Unending Passions: Revolution, Idealism, and Socialism in Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade and Thomas More's Utopia

Dec. 1995

by Howard Fienberg, for PO3951

The important thing
is to pull yourself up by your own hair
to turn yourself inside out
and see the whole world with fresh eyes (Weiss 27)

Using the contested idea of the political imagination, one can compare Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade to Thomas More's Utopia. This comparison will be dealt with in consideration of their ideas on revolution and the conflict between individualism and socialism. Various tools may come into use, such as multi-layered analysis, and a comparison with the real-life versions of characters found in both works.

Revolution

Revolution is viewed in different lights throughout both works. However, there is a tendency to favor the revolution in Thomas More more so than in Peter Weiss. One could say that this is a matter of hindsight; More knew of few or no revolutions, so that what he was dealing with was in his own imagination, while Weiss was examining a past event, the French Revolution, and thus had some reference, as well as the other various revolutions of modern history, such as the 1848 European revolutions, and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In response to this argument, it could be posed that the hindsight does not matter; Weiss is examining revolution and change from a much broader perspective, and his examination of the French revolution is merely a lens for all revolutions, and for his contemporary society.

Revolution is predominant in Weiss' piece, particularly because the setting is 1808 Revolutionary France, at the time of Napoleon. As well, the focus of the play-within-the-play is 1793, the radical revolutionary period at the early point of the French Revolution. He utilizes this overtly revolutionary scenery to stir up the waters of the play, and to bring it closer to emotions. This is in stark contrast to the use of the play-within-the-play as a tool of alienation, as a way of detaching the play from the audience so that they may see, all the more, the significance of each part. But the revolution harkens to deeper levels and themes to be dealt with later.

Each character in Marat/Sade views the topic differently, and they shall be dealt with differently. Coulmier is the director of the Charenton Asylum, and he is representative of the interests of the current elite, the new regime. He is out to muffle any speech against the new regime, for how can speech lead anywhere but to eventual action, if spoken loud and heartfelt enough? He is the moral censor in the play, constantly decrying the Marquis that he has included a scene that Coulmier had originally asked to have stricken from the performance. Whether or not he agreed with the revolution, he would certainly wish his benefactors, who are the new government and society under Napoleon, to remain in position, because that is from where he derives his power. Coulmier fumes, as well, at any mention of various radical acts that do not directly pertain to the play; he fears their eventual focus on the current regime, rather than upon the ancién regime, or the others that preceded Napoleon.

I must interrupt this argument
We agreed to make some cuts in this passage
After all nobody now objects to the church....
There's no question of anyone being oppressed.... (29)

The asylum is an extension of the power of the regime. It is "an institution which catered for all whose behavior had made them socially impossible, whether they were lunatics or not." (105) As such, it is a place to keep them out of society's way, and to try to socialize them to a greater societal being and behavior. Coulmier is hopes that the enactment of the play will quicken the process, that his hospital "may play its part faithfully following according to our lights the Declaration of Human Rights." He is the most obviously reactionary character of the play, supported by the Nurses and the Sisters.

Charlotte Corday and the Girondist deputy Duperret are reactionary in character as well. Corday had grown up in a convent, with a conservative education and background, and represents the conservatism of the church and clergy. She is a tool of the Girondins to strike out at Marat, a Jacobin. Duperret's character represents the nobility, the upper class of conservative patriots.

The former priest Jacques Roux is definitely on the side of revolution, and an extremely radical one. Weiss claims he is the alter ego against which Marat's socialist sentiments are to be measured and judged. (108) Roux is more the champion, the hero, even though he is a minor character. Whenever he begins his rabble-rousing speeches, the Sisters or Nurses restrain him and silence him, dragging him to the background. This shows how threatening he actually is considered by the establishment:

Pick up your arms
Fight for your rights
Grab what you need and grab it now
or wait a hundred years
and see what the authorities arrange (42)

Marat is on the side of the revolution, but it is hard to understand exactly what he believes, in the end. He supported the revolution, and still supports it, but has become disillusioned to some extent with its recent handling. He is confined to his bathtub, so that his actual effect upon the populace is minimal. He still continues his relatively futile writing, not really accepting that he has been passed by, that violence is begetting more violence, that revolution is begetting more revolution, and that his idea of the revolution is betrayed. But it can also be argued that part of his ailment is his feeling of betrayal by the revolution, that all he strives for is for naught; his thoughts and ideas on the revolution, nagging at his conscience, and forever denying him piece of mind, are perhaps symbolized by his skin ailment. The more he scratches, the more he itches; the more energy he puts into the revolution, the worse the outcome of it bothers him. In both the symbolic and the real sense, there is no cure for his disease. Sitting in the bathtub removes him from the real world, creates his own world within himself, and he can thus hide from much of his conscientious problems; it also soothes his scabs, and prevents too much scratching, and thus too much itching, and on as such. He is a radical at the same time as he has become disenchanted with his cause and its enactment. Overall, he remains a radical revolutionary, and perhaps does not realize how his revolution has gotten away from him until his death. Weiss, in the assassination, shows some of the more ridiculous sides of a revolution, where faction fights faction when both should be on the same side, all to the detriment of a just and good revolution, betraying it as they do Marat.

The Marquis de Sade is not easily found at a particular position under the category of revolution: he was both a cynic against it, as well as being a revolutionary in his own right. He "claimed to have contributed to the overthrow and destruction of the Bastille," his own part in the revolution; he also wrote propaganda for the revolution as an official of the National Assembly. (Berman 13) To compliment, in the play itself, he contributes to the chaos and revolt at the Charenton Asylum through the enactment of his play. However, throughout the play, he chastises Marat for his foolish pretenses, that the revolution can accomplish good, that all are equal:

My patriotism's bigger than yours
They're all ready to die for the honour of France
Radical or moderate
they're all after the taste of blood... (Weiss 40)

The Marquis was like this in reality as well, in his writings. Sade wrote that "these subversions are the story of all revolutions; victims change, the executioners remain...." (Berman 574) He had lost faith in the possibility of the revolution bringing forth any kind of change without destroying those that it portends to help; all sides would coalesce in conflict and make everyone's lives miserable. Thus is he deemed somewhat a reactionary, because he is against the costs of a revolution which brings no foreseeable benefit, particularly not to himself, which is what is most important to Sade, the self. That will be dealt with later.

Thomas More's Utopia is found to deal with revolution in a peculiar manner as well, and More's actual intent is left vague. Does he support the philosophy of the Utopians, or does he merely use it to juxtapose certain changes he feels necessary in the European system; 'I hope I have made myself sufficiently obscure,' More states. To top it off, the character that bears his name in the book is conservative, more in line with what is known of his later public persona, that of the heretic-hunting savior and protector of the church.

Certainly Raphael supports a revolution; he has been converted to the Utopian beliefs of life, that rationality must reign supreme. This is part of the Renaissance philosophies, that rationality and logic must play the main role in government and society. This is perfect for argument, in which he is certainly rational, but its application to society would prove more difficult. While he seems more grounded in sanity than the proponents of revolution in Marat/Sade , as Sade realizes, it makes him no less dangerous that his aura is more moderate.

Individualism and Socialism

Weiss' play examines an epic battle in the history of the continual conflict between these two ideologies. Individualism is proposed by the Marquis de Sade, while socialism is flaunted by Marat and Roux.

Sade supports individualism because of its more realistic outlook; humankind is passionate, and is driven by those passions, and however much socialists might attempt to suppress them, these emotions will come to the forefront, particularly in a state of chaos. Thus does he feel that he has won at the end of the play because his championship of the self has rung true, that the attempts by the socialists for universal brotherhood avail to nothing, and only bring about chaos and infighting, as well as the suppression by the elites.

The socialists recognize the animal passions that drive humanity, but decide that it is possible to resist them. In this manner, they merely reflect the nobility and aristocratic ruling class, which always is attempting to do the same, to control and hide their emotions. This is emphasized in the play when the actor of Duperret breaks down in his scenes with Corday and tries to ravage her. The actor may be an erotomaniac, but his behavior is representative of the upper class' suppression of their emotions, and consistent failure to do so. Perhaps this is another point that makes Sade view the revolution with cynicism. That both the old and the new believe they can achieve the same feats and suppress the passions, and encounter similar problems in reaching that goal, is indicative of a certain futility in denying the passions; attempting to force revolutionary changes upon a recalcitrant society of man merely leads to an endless cycle of violence and change of regime, where each resembles the next, differing only in name. The envisioning of the futility of the socialist ideal brings one to the conclusion that Weiss is more in support of Sade's philosophy of individualism than Marat and Roux's projections of socialism.

Utopia brings out these arguments as well, although the outcome is somewhat less certain. Although Raphael's arguments dominate the novel, the character of More is still there to rebut, to support the conservative side of the European individualism versus the Utopian socialism.

Utopian socialism seems almost perfect. Yet, if one pays attention, its supposed perfection is nightmarish in its encompassing scope. The suppression of all but the most necessary passions, the basic hungers that keep humanity alive, are satiated, while the rest are suppressed and, supposedly, eliminated. Luxuries are done away with; everything is done for the good of society and the good of the 'people' of Utopia. Indeed, it is near to what a true socialist society would resemble; too close. Such debasement of the essential pleasures of this earth, the very emotions and passions that seem most animalistic, are also the most important, and the hardest to suppress. There can be no success because man is infinitely corruptible, and no group of people such as the Utopians could ever come under such a system of governing and society, and even if they could, such a society has no possibility of establishment in Western culture, to which many facets of Utopianism are inherently anathemic.

Conclusion

One may find that neither author sufficiently makes a point for either side that could be taken strongly enough to be his own. However, the lack of certainty on this point cannot be allowed to put off one's analysis of the various facets and interpretations of these two works, and how the passion guides, or misleads, humankind.

Works Cited

Berman, Lorna. The Thoughts and Themes of the Marquis de Sade . Kitchener, Ontario: Ainsworth Press Ltd., 1979.
More, Thomas. Utopia . Trans. Paul Turner. London: Penguin Group, 1965.
Weiss, Peter. 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. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: John Calder Ltd., 1965.


Return to Howard Fienberg's home page