Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

Peter Brook’s Production of Marat/Sade (1966)

Peter Brook, the British director of LORD OF THE FLIES (1963), gave us another wallow in degeneracy with MARAT/SADE (Great Britain, 1966).  This production of The Royal Shakespeare Company is also known as THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM AT CHERENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE, and as wallows go, it’s a pretty energetic one.  “Hysterical” is perhaps a more appropriate word, but no one ever said hysteria can’t be occasionally fascinating. 

It is 1808 and the Marquis (Patrick Magee), confined to the famous French institution because of his inflammatory writings, is impressed with the asylum staff’s history of putting on theatrical productions with inmates as performers.  It is a fine line indeed between actors and madmen, after all, and it is possible to view the film (and the Peter Weiss play on which it is based) as a commentary on the madness of all art and artists.  The Marquis decides to write and direct a production about the French revolution, and the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, now fifteen years in the past.  The very special actors he and Brook gather are more than game-this is where the hysteria comes in.  As star Glenda Jackson, who plays the assassin Charlotte Corday (or rather she plays the young inmate who plays Corday) recalled later:”It was a shattering experience.  People twitching, slobber running down their chins, everyone screaming from nerves and exhaustion”…She might have added writhing, clawing and literally climbing the walls, as well.  These inmates turned actors add more than a touch of insanity to the already maniacal historical events they are recreating, and the Marquis could have been chosen to direct by Lucifer himself, the way it seems the Prince of Darkness handpicked Peter Brook to direct the film that contains the play: Brook began his career with a stage production of DR. FAUSTUS.  Whatever forces chose him, it was a natural fit, as proven two years after MARAT/SADE when the film and stage director made TELL ME LIES, his angry (some say vacuous) film about America’s involvement in Vietnam. There are moments in MARAT/SADE that could be read as a denunciation of that war and American foreign policy in general, especially at the conclusion when the inmates scream “Take a stand!” echoing radical students the world over.   

The audience for the Marquis’ performance at Charenton is made up of Parisian aristocrats, and this film is the ultimate cacophony of class warfare.  Comparisons are drawn between the inmates and French peasants before the revolution, both in their lack of power and their descent into madness.  The “Reign of Terror” as it came to be known, was championed by Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson) in his writings and there is a parallel here between Marat and the Marquis.  The latter’s works featuring perverse sexuallity and violence were scandalous as well.  Also both men were (and still are)  admired by some and despised as evil by others.   However, they had differing views on the results of the revolution, which was waged to free the French people from oppression by the nobility… but the formerly oppressed masses went crazy and the guillotine became their favorite method of exacting revenge…  Marat believed in his cause until the very end, convinced the terrors would wipe the slate clean and the people could begin anew, in a world without violence and oppression.  The Marquis De Sade believed the reign achieved nothing.  His belief in the inevitability of violence continuing is evidenced in his statement about opposing philosophies: “See how they work and let them fight it out.”  Of course, this is no lament.  He argues that “The animating force of life is destruction.”  We feed on it.  Where do Weiss, Brook and screenwriter Adrian Mitchell stand?  They must in some way identify with Marat  or they would not have included the word “persecution” in their title, and when Marat delivers a wrenching monologue against inequality, Brook has him stare into the camera.  In at least this one instance the film’s director is speaking through Marat, directly to us. “Possibly” Brook seems to be arguing, “there was some merit to the reign of terror”.  A shocking idea, perhaps, but Brook is very probably conflicted. 

 Throughout the film (and the play within a film) the idea that mankind grows more civilized with the passage of time, is soundly mocked: A rod iron fence is all that separates the patients/performers from their wealthy and powerful audience.  Every actor deserves a cast party, and at the play’s conclusion the inmates riot, attacking the elite patrons of the arts.  The last image is of the inmates climbing the fence.  Soon there will be nothing separating “us” from “them”.  Suddenly every credit appears on screen at once.  One by one the names vanish, and Brook seems to be voicing his own view that the civility of each of us could disappear at any moment.

June 2, 2010 Posted by | British film, film directors, Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson, Patrick Magee, Peter Brook, Peter Weiss | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment