Over this past weekend, I was fortunate enough to see a new, more futuristic adaptation of the classic play Marat/Sade performed at the Players Theater in Greenwich Village. As I was watching, I was struck by the realization that many of the ideas as well as the main theme of the piece had much to do with my work as a sex therapist. And so I would like to put some of my thoughts down as a post on my blog, both as a means to clarify them and delve deeper in further exploration.
Marat/Sade originally premiered in West Berlin in 1964 and eventually won the Tony Award in 1966 for Best Play. It is set in the historical Charenton Asylum during the reign of Napoleon, and centers on a play staged within the asylum by the Marquis de Sade and using the asylum inmates as actors. The Marquis de Sade (from whom we have the term “sadism”) was held in the asylum after his arrest for the anonymous publication of Justine and other pornographic tracts. In real life, the director of the hospital did allow de Sade to stage plays within the asylum, often to a public audience. The particular play-within-a-play performed as Marat/Sade focuses on the life and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist who goaded on the French Revolution, and was eventually assassinated by a member of a rival faction. As the play unfolds, the Marquis pops in now and then to add his commentary to the proceedings.
The central idea of the play is the juxtaposition and contrast between the philosophies of Marat and de Sade. Marat is a political radical who believes that a utopia can be created through social revolution– that a new government of the people and by the people will lift up the poor and oppressed. De Sade, meanwhile, has no use for this type of social idealism. He believes that any revolution will fail as long as human beings retain their natural condition– their anger, hate, thirst for power and vengeance, envy, bloodlust, and sadism. He refuses to take part in the revolutionary proceedings, and instead focuses on the indulgence and exploration of all of the aforementioned human vices. In essence, he believes that true freedom comes not from government, but from breaking free from social constructs to get at the true heart of the human condition.
This philosophical worldview is fairly bleak and cynical, but at the same time Marat’s utopianism can be viewed as overly optimistic and naive. In many ways, this argument mirrors a common source of conflict in the annals of philosophical discourse, echoing previous points of contention between such thinkers as Rousseau (who believed in the innate goodness of the “noble savage”) and Hobbes (who believed the nature of man was nasty and brutish).
In the end, Marat is assassinated, the revolutionaries all turn on each other and Napoleon rises from the ashes to seize power. Nothing has changed, one monarch (Napoleon) has replaced another (King Louis XVI), the poor and oppressed are still poor and oppressed, and the only thing that has happened is that power has exchanged hands. Indeed, for all of his idealism, Marat’s life and death are all for nought. Of course, as the director and playwright, de Sade shows himself to be correct. But we can’t dismiss the ways in which history has a way of repeating itself, from the Russian Revolution and Communism to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Is utopia ever possible?
This leads me to think of my work as a therapist. Is it possible to create an ideal society that resolves all social problems without each individual working on resolving his or her own internal struggles? Is a society comprised of people in conflict, turmoil and pain able to create a mass structure that can collectively resolve all of these challenges from the outside? I would like to believe, but I seem to doubt it. And what of this internal exploration that de Sade appears to be alluding to? Is it possible to know oneself better through sexual self-exploration and understanding? Just some thoughts as I reflect back on the amazing play Marat/Sade.
For further reading, you might be interested in taking a look at some of these other articles on my blog: