When playwright Peter Weiss set about writing a musical on the life of the French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, he did so with a particularly wrenching twist: he had the play performed in the Asylum of Charenton, outside Paris; and he had it written and directed by none other than the Marquis de Sade. One wonders, even after seeing the work, which of his two characters he wished to emphasize; they are both very much in evidence, but Marat is played by an inmate (it being difficult to get the man himself to appear, even for the Marquis), whereas de Sade himself is as much a part of his own production as is any character in it. Now, it is almost impossible to find anyone who can recite for you the actual title of this play as Weiss labeled it; but the truncation of the title to Marat/Sade is easily understandable. The actual name of the work is 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, which is one of the longest titles in the theatre canon (to best recollection, surpassed contemporarily only by We Are Proud to Present…). So, we will refer to the work as Marat/Sade, as it is widely known.

The play was written in German in 1963, but it has been translated into a number of other languages. The English version, along with additions to the music and lyrics, enjoyed widespread production during the ‘60s and ‘70s (I, myself, performed in two different productions during the early ‘70s); its depiction of France during its Revolution and the study of the inequality and class struggle inherent was a popular subject of the era. But the play, which actually pits Marat and Sade against each other at times, took on a life of its own, and it has never really gone out of style, even decades after its publication. The combination of live music, the characters of the play being performed by asylum inmates, and the taut struggle between Marat and Sade, have combined to give the play an impetus that is unique on stage.

The play is currently being performed in Raleigh, by a small theatre group at the St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church. This is a very low-tech production, performed as it is in the Assembly Hall of the church. The overhead lighting provided the bulk of the illumination, and the very tight set consisted of little more than a line between Marat’s bathtub at one end, and Sade’s chair at the other. The only other set was a number of bed mats that were provided to the inmates. This was, even so, ample room for the play to unfold. Had the acting been superior enough, this tiny set would have provided everything necessary. Unfortunately, there was little life in the cast; to a person, they all appeared unusually tired. Even the Marquis himself, played languidly by Simon Kaplan, seemed at times almost lackadaisical. Marat (Natalie “Nat” Sherwood), who should have been the very essence of frenzied action, seemed more interested in lounging in his tub than he did stirring the masses to action. I recall a very striking urgency to this work; there was no such thing to support this production. There was no force, of urgency or any kind, to this play; the cast was almost nonchalant in its production. The tension was there, but the urgency had fled.

This had an effect on the entire show: the music – while otherwise well-performed, using a number of varied instrumentation and fine voices – was in no way urgent; it was slowed, to my mind. Where was the need for action, the desire to make things happen? I cannot stress the word enough; the urgency was…gone. Our two leads understood well the necessity for tension, but no more than that. Marat’s true goal was action, he states it himself more than once. But there was no need to make it happen on stage; the entire work unfolded and proceeded at a leisurely pace. I recall wondering where the madness was. Where had the dynamics gone? Marat and Sade encountered each other more as guests to tea than as adversaries. Even when Sade went to Marat and accosted him, it was done more like a kindly parent to a mischievous son than between opponents. Marat’s very need was action, action now, there is no time to lose – but the urgency required seemed to meander away, leaving hollow words behind. I was actually saddened; I did not like seeing this play only half-addressed. Director Dustin Britt has missed a real opportunity here; had the tension been combined with the necessary urgency, this would have been a far better presentation.

I wonder if perhaps the locale had anything to do with this lack of urgency. Did the effect of rehearsing and performing in a church have a deleterious influence upon the show? If it had been up to me, had I been the director of a play I knew was going to be performed in a church, I don’t think Marat/Sade would have been the play brought to my mind. But regardless of the reasons behind it, a necessary dynamic to Marat/Sade is missing from this production. And without it, this is little more than a history lesson.

Marat/Sade continues through Sunday, August 8. For social distancing allowances, there is a seating limit of 20 attendees per performance. For more information, please see the sidebar.