Markisinnan de Sade

Teatro Festival ’91

Tatsushiko Shibusawa’s biography of the Marquis de Sade led Yukio Mishima to a historical character with apparently unfathomable motives. Renée de Montreuil, de Sade’s wife and faithful long-distance companion during his lengthy imprisonment, refused to see him when he was released and sent back home. In the eighteen years he was gone, the French Revolution had taken place, and she had withdrawn to a convent. Why? Biographers, historians, and scholars have viewed this final act with either incredulous silence or inconsistent suppositions.

Provoked by this anomalous and historically marginal female character, in whom matters of the heart and of the mind seemed intimately connected, Mishima, a great admirer of Racine’s plays, as well as of the No theater, constructed an explosive drama with only female roles. It is a drama designed around an absence. De Sade, the absolute protagonist of the piece, never appears on stage. Instead, he is explored and objectified by six female characters who, each following their unshakable faith in an ideal model, comment, explain, interpret, and dissect him—absolving or condemning him and thus, indirectly, speaking of themselves. The speakers consist of three historical characters: the Marquise de Sade (conjugal fidelity and an innocence capable of crossing over into masochism); her mother (law, morality, society’s predisposition to hypocrisy and opportunism); and her sister (spontaneity and unpredictability); as well as three fantasy characters: the Baroness de Saint-Fond (carnal passions), the Baroness de Simone (religiosity), and the maid Charlotte (the popular spirit). The stage, empty of its principal actor and of any action whatsoever, becomes a slate for words.

Ingmar Bergman’s master production adopts Mishima’s scheme without altering it. The stage, bare but given a sense of depth by a wall of arches, is a frozen, hieratic, and abstract setting for three acts, corresponding to the three different periods of the story—1772, 1778, and 1790. Each act is dominated (in costumes and lights) by one color: white for youth, expectation, and purity in the first act; red for maturity, awareness, passion, and blood in the second; and black for old age, decadence, and loss of body and of reason in the third. The space of the dramatic action is concentrated in a rectangle a few meters wide, which delimits the proscenium. The six actresses are incorporeal figures who acquire a physicality in the density of the verbal exchanges; alternately and in succession, they take up positions in this “clear” zone, in various groupings. All insignificant stage artifice is removed, thus allowing the dialogue and ideas to dominate and give form to the drama. The splendid rococo costumes contrast with set designs that are as evanescent as haiku. As if carried by the excessive crinolines that they wear, the actresses have the unreality and the diaphanous grace of porcelain dolls and the rarified, artificial movements of mechanical mannequins. Rather than walking, they seem to glide across the stage until, with mathematical rigor, they take up their positions. Not even the delivery of lines contains a hint of naturalism; the elocution is cold, cerebral, more narrated than interpreted. And it is mirrored by disquietingly crystallized movements: the flapping of a fan, a nod of the head, a gesture of the hand.

Bergman’s production is an homage to Mishima, but also an investigation of the female soul: it is grand theater and a sublime choreographic operation, from which one emerges feeling as if one has witnessed a rite—a sacred representation meant to nourish the mystery, not to unravel it. Like the enigma of Mishima’s 1970 voluntary death, the mystery of the Marquise de Sade is excised from the logic of explanation and common sense. There are few unequivocally free gestures, comprehensible only through an act equally and unconditionally free. It is precisely this apparent illogical impenetrability that imbues these gestures with the power of symbols.

Maria Nadotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.