"False consciousness," Karl Marx believed, was the ideological byproduct of the capitalist power structure, which creates specious social categories to protect class interests. Its cure, Marx reasoned, was a bloody political revolution. The viscerally enthralling Marat/Sade, newly revived by Push Productions, thrives on the vertigo of debating such impassioned political ideas, where the intellectual consequences often turn themselves inside out. Originally produced on Broadway in 1966, the play earned both director Peter Brook and playwright Peter Weiss Tony awards. Brook's legendary production, in fact, still reverberates with those who saw it, as I fortunately learned from an audience member seated next to me who eagerly shared her vivid experience of that original, groundbreaking show—fresh in her mind 40 years later!
The immense success of Brook's version, which incorporated dramaturgical ideas from Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Atraud that profoundly influenced the nascent Off-Off-Broadway movement, has overshadowed other productions to the point where Weiss's play is rarely staged. Even younger audience members, who didn't have the opportunity to experience the original Broadway version, must compare any new mounting of Marat/Sade to Brook's production—or, at least, to its legend.
Weiss's play draws on two independent historical anecdotes, which he ingeniously combined as a play within a play. First, the infamous Marquis de Sade directed inmates of the Charenton mental asylum, where he was also locked away, in productions of his own plays for the supposed therapeutic benefits of art and the delectation of self-righteous, "progressive-minded" aristocrats who lived nearby. This historical detail will be familiar to those who saw Doug Wright's recent play and the 2000 film Quills.
The other historical anecdote concerns Jean-Paul Marat, a Jacobin leader of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. He was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist, as he furiously penned revolutionary polemics while, to relieve a terrible skin disorder, he soaked in his bathtub—a literal bloodbath.
In Weiss's imaginary treatment, Sade stages a play about Marat's assassination that, while continually digressing from the climactic stabbing, alternates between musical numbers and philosophical banter. A chorus of sexually ravenous inmates, bruised and disheveled, breaks out in gleeful dance and march tunes that often end with chants of "We want our revolution now!"
In between these screwy show tunes—skewered with over-the-top choreography that plays off each inmate's disorder, Sade (Alan Jestice), a cynical aesthete in bathrobe and bedroom slippers embroidered with a fleur-de-lis, engages Marat (Tom Escovar), sunk in his bathtub until he is merely a wounded head, in a debate about the possibility of sweeping political change.
When the inmates—perilously on edge as they stage guillotine-style executions—finally enact Marat's murder, they go berserk with revolutionary and sexual fervor, liberating themselves in a vast uncontrollable orgy. The original Brook production staged the inmates' "play" inside a cage while the aristocratic classes sat on either side of the stage. At the end, the aristocrats escaped the deluge of erotic mania by locking themselves in the cage and letting the inmates loose, demonstrating that "revolution" means to come full circle.
Without aristocrats onstage, both my neighbor in the audience and I anticipated that this production would somehow chase the real audience members (or, at least, audience plants) onto the "prison" of the stage. Alas, this did not happen. The inmates merely cavort and hump onstage while the orderlies—and we—look on helplessly in awe.
Nevertheless, the production has pizazz aplenty, with a wonderful chorus of inmates. Each possesses his own unique psychotic "tic," from narcolepsy to exhibitionism. Director Michael Kimmel's choice to have an intermission two-thirds of the way through slowed the momentum somewhat. Both Escovar and Jestice displayed panache, however, simultaneously appearing logical and demented as they emphasized the fine line between sanity and psychosis.
When the asylum's droll warden intervenes several times to stop the play's antics, it seems that the inmates may be acting rationally to inhumane conditions while he is cruel and out of touch. In this production, unlike Brook's, Marat's Marxist plea for action hits closer to home than Sade's cold-blooded aestheticism, although both also appear as twin-born monsters gone mad with overtaxed reason.
What makes this production most interesting, though, is how it reflects today's cultural context, which is far different from 1966's. For example, our politically correct view of mental illness no longer considers homosexuality a disease, and many people with mental illnesses have been deinstitutionalized. Likewise, the moral certainties surrounding the Cold War have vanished in our age of relativism, in which conservatives and liberals alike find themselves in a slippery moral quicksand over issues like the Iraq war.
In light of such societal changes, this new production of Marat/Sade strikes a radically different note. The production feels entirely relevant—and redolent of our current political impasse. We need this new Marat/Sade because, as Thomas Jefferson purportedly said, "every generation needs a new revolution."