Peter Brook And The Film Production Of

Marat/Sade Essay, Research Paper

Peter Brook and the Film Production of Marat/Sade

It is noted within Margaret Croyden’s book, Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets, in the extremely interesting and informative tenth chapter, entitled “The Achievement of Peter Brook: From Commercialism to the Avant-Garde”, that near the start of his career, Brook was attracted to both plays and techniques that expressed human contradiction. He often wondered, though, whether there were any modern playwright who could possibly equal the richness and complexity of Shakespearean verse, and often complained about the improbability of ever finding material to work on or to produce as stimulating as that of Shakespeare (Croyden 238). When, in 1964, Brook received a play entitled The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (Marat/Sade), by German playwright Peter Weiss, it is also noted that Brook felt he had finally encountered the challenge of Shakespearean theater he was looking for (Croyden 238). One does not need to look too closely at Brook’s adaptation on the theory of the Theater of Cruelty (which, in its simplest terms, involved specific dramatizations of sound and movement, fragmented montages, and happenings as well as the healthy influence of French theater theorist Antonin Artaud, whose primary interests lay in the spectacle of theater) to see how well Marat/Sade exemplified the most important points of the new approach to theater Brook was beginning to experiment with (Croyden 235). Not only was Marat/Sade an incredibly well written and unique approach to theater as a whole, its incorporation of music and movement, song and montage, and naturalism and surrealism within the text created the perfect passage, for Brook, from his commercial past to his experimental present, as well as a way for both the playwright and the director to deal with the concept of theater as therapy; a rather ironic, yet at the same time clever, idea seeing as how the play itself is conducted within the confines of an asylum, with the inmates themselves as the stars (Croyden 236).

One of the most complex aspects of presenting Marat/Sade, which was produced to both great acclaim and great controversy, was its large and eclectic cast of characters and also its incorporation of a play within a play. On stage, these points were, looking at the opinions of a majority of both the audiences and the critics, presented successfully by Brook and the cast he worked with. From the prison guards who loomed in the background, clothed in butcher aprons and armed with clubs, to the half-naked Marat, slouched in a tub and covered in wet rags, forever scratching and writing, to the small group of singers, dressed and painted up as clowns, to the narcoleptic but murderous Charlotte Corday, Weiss and Brook offered a stage production that both engaged and amazed the audience, while at the same time forced them to question their role as the audience; no better exemplified than at the very end of the play, where the inmates, standing menacingly at the edge of the stage, actually begin to applaud the very people who applaud their performance, aggravating and confusing some, but forcing most to look at the conventions and routines of the theater which they themselves seem to be performing (Croyden 240).

When Peter Brook decided to create a film version of Marat/Sade, there must have been a great deal of doubt as to whether or not such a feat was possible, for, as stated above, converting the play from the stage to the screen while still maintaining its richness and complexity of characters would surely take an enormous amount of creativity and ingenuity. Though the theater offered the challenge of presenting such a large production within the confines of a stage, one of the most essential aspects of the play, the relationship and interaction between the cast and the spectators, was very much intact. It was necessary for the audience to feel threatened, or at the very least, uneasy, by the action taking place in front of them for the play to be successful. On film, or more importantly, on the screen, Brook was faced with overcoming the hurdle of celluloid; that is to say, creating and exploiting the atmosphere of discomfort with an audience that was seemingly disconnected from what they were viewing. The fact that he overcame that hurdle and created such an imaginative and successful film is testimony to his accomplishments not only as an artist, but as a filmmaker as well.

From the opening shot of the movie, it’s immediately apparent how Brook decided to connect those seemingly disconnected viewers. The simplicity yet effectiveness of an over-the-shoulder camera angle is often overlooked in filmmaking, but throughout Marat/Sade, specifically the first scene, Brook utilizes this technique to place the audience right in the center of the action. As the movie begins, we, the viewers, find ourselves backstage in the asylum standing with the other inmates, being called upon by a group of nuns and prison guards to begin the performance. What’s so effective about this approach is that instead of giving the audience the obligatory establishing shot of the asylum or of the inmates waiting to be called onstage, Brook puts the camera and the viewer with the performers. This not only immediately involves us within the film and the characters, it also creates a feeling of anticipation, and perhaps discomfort, for the viewing audience by letting it remain a mystery as to what kind of situation we are headed for. The unsteady and slight jerks and movements of the camera in these over-the-shoulder shots only serve to further this idea of the viewer as an inmate of the asylum, rocking back and forth, preparing to perform.

As stated, the theater performance of Marat/Sade offered the challenge of presenting such an elaborate play within the margins of a stage. Brook could have chosen, as many directors converting plays and musicals into film versions have done before, to expand on the setting in which the action was taking place. Yet while viewing the film, we notice that there are few aerial shots of the asylum and its surroundings, no long tracking shots of the halls or cells, no added characters, dialogue, or action taking place anywhere outside of the main performance. Brook has decided, instead, to remain true to both the original text and to the stage production of the play within the film, something which, if not done correctly, may have caused the viewers attention and involvement in the events transpiring to suffer. But Brook manages to follow through without sacrificing the least bit of interest in the proceedings or the characters. Though a question is raised as to Brook’s purpose behind confining such a large cast and amount of action to such a small area for performance without making use of the creative benefits that film offers, such as bird’s-eye views or tracking shots, the answer is within the question itself: Brook purposely confined the play to just one room of the asylum, as scripted and performed on stage, while creating a film version as yet another way to emotionally involve the viewer in something that, for all intents and purposes, they were completely disconnected from. He wanted those watching the film to feel as trapped within the walls of the asylum as the inmates themselves, to feel the claustrophobic and threatening atmosphere that such a performance would merit to anyone present.

When Marat/Sade was produced on stage, the audience in the theater served a greater purpose than just simply viewing the play; they were incorporated into it, at first unknowingly, playing the roles of the aristocrats who would come to the Asylum of Charenton to be entertained by de Sade’s play and the performances of the inmates. This was an aspect of the play that, though impossible to translate exactly onto film, created one of the most interesting, and most creative, ways that Brook chose to engage the viewing audience in Marat/Sade; through his use of the many characters’ soliloquies to not only directly address the camera, but, more importantly, to address the viewer as well. In theater, the soliloquy will typically involve a character speaking to themselves or the audience alone, and it is through a twisting of this technique in his film that Brook creates an even greater connection between the inmates on the screen and those watching the movie. Throughout the film the inmates appear impending, harassing the aristocrats Brook has placed within the film, though they are quite safe behind a large facade of iron bars. This technique corresponds to the menacing way that the characters address the camera throughout the performance, and creates the necessary feeling, for the viewers, that no such barrier is available to protect them as they are drawn in uncomfortably closer to the inmates by Brook’s camerawork. We begin to question whether or not the soliloquies, spoken directly into the camera instead of to the protected aristocrats who originally played our ‘part’ of the audience, are still merely just a theater convention, or if the insanity of the performers is used as a catalyst for we, ourselves, to feel threatened directly by what is spoken. We also begin to question whether or not the inmate is even looking at the camera to address the audience, or is simply insane, and addressing the air around them, adding yet another layer to such complex characters. Creating such questions within the audience’s mind also seems to create, for most, the aura of discomfort and skepticism that Brook was aiming to achieve, and reached quite successfully.

Though the film version of Marat/Sade is far from flawless, what it lacks in perfection, it makes up for in leaps and bounds with Brook’s creative energy and willingness to experiment. This, when compounded with the use of many important aspects, such as the harsh lighting, the manic music and action, the extraordinary performances of the actors involved, and the inspired direction further cements the idea of Peter Brook as not only a force in the theater, but in such experimental and innovative filmmaking as well.


Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets by Margaret Croyden


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