Freedom & unfreedom in the theatre, with Peter Weiss

December 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Two notes on insanity from Susan Sontag’s ‘Marat/Sade/Artaud’:

“The choice of ‘insane’ behaviour as the subject-matter of art is, by now, the virtually classic strategy of modern artists who wish to transcend traditional realism, that is, psychology” (169).


“Insanity becomes the privileged, most authentic metaphor for passion; or, what’s the same thing in this case, the logical terminus of any strong emotion” (165).


In conjunction with these thoughts, it should never be forgotten that insanity represents & is both freedom & unfreedom: each a frightful extreme. Sontag develops her thoughts against Peter Brook’s production of Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. In this play, the Marquis de Sade stages the persecution & assassination of Jean-Paul Marat at the Charenton Asylum, where Sade spent the last 13 years of his life. Here is a preliminary evaluation of the dramatic situation in the play: the players are not ruled by linearity [freedom] or cohesive thoughts [freedom], yet they are imprisoned [unfreedom] & prompted into following a script [unfreedom].

Questions of liberty bring the times of Marat & Sade to Weiss, as the political concern of the French Revolution meet the philosophic preoccupation of the 20th century. Techniques of problematising freedom are broad & innovative in Marat/Sade. The asylum director, for instance, acts as the ineffective censor, negotiating freedom from the corner of the stage where he stands with his wife & daughters. Another example is Charlotte Corday’s strange exclamation as she is about to murder Marat in his tub, “Now I know what it is like / when the head is cut off the body” (95) — referencing together the violence of the revolution & her scripted, unfree murder. Only when the head is cut off the body can it observe itself, take stock, revolt. But only then!

Sade continues this line of thinking toward the end of his debate on life & death with his character incarnation of Marat: “Marat / these cells of the inner self / are worse than the deepest stone dungeon / & as long as they are locked / all your revolution remains / only a prison mutiny” (103). Here, “cells” carry the double entendre of prison cells & biologic ones. Sade argues that the first condition of freedom — or the lack thereof — is consciousness of self & body. Sade again: “In a criminal society / I dug the criminal out of myself / so I could understand him & so understand / the times we live in” (53). Apparently, knowing private ugliness & perversion is a social obligation.

While Marat’s condition keeps him always aware of his body, it also takes him out of social relevancy; taunts of the “Marat Marat where is our path / or is it not visible from your bath” (68) type are common & voiced by many. Malady aligns Marat with the aristocratic class for the distance it places between him & society; his talk of principles (64) & compassion (31) do the same. He believes in change against tradition “clogged with dead ideas” (39). To the Marquis, however, any notion of historical change is a luxury, is bourgeois.

The static & dynamic perspectives of Sade & Marat respectively inform their opinions on revolution, on freedom. For Marat,  there is no innocence; all things are forces & being is inherently a destroyer. He says, “Wherever I turned / I found corruption / When I wrote / I always wrote with action in mind” (92). Force, too, is what he calls for in the July 14 speech he is preparing on the occasion of his murder. Sade is more hesitant to encourage action or take it himself. “What we do is just a shadow of what we want to do / & the only truths we can point to / are the ever-changing truths of our own experience” (36). One must be cautious around assurances lest they allow for historical necessity that would justify dehumanisation & make something mechanical of the revolution (55). That is what naturalisation means: to be indistinguishable from socially perceived reality, “the passionless spectator this unbreakable iceberg-face / that can bear everything” (29). Violent passion is the only enemy of the forming technocracy. The force, the change Sade imagines is private first & foremost.

Neither view is given preference in the final estimation: “Each wanted changes, but his views & mine / on using power never can combine” (110). Sontag lauds Weiss for avoiding a moral position & allowing argumentation & ideas to “function as décor, props, sensuous material” (171) — all that ignites a passion for thinking for oneself. Such “amoral” works are increasingly common in our society that values individuality & the intellect so highly. This should not be taken for the vanquishing of ideas, but their plurality — exercising the people’s ability for polylogic.

Doubt is a safeguard against received ideas; doubt shares a scepticism with scientific thinking without committing to cohesion. At the end of the play, audiences are to be left in doubt regarding a proper response, uncomfortable in this “theatre focused not on characters, but on intense transpersonal emotions borne by characters” (169). [We are not in the field of figuration, neither of psychology nor of humanism.] There are no didactic ambitions in the play, only emotional upheavals. Didacticism would mean explanation/excuse: distasteful in the shadow of WWII & so shortly after the 1961 Eichmann trial.

History is not respected in Marat/Sade. First of all, time straddles comparable periods allowing the character Sade not only to talk with Marat but also to make relatively direct references to our modern history: to eugenics (29) & to socialist realism (93). Second, historical events belong to the past & therefore the imagination; to announce the play’s intermission the Herald draws attention to the fact “our end which might seem prearranged / could be delayed or even changed” (78). The action is again postponed by an “interruptus” (106) which is to show Marat the world after his death; Marat makes no response to this, so disjunction — with a dose of cruelty — is the sole effect. The final, & most charged, refute of history is that it does not necessarily advance or change at all. The revolution did not improve situations or extend ideologies we are reminded & shown time & again. It did not stop us reliving similar strife in the 20th century.

If historical necessity makes one unfree by the enforcement/enslavement of human actions through naturalisation, historical ambivalence makes one unfree by the incapacity to change.


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