If we view the French Revolution in the play as parallel to the German Revolution, the representation of the German post-war left is much more fitting. The French Revolution in the play is something of the past, usurped by Napoleon’s ambition. This reflects how the German Revolution was subverted in bloodshed. The brief period of the Weimar Republic was followed by the utter destruction of the Nazi regime. There is an underlying grief in Marat/Sade, one felt as Roux is stampeded by rioting inmates. The revolution ate its sons and died. What now?

Synthesis or Line of Flight?

Recommended listening: Hama by Boris

In “Marat/Sade/Artaud” Susan Sontag suggests Marat/Sade presents a synthesis of the Theatre of Cruelty and Epic Theatre (122). To quote her directly: “The answer seems to be that, if one could affect such a reconciliation or synthesis, Weiss’ play has taken a big step toward doing so” (Sontag 122). The issue with this interpretation is that a true synthesis is never reached. The concepts still stand in stark opposition to one another in the play, each serving its own separate role rather than being subsumed into one. The conflict between Marat and Sade also has no clear winner.  Rather than synthesis, a term which implies a dialectical approach, perhaps a different lens of analysis is better suited to the contradictions of Marat/Sade. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari develop the concept of the “rhizome” in A Thousand Plateaus. The “rhizome” is a concept meant to oppose what is referred to as the “arborescent model” (Deleuze and Guattari 10). Arborescent, meaning tree-like, is thinking which assumes a root point from which ideas are derived, and the closer these ideas are to the Root, the closest to the Truth they are seen as being (Deleuze and Guattari 15). The Rhizome, in opposition to the Root, is developed almost randomly, with two intersecting contradictions coming together to create a concept which can exist as more than an imitation of the Root (Deleuze and Guattari 15). An important part of this is the discovery of “Lines of Flight” (Deleuze and Guattari 9), connective points between concepts which take from each other and critique one another. It is a Line of Flight from categorization. This concept, if applied to Weiss’ play, explains the interplay between the Theatre of Cruelty and Epic Theatre, as well as the unresolved conflict between Marat and Sade. Rather than a secure synthesis, the audience is provided with a challenge. Marat’s concern for the people and Sade’s sadistic individualism are intertwined, showing the difficulties of defending revolution, despite the weight of past failures: “every step we take/rotted bones ashes matted hair/under our feet” (Weiss 32).

History Boasts Its (In)Sanity

Recommended listening: We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn

Marat/Sade depicts history as a cruel weight upon the people of the present. This cruelty is envoked to shock the audience, appealing to our emotional and primal responses to bearing the atrocities of history. Further, the historical period in which the play takes place is not necessarily relevant. The depicted events in the aftermath of the French Revolution serve to reflect any period in history in the aftermath of a historic shift. The characters are universalized, their actions not expressions of themselves as “people” but as agents in history. This universalization has also been pointed out by Sontag: “By combining rational or near rational argument with irrational behaviour, Weiss is not inviting the audience to make a judgement on Sade’s character, mental competence, or state of mind. Rather, he is shifting to a kind of theatre focused not on characters, but on intense trans-personal emotions borne by characters” (119). The asylum being the stage for these historic events to be re-enacted, is also representative of the suppression of radical ideas in wider discourse. The asylum in Marat/Sade sings of the “Fifteen Glorious Years” (Weiss 96-97) since Marat’s death and Napoleon coming to power, as the world sings today of the “Thirty-Four Glorious Years” since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, as the same hegemonic acceptance of the status quo sets in. The concepts explored in the play remain radically challenging. Among the corpses of history and the overwhelming power of tyrants, Jacques Roux will always be heard screaming:

Then will you learn to see

Then will you learn to take sides

(Weiss 101)

 On Incomplete Conclusions and The Curtains of the Asylum

 The point and value in Marat/Sade cannot be explained in a straightforward conclusion. The conflict between Marat and Sade is not solved because it isn’t meant to be. The Theatre of Cruelty engages, Brecht’s intellectualism directs. Rather than a conclusion, the play aims to inspire action, and continuation of the debate. So may the debate continue beyond our humble stage. The curtain draws on our asylum too.

Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. Calder, 2001.

Artaud, Antonin. Pour En Finir Avec Le Jugement de Dieu: To Have Done with the Judgement of God. Australian Nouveau Theatre Publications, 1981.

Brecht, Bertolt. The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre: Notes to the Opera Aufstieg Und Fall Der Stadt Mahagonny.

Deleuze, Gilles, et al. “Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Bloomsbury, London, 2019.

Harman, Chris. The Lost Revolution. Bookmarks Publications, 2014.

Sontag, Susan. “Marat/Sade/Artaud.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin, London, 2009.

White, John J. “History and cruelty in Peter Weiss’s ‘Marat/Sade.’” The Modern Language Review, vol. 63, no. 2, 1968, https://doi.org/10.2307/3723254.

Weiss, Peter. 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. Atheneum New York, 1965.