The full title of Peter Weiss’s most famous work, popularly known as Marat/Sade, goes pretty far in telling you what you’re going to see for the next two-and-a-half hours when you walking into the upstairs to the Studio stage at the Long Beach Playhouse. In The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, the loonies are running the asylum for two-and-a-half hours of theatre. It’s a charming conceit, but ultimately little more than that, despite a very strong cast.
Being armed with a bit of history helps with this one. You’ve at least heard of Sade and his cruel ways, but it’s his radical ideas about freedom, his cynicism about the French revolution, and his denial of the right to property that are central here. Plus, knowing that Sade has been imprisoned by Napoleon (France’s emperor once the revolutionary dust had settled) tells us something about his feelings regarding the present day of the play. Marat is likely to be less familiar to most, but if you know that he was one of the French revolution’s most influential public writers and that he spent a lot of time in sitz baths for a skin condition (he—or the loony who plays him, if you like—spends the entire play in a bathtub), you won’t be too disoriented.
But Weiss wants you at least somewhat disoriented. This is (as a nice little placard in the lobby informs us) Theatre of Cruelty, part of the surrealist tradition of “break[ing] with Western theatre, and a means by which artists assault the senses of the audience and allow them to feel the unexpressed emotions of the subconscious.”
Does it work? Well, it didn’t on me. I’m just going to say it: I was bored. I hate saying it, because this cast really knocks themselves out. Noah Wagner imbues Sade with the vitality and arrogance you expect from the original sadist, and each actor-cum-inmate is a distinct presence. But one of the grave shortcomings of Marat/Sade is that, aside from Sade and the minor role of Coulmier (Colton Dillion), the director of Charenton (where the historical Sade really was confined and did put on plays), these are less characters than a collection of tics subsumed into playing roles in Sade’s play. All we know about “the inmate playing Corday” (as she’s billed in the program; played by Liz Waite), for example, is that she’s narcoleptic, highly sexed, and portrays Marat’s killer in Sade’s play. There’s literally nothing more to her onstage. And we know more about her than we do about any other inmate (save Sade himself). In other words, there’s no-one to care about in Marat/Sade. Worse yet, this lack of connection is magnified by how overstuffed Sade’s play is with his philosophical rambles, which may be meant to make you think but certainly are not designed to make you care. The net results is that either you engage with the spectacle, or you don’t engage at all.
Undoubtedly Sade would not have given a damn about either of these complaints. You don’t have to read much Sade to know that the man was both a pontificator and was not shackled by the confines of literary tradition. A screed on politics, society, and human nature that has next to nothing in the way of dramatic action is probably a fair representation of the kind of theatre Sade might have created.
But there’s a little thing they teach English majors about in grad school: the imitative fallacy. You can boil it down to a rule of thumb that goes something like: If you’re going to portray someone being bored, the portrayal better not be boring. Weiss has written a play that is not just about what it would be like if Sade harnessed a bunch of lunatics to dramatize events during the last days before Marat’s murder, it is that. The characters are non-actors trying to act, and the text is mere pretext for Sade’s philosophical rambles. It’s low-quality theatre that we’re meant to forgive because it’s supposed to be low-quality theatre.
But hey, Marat/Sade won the 1966 Tony for Best Play, so clearly there are a lot of people who feel differently. For those people, I’d say the biggest failing of Long Beach Playhouse’s production may be that it’s too tame for its own good. If Weiss’s Marat/Sade is the way it is partly to “assault the senses of the audience,” a production’s going lite on the shock value, such as only the briefest bit of partial nudity despite numerous depictions of open copulation, undermines the play’s raison d’être. I don’t doubt that many Long Beach Playhouse regulars might be turned off by the level of shock value that Weiss and Sade would want; but if that’s your concern, why do Marat/Sade at all?
The answer, I’m guessing, comes after careful calculation. Long Beach Playhouse is most known for staging populist work and typically draws crowds with a median age of 60. This is a demographic that may be more inclined to window-shop the wild side than to walk on it.
That said, even most younger, more adventurous theatergoers are unlikely to have seen anything quite like Marat/Sade. And with this cast doing their damnedest to energize Weiss’s words, maybe you should ignore my reaction and find out for yourself what the hype is all about.
MARAT/SADE LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE • 5021 E ANAHEIM ST • LONG BEACH 90804 • 562.494.1014 LBPLAYHOUSE.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $14–$24 • THROUGH JULY 11
(Photo credit: Michael Hardy Photography)