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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 326-328
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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
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. After the play by Peter Weiss, adapted by Iouri Lioubimov. Taganka Theatre (Moscow), Festival d'Avignon, France. 15 July 2000.
In the revived Taganka Theatre's adaptation, Peter Weiss's 1963 ritual-drama takes on the character of a music-hall farce--a revolution betrayed by those tap, tap, tapping feet. Weiss's re-staging of the Marquis de Sade's asylum theatrical becomes, under director Iouri Lioubimov's hand, a fragile pretext for the Taganka's engaging comic diversions, acrobatic displays, and exhibitions of terpsichorean talent.
Since its premiere in Moscow in 1998, this Marat/Sade has been hailed in Russia as something of a return, after years of internal dissension and outside disruption, to the high standards of innovation, social protest, and joy that characterized the Taganka's glory years from 1963 to 1983. That Lioubimov here joins bel canto to rap, circus acrobatics to minimalist dance abstraction, in a manner that no longer seems new, demonstrates that the idioms he and relatively few others developed in the 1960s and early 1970s are now the shared resources of contemporary high-art theatre in Europe and the United States. What is remarkable is the manner in which these anti-psychological practices neutralize and, at the same time, complicate Marat/Sade's metatheatrical conceit.
Lioubimov's production works as a kind of anti-meditation--a kind of studied avoidance of systematic reflection--on the revolution in theatre practice that he participated in and helped to shape. To treat Weiss's now embarrassingly sincere attempts at political irony and theatrical revolt as an occasion for thoughtless fun is to betray the writer's intentions, yes. However, it is to betray them to Weiss's credit, revitalizing a drama disempowered by its own revolt and made ridiculous by history. Lioubimov trivializes high culture, the culture of the engaged and serious Weiss and his audiences, to suggest that ambitious theatrical art is always and inevitably complicit in a system of social subterfuge. Lioubimov's refusal to take Weiss seriously challenges the capacity of elite, high-art practice to co-opt, assimilate, and subdue techniques that once seemed quite revolutionary, perhaps especially to the director himself. Indeed, against the comic excesses of recent Russian history, which saw an exhausted Socialism play midwife to a [End Page 326] brutal, kleptocratic democracy, the Taganka's buffoonery seems quite raffine.
Weiss's principal themes, most poignantly that of the artist's relation to censorship and totalitarian power, make Marat/Sade an auspicious choice at a moment when state censorship has been replaced by the apparent freedoms of the cultural marketplace. After a successful career as an actor in the 1950s under Stalin and Kruschev, Lioubimov inaugurated his directorial career in 1963 with an epochal Good Person of Szechuan. Meyerhold had been officially rehabilitated in 1955, but his techniques had not yet been re-appropriated by the Russian Theatre, where psychological and social realism dominated. With his Meyerholdian Szechuan, Lioubimov left psychological realism behind--to the ire of cultural officialdom and the grateful appreciation of a powerful bloc of the Russian intelligentsia. Subsequently, as Artistic Director of the Taganka, Lioubimov orchestrated a series of productions notable for their formalism and consistent thematization of the relation intellectuals and artists have to political power. This achievement itself rested upon a constant and volatile negotiation with such power.
Thus, considerable knowledge of complicity and resistance inform Lioubimov's aggressive deflation of a text so naively confident in the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor. Cut to almost half its original length, Lioubimov's Marat/Sade bears witness to its time by refusing...