The Third Director: Interrogating the Mental Health Discourse in Marat/Sade


Last weekend I had the privilege of viewing an incredible, startling, and viscerally moving production of Peter Weiss’s 1963 play “Marat/Sade.” Written at a time when advocates for mental health reform were pushing for deinstitutionalization, the play forces the audience to confront the ways that society constructs the definition of insanity and its treatment, and the systems of power that are involved in that construction. I’ve found myself coming back to the text, seeking insight into how our current mental health systems attempt to resolve the questions it raises.

“Marat/Sade” is based on a true story: The Marquis de Sade (ideologue of the French Revolution, whose name is responsible for the word “sadism,” performed here by Alan Hawkridge) was institutionalized for 13 years—until his death—in the Charenton “lunatic asylum,” where he was permitted, perhaps even encouraged, to put on plays. The director of the asylum, the Abbé de Coulmier (performed by Michael Puppi), was known for unconventional liberalism in his choices of treatment, and believed that artistic expression would benefit the patients there—a highly unusual theory at the time. Weiss’s text envisions a play written and directed by Sade, featuring the “inmates” of the asylum, and depicting the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (performed by Rico Lanni), a figure of the French Revolution beside whom Sade had fought. This setting and topic gives the character of Sade the freedom to lambast the sociopolitical situation of Napoleonic France from the safety of a historical and artistic remove—and gives Weiss the same freedom to address our modern world.

Photo credit: Piquant Photo

This play-within-a-play structure gives way to further layers of performance and artifice, blurring the lines between actor, “lunatic,” political prisoner, and revolutionary hero. The play exposes the liminal space between being labeled “insane” for questioning dominant ideologies, and being driven to act more and more “insane” as a result of that label and the “treatment” prescribed for it. In the end, the mental health establishment serves to punish the revolutionary (in the guise of “treatment”) until the revolutionary fulfills the expectations of that establishment by fully acting the role of the “mad” patient.

Historically, Sade himself was sent to Charenton because he was deemed “insane” for his writings, which challenged the social order. It was the asylum or prison, for Sade. Peter Weiss’s text breaks down the construct of insanity—acts of “madness” are constructed as such by the society that cannot stomach them. According to the author’s note, the asylum “catered to all whose behavior made them socially impossible.” Is Sade “mad”? Perhaps. And if he is, perhaps it is because he had the temerity to expose the horrible secret power politics underlying the hypocrisy of the status quo.

Bertolt Brecht (one of the most influential figures in modern theatre) promoted the use of fourth wall-breaking techniques to jar the audience out of the narrative of his plays, forcing the audience to notice the artifice of the theatrical production. He believed this would force the audience to confront the constructed nature of their interactions with society. “Marat/Sade” is post-Brechtian, using the multiple play-within-a-play structure to illuminate the ways that all social interactions are constructed narratives. In a sense, whenever we interact with someone, we are putting on a play, presenting a version of ourselves to the other, who is our audience as well as our fellow actor.

There are three “directors” involved in this production. The first, Kira Hawkridge, directs a group of actors in the show “Marat/Sade.” The second, the Marquis de Sade, directs a group of “lunatics” in their performance of “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.” And finally, the Abbé de Coulmier is the “director” of the Charenton asylum. Coulmier has invited us, the audience, to witness the effectiveness of his “treatment.” He directs the “lunatics” in his asylum to act “mad”—justifying their exclusion from society—but he also expects them to act “much improved”—justifying his “treatment.” He is the “director” of the play of their “treatment,” and his expected resolution is their “improvement.” The text forces us, the audience, to collaborate with the psychiatric establishment, constructing us as Coulmier’s guests, excitedly watching the “insane” patients demonstrate their “improvement.”

Photo credit: Piquant Photo

The play was written at the dawn of the era of deinstitutionalization, and one wonders if Weiss was familiar with the work of Erving Goffman, whose collection of essays titled Asylums was published just a few years previously. Goffman discussed the ways the psychiatric system served to reify the roles of doctor and patient as the roles of guard vs. prisoner—the ways the system was designed to force people to perform particular characters. The patient becomes dependent and fearful, while the doctor grows more powerful and punishing. Goffman conceives of the psychiatric institution as a set, and the rules of treatment as the script. The doctors and patients are unwitting actors, forced to see the performance to its inevitable conclusion.

This performance further serves to solidify the “hospital” as the appropriate tool for maintaining the social order—keeping the rest of society from seeing through the fourth wall of reality into the ways all interactions are constructed. If the “insane” who refuse to follow the rules of society are kept in their place, then the rest of society knows exactly how much latitude is allowed for improvisation within societal roles.

Coulmier views himself as a good man, a kind and helpful man, someone who is using treatments that are far less harsh than the other treatments of his time. Yet his treatments are still brutal and ineffective, including bleeding, purges, and “hydrotherapy.” In a way, Coulmier represents the modern psychiatrist, believing that our current treatments are more effective and less cruel than those that came before, and unable to tolerate any evidence that does not support that status quo.

Photo credit: Piquant Photo

As Coulmier insists, “We’re citizens of a new enlightened age.” This mirrors the rhetoric of current psychiatry, in which we have supposedly come to a revolutionary new understanding of the neurobiological basis of “mental illness.” Yet the contradictory evidence is ignored: that no chemical imbalance has been found; that there is no biological test for a mental “disorder;” and that despite increased psychopharmaceutical use, the rates of so-called “mental illness” are still climbing. Is our treatment as brutal? The “controlled” seizures of electro-convulsive therapy are still a popular treatment in the psychiatric institution, behavioral control via neuroleptic tranquilizers is still a primary “treatment,” and those who are being “treated” for any mental “disorder” suffer the medical complications of dangerous side effects and can expect a significantly shortened lifespan.

Yet the psychiatrist maintains that the only remaining problem is how to deliver this treatment to more people. When those who run the institutions hold beliefs that are so far removed from the scientific evidence, who is truly insane?

For more information about this production, visit


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Peter Simons
Peter Simons was an academic researcher in psychology. Now, as a science writer, he tries to provide the layperson with a view into the sometimes inscrutable world of psychiatric research. As an editor for blogs and personal stories at Mad in America, he prizes the accounts of those with lived experience of the psychiatric system and shares alternatives to the biomedical model.


  1. I’ve wondered about the sources Peter Weiss might have drawn from in constructing his play. I know that Antonin Artaud, French surrealist, dramatist, and madman was portrayed as the same Jean-Paul Marat in Abel Gance’s something like 6 hour long epic silent movie Napoleon (1927).

    I don’t know that I will ever get a chance to see Napoleon, which is something of a shame, not that it is a bad thing, but rather because where are you going to find anyone willing to stage a six hour long silent era motion picture.

    If you ever get the chance to see it, Antonin gives a pretty impressive performance as a monk in Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) which has been shown on TCM a number of times, and is definitely worth a watch. She (Joan) reputedly heard the voice of God speaking to her you know, and it got her, no, not thrown into the loony bin, but rather burned at the stake as a witch, and a threat to the English crown, her captors.

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