Monday, March 12, 2007

The filth and the fury

Sensitive souls were well-advised to take a pass on the Classical Theatre of Harlem's staging of Marat/Sade, which I was lucky to see yesterday, on the last day of its run: It featured the most realistic shit I've ever seen on a New York stage—as opposed to the shitty realism one sometimes encounters at the Roundabout or MTC.

It boggles the mind to think that not only was Peter Weiss's play (full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade) once on Broadway, but it won four Tonys in 1966! Glenda Jackson, who played Marat's assassin, Charlotte Corday, was nominated for Best Featured Actress but didn't win. Director Peter Brook also handled the movie adaptation, from which the photo above is taken.

Except for one silent role, there weren't any women in Christopher McElroen's staging for CTH. And this is the least of his conceptual touches. McElroen's biggest stroke of inspiration was to reconceive the physical space so that the action would take place in a central ring enclosed by chain-link fences; the audience sat in two rows on three of the sides, with two lateral galleries allowing the actors to roam behind the spectators. Since Marat/Sade happens in the titular asylum, this entirely made sense, creating the suffocating impression to be prisoner in a pressure cooker. And McElroen ratcheted up the tension already present in the text, keeping the proceedings at a fever pitch the entire time.

The high dramatic point comes during Sade's big speech—which T. Ryder Smith, as the divin Marquis, must give while getting flogged, his white shirt sprouting crimson flowers. Once that's over, he grabs handfuls of excrement from a bucket and smears it all over his face. A woman sitting in front of me laughed loudly, and was told "This is not funny!" (I couldn't identify who said that—a fellow audience member or someone from the cast.) Sitting a few feet away and watching in horror as turds were flying about, I felt as if a huge weight was pressing down on my chest.

My main caveat with the whole endeavor is that too often Weiss's text—which essentially contrasts two ideas of revolution, Marat's radical dream of a revolution by the people and for the people and Sade's highly individualistic philosophy—got lost in the general mayhem (we're talking hoses to calm down the inmates here). Weiss was a leftist German who in the 1960s realized socialism as practiced by the USSR—one of two large-scale models of communism in action at the time—could not work without crushing the individual. (See also Vasily Grossman's extraordinary Life and Fate for the daily practice of Stalinism.) "On the one hand the urge with axes and knives/To change the whole world and improve people's lives/On the other hand the individual lost in thought/Caught in the throes of the calamity he's wrought," summarizes Sade. But it's hard to focus on ideas when someone is banging on a pipe right behind your head or pulling on your chair.

As we embark on presidential campaigns in France and here, those of us passionate about the arts should keep in mind something else Weiss wrote (not in Marat/Sade): “Art is never a weapon in the sense of concrete political action. It only conveys activity, it communicates qualities which we have to detect in ourselves. We are the ones who, upon closing in on a work of art, liberate the powers confined within. Without our ability to ingest, our own ability to think, the work remains powerless. However, with our attentiveness we transpose the latent vision into real, perceptible deeds.”

Partly this is saying that going to a political show—writing a political show—just isn't enough when it comes to "concrete action." Let's keep this in mind when do-gooders start going on and on about the importance of political art: As much as I'd like to think otherwise, art will never replace the less-glamorous practice of politics when it comes to actually changing the world. You can go listen to Springsteen and feel good about yourself, but that won't prevent Rome from burning—ie, the Republican machine from savagely gutting your country's institutions, moral fabric and individual lives.

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