Getting into Character

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, better known (and more easily said in one breath) as MARAT/SADE, hits Carol Belk Theater for four daily showings starting Thursday, Oct. 20. Based on the life and writings of the infamous Marquis de Sade—the man for whom “sadism” is named—this is a show for mature audiences only.

A play within a play, the main story of MARAT/SADE takes place in 1808, as the inmates of the historical Charenton Asylum in France perform a play written by the infamous Marquis de Sade. Their play—written and performed as intended therapy for the patients—culminates in the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution. The bourgeois director of the hospital, Coulmier, believes the play is an endorsement of his patriotic views; the patients, however, have other ideas.

“Sade wanted to prove that these people weren’t quite so different as the people on the outside would like to believe,” said Rachel Evensen, who plays a patient at Charenton, who in turn plays Simone Evrard, the wife of Jean-Paul Marat. Many of the patients at the asylum wouldn’t be called insane under today’s standards—some were actually political prisoners. “And Coulmier wanted to show life after the nasty French Revolution, like ‘oh, everything’s good now.’ But it completely turns and the patients become more frightening and excitable than ever, and it’s about how things haven’t changed at all.”

To better play the asylum patients, the MARAT/SADE cast studied with retired psychology professor Ann Weber and visiting research scholar Connie Schrader to understand the mental and the physical traits of their characters.

Emily Crock, who plays a patient with “extreme melancholia and sleeping sickness,” spends much of the play asleep, rousing only occasionally to play Charlotte Corday, the woman who assassinates Marat. She describes getting into the character by the details, “And a lot of it was just touching their face or their hair, so I’ll be with a finger in my mouth or something…but there are a few moments where I break out of my sleeping sickness and I become Corday for just a moment, and I feel that anger.”

Playing the notorious Marquis de Sade is Bjorn Goller-Hagood, a sophomore drama student, who did considerable research in preparing to play the prolific 18th century writer, famous for his libertine sexuality.

“I believe his message is that all humans are capable of horrible, horrible things, and we need to embrace that part of our humanity, and understand it so we don’t let it take over,” Goller-Hagood said. Although Sade was wealthy and could have avoided combat, “he was in the Seven Years’ War as a lieutenant. I think that’s what sparked his interest in exactly how cruel people can be to each other. And I think we connect on that level; I spent eight years in the military, and I had a pretty difficult job.”

“He believed very much in absolute freedom, with no moral ties to religion or politics,” Evensen said. “A lot of people condemn him for his [sadistic] writing, but a lot of his writing also had political or societal undertones to it.”

“I think another point Sade was making was that political leaders in a very removed way commit atrocities, that if a single man did the same the thing, it would be hard to justify,” Goller-Hagood said.

Many of those political themes will still strike a chord with contemporary audiences, according to the cast members.

“Coulmier, who runs the asylum, has many lines where he talks about, ‘oh, this all happened in the past, no one now opposes the church. No one now is oppressed, these aren’t problems anymore,’” said Evensen. “It’s kind of a sentiment that is very prevalent today. People are like ‘oh, racism isn’t a problem anymore; sexism isn’t a problem any more.’ But it is, it very much is.”

Goller-Hagood hopes the performance will help the audience create a deeper understanding of their own society and had a suggestion for those attending the show.

“As if it was a political debate, pick out the topics of these characters and see how much of it relates to what’s going on in the debates currently,” he said, and encouraged audience members to look for commentary on “distribution of wealth, taxes, education, religion and its involvement in government.”

For tickets to MARAT/SADE, visit drama.unca.edu/theatre-unca, or call 828.251.6610. Evening performances will take place Thursday-Saturday Oct. 20-22 with curtain at 7:30 p.m. with one matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23.