Monday Motivation: How many layers can you add to your imaginary cake?
Point of view determines the way your reader apprehends the “reality” of your protagonist’s universe, including his own interior cosmos. A single perspective shines a light on reality from just one angle. Multiple perspectives, layered on one another, begin to reveal the complexity of our world, and our various struggles for justice and love.
This truth was brought home to me with a jolt when I discovered that one of the gems of film and theatre is still available online, fifty-three years after its release.
The first incarnation of the English version of Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade was as a stage play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then it was reimagined as a film by the legendary Peter Brook, who had also directed the play. It stars Glenda Jackson, then 31 and luminous.
Let me sketch the multiple points of view of the characters involved in what was called “a play with music”.
First there is the Marquis de Sade, father of, you guessed it, sadism, and various other exquisite sexual perversions, and the author of the play within a play. He enlists his fellow inmates to perform the roles of Marat, his assassin, Charlotte Corday, and the people of Paris. Each of the inmates suffers from one or other mental affliction. Corday, for instance, is a narcoleptic, prone to falling asleep at any moment; Marat himself is a paranoiac; there are sex maniacs and violent psychotics restrained by straitjackets and baton-wielding warders. Presiding over them all is the director of the asylum, whose prime interest is to demonstrate the efficacy of his progressive psychiatric policy, and who cleaves firmly to the received wisdom of France’s relatively new ruler, Napoleon.
The Marquis, on the other hand, is committed to notions of chaos and nihilism, while Marat believes in the supremacy of theory over experience, willing to sacrifice thousands to the guillotine to purge society of its ills. The people, by contrast, know from bitter experience that the Revolution left them more or less where they were before the mob stormed the Bastille.
Look at the layers here, people. The frame is the asylum within which the “mad” people perform a play written and directed by a man famed for his libertine sexuality. That play documents the assassination of Marat, one of the architects of the Terror, with philosophical commentary by both de Sade and Marat. The players occasionally go off-script, giving vent to their anger and their frustration at being left behind by the political establishment – and, of course, their various psychiatric maladies. These outbursts are reined in by the director, who insists that the problems of the Revolution are problems of the past.
The tone of the play slides up and down a spectrum. At one end there’s the intense philosophical debate between Marat and de Sade about the nature of political change and the role of the individual. De Sade argues that change begins with and in the individual. Marat argues that society has to be changed, if necessary by the most violent means. And at the other end of the spectrum, are the songs which are cynical, blasphemous and libidinous.
What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation, sing the players at one point.
Put all of these violently divergent opinions, philosophical convictions, and perspectives into the cauldron, and what comes out is one of the most mesmerising, provocative and exciting productions of the twentieth century.
I think it’s time for a revival. Our own madhouse needs a little shake-up, wouldn’t you say?