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Poor Old Marat

Marat/Sade – Judy Collins

The 70s were, if nothing else, a time of changing ideas. A lot of kids still wanted a revolution, and with the way Washington was being run, that was warranted. Hard times call for hard rhetoric. Maybe the drive for a new world wasn’t as strong as it was in the 60s – this was the day after, the hangover, the waking up and going to work after the counterculture died – but there was still anger, to be sure. Any idea was better than what was going on; gas prices skyrocketing, unrest and poverty throughout every artery of the country. A lot of great music was still being made (I consider the 70s to be the height of rock and roll) and the folk movement wasn’t quite gone. And they still called for change.

Judy Collins, in ‘77, adapted a selection of musical pieces from Marat/Sade. This play, a work of “total theatre” by the German Peter Weiss, tells the story of the death of Jean-Paul Marat, staged as a play-within-a-play under the direction of the imprisoned Marquis de Sade. Set in an asylum. Revolution in Weiss’s play is suffused with madness, performed by inmates, the music shrieked more than sung. Performances are intense, incendiary, disturbing. It is meant to unsettle. There are no heroes on that stage.

Judy Collins adapted this selection by playing it straight. Lyrics as written. What a difference performance makes! There is no meta subtext, no engagement with the asylum part of the story. This is not total theatre. What Collins does is take the revolutionary rhetoric and mythologizing of Marat that the play’s Sade is satirizing, and present it unironically. There’s occasions where she has an ensemble joining her, which echoes the sonic aspect of the original, but the way she delivers these lines is polar opposite the way it’s performed on stage. Sade is opening Marat up to criticism, scrutiny, dissection. Collins is commemorating him. Both are valid ways to do these songs. 

In the 70s, they wanted their revolution. That decade saw organizations such as AIM and the Black Panthers constantly battling against systems of entrenched racism. From start to finish, the 70s had to contend with the Hard Hat Riot, the occupation of Alcatraz, the Attica riot, the Wounded Knee takeover, the fallout of Watergate… it seemed ripe for some kind of overturning of structure. We have nothing, always have nothing… 

There is a critical distinction to be made about the writing of Marat/Sade. It was first published in 1963. Pre-Kennedy, pre-Vietnam; the great boiling pot of chaos had not yet been fully opened. 

Sometimes work takes on an unintended life of its own. Sometimes people just want their revolution and they want their revolution now.

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