In the days before personal computers, when Xeroxing books was a punishable crime, I hand-typed the entirety of 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 for my personal collection, as such a book was not generally available in 1980s Las Vegas. I’d borrowed a copy from the UNLV library. Marat/Sade is a play written by the German postwar playwright Peter Weiss. Weiss incorporates a play within the play, one written by de Sade, to be performed by his fellow inmates at the Charenton asylum. So Weiss’s actors play lunatics staging de Sade’s play, and also act as various historical figures with whom de Sade has philosophical dialogues.
What was the appeal, for a fifteen-year-old girl, of a story about a nihilistic and lecherous Revolution-era Frenchman—portrayed by a postwar German avant-gardist—who writes and directs a play in an insane asylum? In Marat/Sade, an actress plays a somnambulist who plays the part of Charlotte Corday, assassin of the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, as he lay in the bathtub. Marat is played by a paranoid schizophrenic. The radical priest Jacques Roux, who stabbed himself to death in prison, is played by an inmate in a straightjacket. These characters felt very true to me, their concerns urgent ones. They screamed for freedom, and for justice, and then broke into ecstatic singing, and laughed until the asylum staff beat them back into the corners.
The passage that affected me most was a conversation between the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Marat on the nature of life and death. Peter Weiss wrote this dialogue between the two historical figures—who had never met in real life—as a playing-out of the psychological motivations behind the French Revolution, about which I knew very little at that time.
I read in your books de Sade
in one of your immortal works
that the basis of all life is death
But man has given a false importance to death
Any animal plant or man who dies
adds to Nature’s compost heap
becomes the manure without which
nothing could grow nothing could be created
Death is simply part of the process
Every death even the cruelest death
drowns in the total indifference of Nature . . .
The Marquis goes on like that, and Marat counters:
Against Nature’s silence I use action
In the vast indifference I invent a meaning
I don’t watch unmoved I intervene
and say that this and this are wrong
and I work to alter them and improve them . . .
It was always important to intervene and say this and this are wrong—Marat’s argument here was solid. I couldn’t understand what he meant, though, about inventing meaning against nature’s silence. Meaning was not something you could paste onto death. It was like the Marquis de Sade said, death was important only insofar as it made way for new life, and nature didn’t care about either.
I hadn’t really thought about nature until then—I lived in Las Vegas and didn’t think deserts counted as nature. Though often I would stand in my backyard at night and look up at the stars. They were indifferent to me. The vast treeless sand-scape of Vegas, the mountains that dwarfed the casinos in the valley—all unmoved by my small, individual experience. Surely, it mattered little to the stars or trees whether I lived or died. The house next door looked as calm as it ever did, even though our neighbor Mark had died only the year before. I eventually decided that the Marquis de Sade also meant human nature, because he realized that the heart of man was fundamentally apathetic and all acts of kindness manipulation and façade.
I spent a year’s worth of evenings in my father’s office typing up Marat/Sade. I did not know how to type properly and did not intend to learn. I typed and retyped the words until I had a complete manuscript. I had never been so close to anything in my life as I became to that text. I learned its message letter by letter, and when I was finished, I never read the play again.
Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and artist located in Schwenksville, PA. She is a columnist for the Smart Set magazine and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.