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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Peter Weiss

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To purchase Marat/Sade

Title: Marat/Sade
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Drama
Written: 1964
Length: 143 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Marat/Sade - US
Marat/Sade - UK
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  • Actual title: The Persecution and Assasination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of Monsieur de Sade
  • German title: Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade
  • Translated by Geoffrey Skelton
  • The German Library edition includes new portions translated by Robert Cohen, and portions of the epilogue translated by Daniel Theisen
  • The German Library edition also includes The Investigation (see our review) and The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman (see our review)
  • The German Suhrkamp edition includes Anmerkungen zum geschichtlichen Hintergrund unseres Stückes, notes about the historical background of the play that are not presented in the English edition
  • The play was made into a film by Peter Brook, starring Glenda Jackson and Patrick Magee

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Our Assessment:

A- : a powerful modern classic, though much is lost in translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 3/2/1966 Stuart Hampshire
TLS . 17/9/1964 George Steiner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade is founded on what may well be the most brilliant theatrical conceit since Pirandello's Six Characters. (...) As such, it is disappointing. (...) In Marat/Sade, the trouvaille is more exciting than the execution. The play does not sustain its own invention." - George Steiner, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Marat/Sade -- or The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of Monsieur de Sade, as it is actually titled -- is, of course, one of the more famous plays of recent times. This brilliant play, in which the Marquis de Sade stages scenes from the French Revolution in an insane asylum, is a theatrical marvel.
       The play is set in the asylum of Charenton, where the Marquis de Sade is held incarcerated (as, in fact, he was from 1801 to his death in 1814). A play is being presented within the play: the Marquis -- here plain Monsieur de Sade -- has gotten a group of inmates together to "show how Jean-Paul Marat died", a drama showing the last hours of the revolutionary. It is July 13, 1808 (the eve of Bastille Day), and fifteen years have passed since Marat was killed in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday. In their play de Sade and his inmate-players portray the revolutionary times and recreate the infamous murder.
       The director of the asylum, Coulmier, brings his family to watch this little entertainment -- one that, unsurprisingly, turns out to be more political than the good director would have hoped, and where matters eventually get quite out of hand as the revolutionary fervor infects the patients. De Sade makes quite a spectacle out of the revolutionary events -- to Coulmier's chagrin -- but offers also philosophical and political musings, engaging the play-Marat in debate and argument. Coulmier continues to insist that times have changed, that things are done differently now; de Sade shows that it is not necessarily so.
       A profound meditation on the nature of revolution, on power and its abuses, means and ends, Marat/Sade is also great theater. Weiss has written a marvelous drama here, both entertaining and thoughtful. It is, undoubtedly, one of the great works of the 1960s.

       The German Library edition of Geoffrey Skelton's translation includes some revisions previously unavailable in any English-language edition, making it the "definitive translation". It is in fact, the first complete translation of Weiss' definitive German version.
       The use of rhyme and song make the play difficult to translate, and one grants the translator some leeway in adapting content to accommodate form. Even so, Geoffrey Skelton's translation is disappointing. The beauty of Weiss' use of language is almost entirely lost, and though that is disappointing it is something one grudgingly accepts when relying on a translation. It is alteration of the substance of the words, declarations, and thoughts that is unacceptable -- and something that is found entirely too often here.
       The liberties Skelton takes are stunning, as any random sampling show. Violent exhortations to kill are tamed down:

Hängt sie auf die Generäle
Die Spekulanten an die Pfähle
Down with all of the ruling class
Throw all the generals out on their arse
       Words and expressions are continuously changed (and usually weakened in tone, meaning and resonance). Focus and emphasis are shifted far too often, misrepresenting Weiss' original text. Skelton's reading transforms the text, and not for the better.
       Skelton's translation reads decently enough (though the flow of language is nowhere near as smooth as in Weiss' original), and it is adequate -- but barely. Presumably it will continue to stand as the standard English version. Those who don't read German should be aware that they are thus missing quite a great deal.

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Marat/Sade: Reviews: Marat/Sade - the film: Peter Weiss: Other works by Peter Weiss under Review: Works about Peter Weiss under Review:
  • Werner Schmidt's biography, Peter Weiss: Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peter Weiss (1916-82) was born in Germany. A remarkable artist, he was a talented painter who then turned to writing. Only slow to achieve recognition with his fiction he burst onto the international scene with the stunning success of his play, Marat/Sade. Winner of many West and East German literary prizes, he was also the author of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, the most important German novel since The Tin Drum.

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