Firstly, the play itself, is a minor masterpiece. Whilst it's well known that it deals with the French revolution, notably the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday, and it's also well known that the play is an enactment staged by the Marquis de Sade within the madhouse of Charenton, what is perhaps less well known is that it's set fifteen years or so after the events of the play have taken place, during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. As such, Weiss not only creates a play within a play, but the temporal shift allows him to play with varying perspectives on the violence that the revolution generated. In 1964, when Brook staged the play, the issue of the role of violence as a tool to transform society was still one that could at least be contemplated; not least in a world where colonialism was still an oppressive force. Whilst we know that the French revolution was the cause of bloodshed, war and suffering, it was also the mechanism by which, in theory at least, France began the process of transformation into its modern state.
Theatre directors might have their philosophical streak, but they are also, by inclination, showmen. Brook takes the implicit agendas of Weiss' play and creates a vivid, non-stop carnival of theatricality. The stage is littered with the bodies of madmen and women who at any given moment might choose to lay their claim to dramatic attention. The film perhaps does not do full justice to the latent anarchy, save for the explosive final scene, (reminiscent of the end of that other great radical sixties work, Zabriskie Point), when chaos is allowed to reign. Brook's showmanship, and the rigourous brilliance of his cast, honed as a group within the RSC over the course of various productions, offers Weiss' intellectualism all the flesh and blood it needs to confront the audience with the consequences of the issues the script addresses; the limits of libertarianism, the inevitability of governmental constraint, the madness that underpins utopia. Whilst Marat/ Sade is perhaps conceived as something of a hymn to European radicalism, it would be easy to present the counter case, that Weiss and Brook are arguing for the importance of societal control over our more anarchic instincts which lead towards violence. Violence will always have a part to play in the ordering of society, and the question then becomes one of how that violence is managed. A Foucaultian thesis which is strengthened by the fact that De Sade's reference to the savage execution of a prisoner in Royalist pre-revolution France sounds identical to the example used by Foucault at the opening of Discipline and Punish.
Whatever the politico-philosophical arguments, what's clear is that at this point in its history, as it backed its greatest director, the RSC was an organisation prepared to engage with a kind of daring, neo-intellectual theatre, one that sought to examine and comment on its times. In retrospect, it might be seen to be the high point of its existence as a cultural body. It's not entirely the RSC's fault that it has subsequently become something of a factory, producing work which is primarily there to keep the tourists happy as they pitch up at Stratford for their dose of Shakespeare. It's more a reflection of the way British society has evolved, a country trading on its past in order to earn a living in the future, an attitude that is inherently conservative. Within this context, the notion of theatre being a medium for examining the philosophical framework of the culture/ society still survives, but within carefully demarcated zones. The madness has been placed under control, allowed to parade itself from time to time, but on the whole a policy of stability is pursued, in a bid to minimise risk and ensure steady if unspectacular returns.