"Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all. Ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust." -- Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade

Never let it be said that the Marquis de Sade, the man whose name is the origin of the word "sadism," did not have the courage of his convictions. The 16th-century French nobleman spent a significant portion of his life in dungeons, prisons and asylums for his controversial political, philosophical and extremely pornographic writings.

Following the French revolution, Sade spent the last years of his life in an asylum at Charenton near Paris. There the progressive asylum director, in what is perhaps an early example of art therapy, allowed Sade to write and direct plays with other inmates as actors.

It was this piece of real history that inspired the German playwright Peter Weiss to pen "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" (usually shortened to "Marat/Sade") in 1963.

Weiss saw in the historical situation a chance to explore themes of poverty, insanity, violence, politics and philosophy with a fictionalized (and musical) account of a Sade-directed play about the assassination of the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in the days leading up to the 1793-94 Reign of Terror.

In 1964, "Marat/Sade" had its first important staging when Peter Brook directed the Royal Shakespeare Company's London production. The production incorporated aspects of Bertolt Brecht's "epic theater" philosophy, which argues for alienating theater-goers from emotional involvement with characters, and Antonin Artaud's "theater of cruelty," which attempts to shock audiences out of commonly held perceptions.

The play was a sensation, awing and sometimes angering audiences and critics with its violent images and ideas. A successful Broadway run followed in 1966 and a film version, also directed by Brook, came out in 1967.

The GMU Players will perform "Marat/Sade" this weekend. The Players production director, Stephen Lam, calls the play a "pageant of poverty, terror and violence . . . But in the midst of the chaos is a debate between Marat's socialist idealism and de Sade's insistence for individual accountability."


Black Box theater is in Room 101 of the performing arts building next to the Center for the Arts, GMU, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Free; $1 donations accepted. Limited seating. For mature audiences. Call 703-993-1120.

Tom Terleki plays Jean-Paul Marat in the GMU Players' production of "Marat/Sade."