“We invented the Revolution, but we didn’t know how to run it.”

La Terreur?

… on 5 February 1794 slavery was abolished in the French colonies. Napoleon sought to re-establish slavery in 1802, but, after a particularly bloody invasion and revolt, finally accepted the independence of Haiti in 1804… [In Ireland] In 1798, there were risings against English rule, in particular in Wexford, where a Republic was proclaimed, slogans of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ were painted on walls and the revolutionary calendar was adopted. The killing of ninety pro-English Protestants held as hostages, then the failure after initial success of a French fleet sent to the west of Ireland, allowed a fierce repression of Irish nationalists. There would be as many executions of Irish nationalists in six weeks as of counter-revolutionaries in the year of the Terror in France… in the longer term, the strains placed on the Spanish and Portuguese empires by the costs of war with France, combined with the revolutionary message of national self-determination and rights, would foment independence movements in Latin America in 1810–21 (Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, and Argentina). [Emphasis added]

– Peter McPhee, The French Revolution (Melbourne University Publishing, 2014) Chapter 6.

Marat/Sade is the abbreviated title of Peter Weiss’ 1963 play 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. The setting is the Charenton Asylum, a real institution where the Marquis de Sade was an inmate during the reign of Napoleon. Marat/Sade is a play within a play that takes place on July 13, 1808, the day before the national holiday celebrating the birth of the French Republic. The play within the play is directed by de Sade and performed by the inmates while de Sade makes frequent commentary for the audience and engages in dialog with the central character, the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat. The setting is Marat’s apartment on the day of his assassination by Charlotte Corday, July 13, 1793, during the terror and the period of Jacobin rule.

The bourgeois director of the hospital, Coulmier, supervises the performance, accompanied by his wife and daughter. He is a supporter of Napoleon’s rule, and he frequently interrupts the play to remind de Sade, his cast, and the audience that the dreadful events discussed in the play happened long ago. France is now a stable, civilized nation bringing freedom to the rest of Europe. He also interrupts to remind de Sade to stop performing the segments that they had agreed would be cut from the public performance. As the performance progresses, the inmates take it in an improvised direction, and Coulmier loses control of what he had hoped would be a demonstration of the civilizing mission of the Charenton Asylum.


The Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille at the time it was liberated by revolutionaries, so he was first-hand witness to the revolution, and he did actually direct performances in Charenton, encouraged by Coulmier.

The play is striking for the way it encapsulates the philosophical debates that have raged ever since the revolution. Marat and de Sade both make brilliant arguments that leave audiences overwhelmed with questions that have no clear answers. De Sade makes all the cynical arguments that have been made by libertarians and conservatives for two hundred years. Even though his retorts land hard on Marat’s arguments, if you find yourself agreeing with de Sade, well, then, you are agreeing with a sadistic rapist and pedophile.

In 1964, the play was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Peter Brook directed, and the cast included Ian Richardson as the herald, Clive Revill as Marat, Patrick Magee as de Sade, and Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday. The Broadway production opened in New York in 1965 and ran for 145 performances. The screen adaptation was also directed by Peter Brook. The cast included Ian Richardson, Patrick Magee, Glenda Jackson, Clifford Rose, and Freddie Jones. It was released by United Artists in February 1967, one year before the global upheavals of the summer of 1968 that rocked cities such as Mexico City, Chicago, Paris and Prague. It was a play and a film for its time.

There appears to be little contemporary interest in the film and the play. In the 1960s the time was ripe for revolt, but that wave crashed ashore soon after. A DVD of the film was issued in 2001 and sells now on Amazon for $69. The high price likely indicates limited supply rather than high demand. The film can be viewed on YouTube without advertisements running, which indicates such low public interest that the maker isn’t even bothering to enforce its copyright. But perhaps with talk of revolution in the air again, interest will grow.

If you decide to watch it, sit back and get ready to concentrate without distractions. Be warned that this is not casual viewing—nothing like the contemporary entertainment that we are accustomed to. Prepare to feel shaken and stirred for a while afterwards.

Peter Brook, preface to Marat/Sade (New York: Pocket Books, 1966), 8.

Is the play political? Weiss says it is Marxist and this has been much discussed. Certainly it is not polemical in the sense that it does not prove a case nor draw a moral. Certainly, its prismatic structure is such that the last line is not the place to search for the summing-up idea. The idea of the play is the play itself, and this cannot be resolved in a simple slogan. It is firmly on the side of revolutionary change. But it is painfully aware of all the elements in a violent human situation and it presents these to the audience in the form of a painful question.

Marat: “The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair, to turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes.”

How? someone is bound to ask. Weiss wisely refuses to tell. He forces us to relate opposites and face contradictions. He leaves us raw. He searches for meaning instead of defining one and puts the responsibility of finding the answers back where it properly belongs. Off the dramatist and onto ourselves.

Some dialog excerpts…

MARAT: Now it’s happening and you can’t stop it happening. The people used to suffer everything, now they take their revenge. You are watching that revenge, and you don’t remember that you drove the people to it. Now you protest, but it’s too late to start crying over spilt blood. What is the blood of these aristocrats compared with the blood the people shed for you? Many of them had their throats slit by your gangs. Many of them died more slowly in your workshops. So what is this sacrifice compared with the sacrifices the people made to keep you fat? What are a few looted mansions compared with their looted lives? You don’t care if the foreign armies with whom you’re making secret deals march in and massacre the people. You hope the people will be wiped out, so you can flourish and when they are wiped out, not a muscle will twitch in your puffy bourgeois faces which are now all twisted up with anger and disgust.

DE SADE: Man’s a mad animal. I’m a thousand years old, and in my time I’ve helped commit a million murders. The earth is spread thick with squashed human guts. 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, broken teeth, skulls split open. A mad animal. I’m a mad animal. Prisons don’t help. Chains don’t help. I escape through all the walls, through all the slime and the splintered bones. You’ll see it all one day. I’m not through yet. I have plans. We invented the Revolution, but we didn’t know how to run it.

MARAT: Look. Everyone wants to keep something from the past, a souvenir of the old regime. So this man decides to keep a painting, this man keeps his mistress. This man keeps his horse. This man keeps his garden. That man keeps his farmlands. That man keeps his house in the country. That man keeps his factories. That man couldn’t bear to part with his shipyards. That man keeps his army and that one keeps his king. And so we sit here and write into the declaration of the rights of man the sanctity of private property. And now we’ll see where that leads. Every man’s equally free to fight fraternally and with equal arms, of course. Every man his own millionaire. Man against man, group against group in happy mutual robbery. And we sit here more oppressed than when we began, and they think that the revolution’s been won?

DE SADE: They all say they want what’s best for France. “My patriotism’s bigger than yours.” They’re all ready to die for the honor of France. Moderate or radical, they’re all after the taste of blood. The luke-warm liberals and the angry radicals, they all believe in the greatness of France. Marat, can’t you see this patriotism is lunacy? Years ago, I left heroics to the heroes and I care no more for this country than for any other country. Take care.

DE SADE: And as the months went by and the tumbrels rode regularly to the scaffold and the blade dropped and was winched up and dropped again, all the meaning drained out of this revenge. It was inhuman. It was dull and curiously technocratic. And now, Marat, now I see where your revolution is leading. To the withering of the individual man, to the death of choice, to uniformity, to deadly weakness in a state which has no contact with individuals, but which is impregnable. And so I turn away.

MARAT: Don’t think you can beat them without using force. Don’t be deceived. When our Revolution has been finally stamped out, and they tell you things are better now. Even if there’s no poverty to be seen, because the poverty’s been hidden, even if you got more wages and could afford to buy more of these new and useless goods, and even if it seemed to you that you never had so much, that is only the slogan of those who have that much more than you. Don’t be taken in when they pat you paternally on the shoulder and say that there’s no inequality worth speaking of, and no more reason for fighting. If you believe them, they will be completely in charge in their shining homes and granite banks from which they rob the people of the world under the pretense of bringing them freedom. Watch out for as soon as it pleases them, they will send you out to protect their wealth in wars whose weapons rapidly developed by servile scientists will become more and more deadly until they can with a flick of a finger tear a million of you to pieces.

DE SADE: Lying there, scratched and swollen, your brow burning, in your world, your bath. You still believe that justice is possible? You still believe all men are equal? Do you still believe that all occupations are equally satisfying, equally rewarding? And that no man wants to be greater than the others? How does the old song go? One always bakes the most delicate cakes. Two is the really superb masseur. Three sets your hair with exceptional flair. Four’s brandy goes to the Emperor. Five knows each trick of advanced rhetoric. Six bred a beautiful brand-new rose. Seven can cook every dish in the book. And eight cuts you flawlessly elegant clothes. You still believe that these eight would be happy if each of them could climb so high, but no higher before banging their heads on equality? If each could be only a small link in a long and heavy chain? You still believe that it’s possible to unite mankind when already you see how the few idealists who did join together in the name of harmony are now out of tune and would like to kill each other over trifles?

MARAT: But they aren’t trifles. They are matters of principle and it’s usual in a revolution for the half-hearted and the fellow-travelers to be dropped. We can’t begin to build until we’ve burnt the old buildings down no matter how dreadful that may sound to those who lounge contentedly toying with their scruples.

… Woe to the man who is different who tries to break down all the barriers. Woe to the man who tries to stretch the imagination of man. He shall be mocked, he shall be scourged by the blinkered guardians of morality. You wanted enlightenment and warmth, and so you studied light and heat. You wondered how forces could be controlled so you studied electricity. You wanted to know what man is for, so you asked yourself, “What is this soul, this dump for hollow ideals and mangled morals?” And you decided that the soul is in the brain and that it can learn to think. For to you, the soul is a practical thing, a tool for ruling and mastering life. And you came, one day, to the Revolution because you saw the most important vision—that our circumstances must be changed fundamentally, and without these changes everything we try to do must fail.

… Dictator? The word must be abolished. I hate anything to do with masters and slaves. I am talking about a leader who in this… We do not murder. We kill in self-defense. We are fighting for our lives. Oh, if only we could have constructive thought instead of agitation. If only beauty and concord could once more replace hysteria and fanaticism. Look what’s happening! Join together! Cast down your enemies. Disarm them! For if they win, they will spare not one of you and all that you have won so far will be lost.

DE SADE: It’s too late, Marat, forget your call. It contains only lies. What do you still want from the revolution? Where is it going? Look at these lost revolutionaries. Where will you lead them? What will you order them to do? Once you spoke of the authorities who turned the law into instruments of oppression. But how would you fare in the new rearranged France you yearned for? Do you want someone else to tell you what you must write? Tell you what work you must do? And repeat to you the new laws over and over until you can recite them in your sleep? Why is everything so confused?

… The point? Some light on our eternal doubt. I’ve twisted and turned on every way and can find no ending to our play. Marat and I both advocated force, but in debate each took a different course. Both want the changes, but his views and mine on using power never could combine. On the one side, he thinks our lives can be improved by axes and knives. Or he would submerge in the imagination seeking a personal annihilation. So for me, the last word never can be spoken. I’m left with a question that is always open.