11 November 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 3

Bob Oswald Stages Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade with a Cast of Elementary School Children and Finally Does Something Right for a Change

(Alternate Title: Oswald/Weiss/Marat/Sade)

All my life, as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a writer, but I'll be the first to admit I've never exactly been a literary flame. Improper use of dependent clauses, run-ons. Sentence fragments. In school I had this professor who would say that in order to be a great author, you've got to have a passion for something other than writing. She did not mention that this passion had to be in addition to a passion for writing, something which I was also conspicuously lacking. I didn't really have strong feelings for anything, but I did enjoy smoking pot and playing video games, just not the cheesy ones where the guys sprayed sweat instead of blood when you punched them out. I received a C+ in Creative Fiction 105. I dropped out of school a few days before the end of my sophomore year.

My parents were several degrees less than thrilled when I showed up on the doorstep of our family's ancestral manse on three-quarters of an acre in suburban Western New York. Mom opened the door and when she saw me there with all of my bags and stuff spread out all over the porch, she closed her eyes and made a small, guttural noise, swaying just slightly on the balls of her feet, her head beginning to shake involuntarily. My father, looming in the hallway behind her, just turned and walked back into the darkness of the living room, but not before saying gruffly:

"You're getting a job."

As unpleasant as that sounds, I settled back in to life with my parents, took up residence in the basement, and, for the first week or so, everything was fine. Just like my childhood, but without the yelling and tears. Despite my parents' shortsighted desire for me to find some kind of work, I'd already conceived a plan that would eliminate the need for anything unnecessarily extreme like getting a job. I was going to make money by being a writer. And none of that boring MFA po-mo short story stuff; I was going to write scripts for movies, television shows… something that would really make a difference. But first, I had to spend some time working up ideas—that meant getting high, good and baked, and staying that way for prolonged periods of time. I planned on a few weeks of this, at least, before I got down to the serious writing.

Mom had other ideas. After I left for college she'd finally gotten around to starting her own business, and had joined the chamber of commerce. Through her connections, she landed some work for me at the community theater.

"Ah, Mom, I was going to find a job myself. You don't have to baby me like that all the time."

"I just thought… It's right up your alley. The theater is the most literary place in town." Mom leaned in, and in a conspiratorial whisper: "Don't tell your father, but I think the director is gay."

"Fine… all right. Fine. So what am I going to be doing there?" Writing plays? Editing the collected works of Ibsen? Directing? Producing?

"And when you're done with that, you can wipe down the door frames in the lobby." The director flipped a thin finger to his cheek, his elbow cupped loosely in the opposite hand. "They get kind of futzy sometimes."

So this is the artist as a young twenty-something, washing floors and walls in the local community theater for a guy who uses (non)words like "futzy." An intern. Can you believe it? Hemingway was never an intern.

"Thanks so much, Bob."

The director trotted out of the room as if he had important business to attend to. Thanks so much, jerk. I stood there in front of the wall for a long time, the wet rag dangling limply from my hand. I was holding it between two fingers, like something dead. It weighed about a million pounds.

Well, it shouldn't have surprised Mister So-Important Director when he came back to find me sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room smoking a spliff while the rag soaked a small, jagged spot through my jeans where it sat, unused, on my right knee. Shouldn't, but did. I don't have much understanding of what's going on in other people's heads; that's what made me want to be a writer.

"I don't even want you leaving through the front door," he said, stamping an indignant foot for emphasis. "Go through the library and out the back."

I stood, shorted my joint on the back of my shoe, and walked past him with what I hoped was a nonchalant shrug. As I passed, I realized I'd let the rag drop to the floor, when what I should've done, to really finish off the scene with panache, was toss it to him on my way by, causing him to jump defensively to catch it—thereby contrasting my laid back brand of lowbrow literary cool against his uptight bourgeois overeducated ideal of culture. Well, opportunity lost. Story of my life.

On my way through the darkened library, just on a vindictive whim, I decided to steal something. I frequently act on whims, and always on vindictive ones. I pulled a copy of 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 off the shelf. I like long titles. I slipped it up under my shirt and walked out of there with my head high. And, when I'd put enough distance between me and the theater, I slipped the shorted joint out of my pocket and got my head even higher.

Since I had to pretend to be at work for the next six hours or so, I walked down to the lake and found a nice place on the rocks. I rolled another J and smoked it, and then I rolled another one and smoked that, too. I tried to think about Nelson Algren for a while, but I didn't know much about him, so I rolled another joint and smoked that one, too. Algren was never an intern. Eventually I got tired of getting high, and, since there was nothing else to do, I decided to read my stolen play.

I was about halfway through Marat/Sade when a strange feeling began to wash over me, coming on stronger with each wave that rolled up against the shore. Maybe it was the drugs, but something changed there on the beach, an emotion came over me that I'd never felt before—or, at least, it was something I'd never felt about a piece of literature. The play really excited me… it seemed to mean something, I don't know… somehow, in the confusion of my life, it seemed applicable. I kind of felt for De Sade, Marat in his bathtub… I wasn't sure who Marat was, but I knew all about the Marquis de Sade from the Internet, so something had to be speaking to me, there. Somewhere in this muddle of feelings and elliptic half-thoughts, I decided that instead of telling my parents I'd fucked up again and trying to get another job, I would put on this play for the Grandview community, and really show everyone I had some talent. Regardless of what some closed-minded theater types seemed to think.

The next morning, in lieu of the theater, I rode my bike down to the library and did a little research on Weiss and the play. Most of the critics made some mention of ambiguity, a word I remembered from my college lit. classes. Ambiguity, I recalled, was good. It meant that nobody knew what the play was about, so, if you tried to discuss it or even stage it, you were unlikely to screw up so bad. Because even if you made a mistake, no one would know you were wrong. I also noted that the first showing of Marat/Sade, in its original German, was considered unspectacular. Although this might have bespoken the difficulties of staging such a complex work, it ignited a strange affection in me, as if it were some kind of misfit play that no one loved, that I had dug out of the garbage and was about to raise to international recognition and fame. Also, I was a little high while I was doing my research.

Casting began immediately. With the actors in the community theater out of the running, I decided to turn my attention toward the only people who'd have the time and, to be honest, any willingness to be directed by me. So it was the neighborhood children, fortuitously out of school for the summer and easily malleable in the hands of anyone who could roughly be considered an adult.

First role to cast: Charlotte Corday, Marat's assassin, as played by a narcoleptic. I knew immediately there was only one actress for the role: Sarah Beale, a second grader whose big, pellucid blue eyes would make her the perfect dreamy Charlotte. I got on my bike, lit up a spliff, and rolled off down the sidewalk toward the big blue Colonial at the end of the road. Sarah's parents had moved into the neighborhood just before I came home from school. It was their first house; the driveway still gravelly, the cement porch unadorned, unfinished. Here were successful young people, not much older than myself, just starting out but on their way up in the world. I had to play this right and not come off as, well, you know. Some people seem to get the wrong impression about me. Straightening out my shirt, I knocked twice.

A smart looking young blond appeared at the door. Thin, with aquiline features and quick, sharp eyes, in total contrast to her daughter's dreamy look. Through the screen, I said:

"Mrs. Beale?"


"I'm Bob Oswald. From down the street? I just came home from college, for the summer…"

"Oh, well, hello."

"Hi. Um…"

Frantically I searched for words, brain failing, the cannaboid-soaked neurons firing aimlessly at the crucial moment.

"Well, your daughter, Sarah.… she has such beautiful eyes… so languorous… I just think… she'd make a perfect Charlotte Corday."

Mrs. Beale stepped back from the door, frowned, and then her face registered an expression I can't really describe, but I'd imagine it was along the lines of shock, or "I've just been hit in the face by someone I don't know." She shut the door quickly, and I heard the latch click into place.

I looked down at my left hand and noticed the spliff, still burning, the gray smoke spiraling up and away into the unpainted roof of the porch. I took a long drag, turned, and headed back to my bike.

I caught up with my little Charlotte on the community playground the next day. She was with another little girl I didn't know, a bucolic, wide-eyed brunette. I looked around but I didn't see Mrs. Beale anywhere.

"Hey Sarah," I said. "I'm Bob." I extended my hand, but she didn't take it.

"My mommy says I shouldn't talk to you."

"Oh." I thought a minute, and then faked a sigh. "I guess that means you can't be in my play."

"You have a play?" Oh, man, those eyes went about a mile wide, in perfect somnambulist slow motion. I really had to stay cool here to get my Charlotte. If only I were just a little bit high…

"Oh, yeah, just a little neighborhood theater…" I looked off into the distance, pretending to consider something. I didn't know what. "It's about De Sade, and Marat."

Blank stare. She blinked, slowly.

"And horses and unicorns."


"OK, you're Charlotte Corday, as played by a narcoleptic."

"What's a narcolecpit?"

"Someone who's really sleepy all the time. I'll explain it all later. I haven't really read the whole play yet."

"Can I be in it?" The little brunette. I sized her up. Plain. A little hippy, even for a second grader.

"Well, I don't really think…"

Her lip twisted up, eyes began to waver. She reached out for Sarah and the two little girls locked in and clung to each other, a small river of tears beginning to congeal between them.

"Claire has to be in it. Claire has to be in the play. We're the unicorn club…" She broke off into sobs. My little Charlotte was a diva.

"OK," I said quickly. "Claire is Madame Coulmier."

"Does she ride a horse?"

"Sure. Practice begins tomorrow at three o'clock. Don't tell your parents, because it's a surprise for them."

More evidence of my casting genius: As the paranoiac Marat, Billy Barton, the neighborhood's rosy-faced fat kid, universally persecuted and always huffing along at the back of the pack, but eternally optimistic and game. Playing the straitjacketed revolutionary ex-priest Jaques Roux was Andy Jones, hyperactive son of our street's sole black family—and, to cap it, his father was the minister of a church over on the West side of town. Finally, as the Marquis de Sade, the only kid who I felt had the Faustian disgust with life to bring off the role—and also, the only member of our little troupe with the memorization skills to carry such a large part—myself.

They were all assembled at the playground. I was calling the role.

Coulmier? Check. Cucurucu? Check.

"OK, where are my Sisters?"

Grubby hands shot up from all around the sandbox; a pack of little girls aged four to seven, all platinum blond, all wearing denim shorts and pink tank tops. The Hoffman sisters from two blocks over, near the lake. Dad, a plumber; Mom, a secretary—the girls, left to their own devices, had gone feral. They were all barefooted in the sandbox; just keeping them in their shorts was challenge enough. Their hair was twisted and adorned with twigs and seashells, the beginnings of dreadlocks. One of the younger girls was wearing her right shoe over her left hand.

"Look," I began slowly, waiting until I was sure that I had at least three-quarters of their attention. "The sisters are supposed to be played by boy actors. But I couldn't find enough boys who wanted to be in this play, so you guys are going to have to do an extra good job of pretending, OK? You're going to have to pretend you are boys pretending to be girls. All right? Let's try it."

One of the older girls leaped to her bare feet and, scowling, with her arms tensed before her in a gorilla-pose, barked in a deep voice:

"Look at me, I'm a boy!"

An uncontrollable fit of giggles erupted from the sandbox, and before I could say, "now try to be a boy pretending to be a girl," I noticed one of the little ones had peeled away her tank top and was now bare-chested, save for a plastic necklace.

"I'm a girl," she said happily, busy at work on the button-fly of her shorts.

As far as acting talent went, I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. But maybe that was the point; maybe that was what the Marquis was supposed to feel about his actors, and, by extension, how Weiss felt Sade felt Marat felt about the proletarians…? Whoa. Thinking about stuff like that made me feel high, and I hadn't smoked anything in like… three hours. If I could get through this thing with all of my actors fully clothed, it was really going to be a real statement. This play was going to be great.

The play was going to be terrible. About an hour into the first rehearsal, a major mutiny had begun. Marat was hungry. Roux had to go to the bathroom. One of the chorus had been stung by a bee, and most of the male nurses had wandered off to play on the monkey bars. A litany of complaints assailed me every time the action stopped.

"I'm bored."

"Boredom is counterrevolutionary."

"I'm tired."

"Use it. Chorus, from the top."

"Marat, we're poor and the poor stay poor…" Shoulders drooping, eyes wandering, the sad little chorus lurched drearily into its refrain.

"Uh, Mister Oswald?" Rossignol tugged at my left hand. He was a third grader at the local Waldorf school, whom I'd given a bit part because of an unfortunate tendency to over-act. Even so, he'd assembled a surprisingly accurate Jacobin costume out of his organic-hemp fancy dress costumes.

"Call me Bob, just Bob."

"Mister Bob, one of the Sisters is only wearing her underpants."

Everybody take five.

I am not used to being a part of the working world, so I will put the question to you: how is it that anything ever gets accomplished? As a writer I understand the conceptualization phase, the dream, the plan… but after that, what? How?

Breathe. The humidity rolling in off the lake made the air taste sweet, and my breath smelled like toothpaste and burnt cannabis. Take another breath. Time going by, but nothing achieved. Story of my life. Luckily it was a hot summer and the kids were sweltering; it prevented them from going very far. As I poured over lines with Desseret, Roux got into a screaming match with Marat. This rivalry put to rest, we got in a few minutes of practice, but the chorus, who had all of act I down yesterday, couldn't even go three lines without skipping ahead four scenes. Had they lost it overnight? Was I going crazy? For a while when I was having trouble in school, I thought maybe I should quit smoking so much pot, just to clear up the brain a little. I stopped for three days but it didn't help; it just made me more aware of everything I was messing up, all of the things I didn't know. At least when I was high and I found myself unable to accomplish much at all, I could tell myself it was because I was high. Sober, I can't do anything, and I have no excuse.

And the practices rolled on, a daily accretion of words and rote, robotic movements of little bodies. It became obvious early on that they would never be able to memorize their lines, much less act convincingly as mental patients trying to be actors in a drama about the French Revolution. What do kids know about the French Revolution? What did I know? Wait, how had I gone through high school and a few years of college, and no one ever stopped to explain the French Revolution to me? Or maybe they had, and I just wasn't listening. Just as I'd gone on all my life getting high and writing poems, totally oblivious to my ignorance, I continued to get high and meet with the kids at the playground every day that summer, rehearsing lines, explaining every other word, taking a quick break to burn a J in the bathroom. Maybe I thought it would all just fall together, somehow, the way things are supposed to. But I don't think I ever really thought that at all.

Last practice, and no one could remember where he or she was supposed to stand. Cues were missed, lines dropped, and half the cast disappeared when word got out that somebody's mom was letting everyone jump on the trampoline and then swim in the pool.

Charlotte Corday was angry at Mme. Coulmier and she informed me, tearfully clutching a plush horse, that she would not act alongside her former friend and ex-member of the Unicorn Club. When the Marquis declaimed that he had seen men "tearing at one another's breast," someone in the back of the mob broke into a fit of giggles that quickly became epidemic. In the middle of an especially important speech about the nature of history, Marat tried to stand up and fell out of his bathtub, crashing into Rossignol and sending both of them tumbling to the ground. As they rocked back and forth tearfully, alternately clutching at their knees and flailing their tiny fists at one another, I raised my hand, the official symbol for "all eyes on Director De Sade." Not even one little hand went up in response. The props had been made, the parents had been informed (that the kids were doing a play—no mention of the mystery director), and no one was ready for anything.

"Jesus," I said, softly. And, even softer, under my breath, "Fuck."

Marat immediately jumped to his feet, eyes wide.

"Oooooooooooooooo!" Overwhelmed with shock and joy, unable to say any more, he clapped a chubby hand to his mouth and, with the other, pointed at me, eyes wide. There was a stunned silence, broken, suddenly, by a sharp laugh from none other than Charlotte Corday herself.

"You said a bad word!"

"I did not."

"You did! I heard it!"

"You didn't hear anything."

"You did! You said it!"

The rabble of children hadn't made up its little collective mind. They were milling around, looking at each other, unsure what to do. Straitjacketed Roux leaped to the forefront.

"Hey guys, he said the freakin' 'F' word!"

The crowd considered it, wavered for just an instant, and broke against me.

"You said 'fuck'! You said 'fuck'!"

An amorphous near-circle of gleeful dancers formed quickly, pointing and chanting, flitting in and out of my range as I tried to grab and stifle them. Overpowered in the end, I gave up, biting my lip and letting my head fall to my chest. Something surged within me.

"God damn it! What's wrong with you kids? I'm just like you. I'm not like your parents. I do everything wrong!"

Surprisingly, this seemed to work.

"Look, why the hell do you think I'm out here, instead of working or doing other adult stuff? I mean, I love you guys, but, come on."

Silence. All eyes were on me. The most attention they'd given me yet. If only I could've parlayed it into some kind of serious work on the play. Instead, I just said:

"Go home."

And for a moment, I thought they wouldn't. I thought maybe they'd stay, insist on working on their lines and the choreography and getting everything right. But slowly, one or two of the little actors on the edges of the fray, the bit parts, began to drift away. And the crowd evaporated one by one, just like that. In the end, I thought I was alone, but I felt a little tug on my sleeve.

"It's OK, Mister Bob," said Rossignol. "They don't really know how important this is. They're just kids."


Rossignol looked thoughtful.

"You know, if there had been a part for Danton, he's the one I would've preferred to play. I really admire the skillful way he mediated for both the royalist and revolutionary factions. Some people might say it was just unctuous sycophantic vacillation, but to me it shows character, a man caught between two worlds."

"Yeah," I said, staring off into the distance, trying to look nonchalant as my drug-addled mind furiously attempted to parse what he had just said. "There's a lot of ambiguity when it comes to Danton…"

"Exactly. Mister Bob, I just wanted to let you know…"

Rossignol looked down at his tapered buckle shoes.


"Regardless of how things turn out… It's been an honor to work with you. Really."

I went home that night and got high in my parents' basement, and lay there in bed staring at the ceiling, a little sad and terrified to think about what was going to happen the next day. It was the way I always felt when I thought about the future.

The curtains were drawn. The actors had all arrived. The parents of the neighborhood were arrayed all across the playground's bleachers; I'd specifically instructed the children not to tell anyone what the play was about. The stage had been constructed of stuff we'd found in the garbage, directly atop the softball field. Over the weekend there'd been a softball game and most of it had been thrown out or destroyed. Strangely, this had done nothing to decrease the aesthetic effect of the set.

Everyone had stage fright. Charlotte Corday refused to relinquish her stuffed unicorn, and so it became part of her costume. I told everyone to just do their best, and the curtains went up.

And the play began. Coulmier stood to address the audience but he had fastened his belt incompletely, and his pants fell in a rush of fabric down to his knees. Nonplussed, he continued to recite his lines as he bent and pulled them up. It was only the beginning.

Lines were dropped, picked up a scene or two later, or completely invented afresh. A subplot featuring a battle between ninjas and fairies developed between the Male Nurses and Chorus. The ostensibly somnolent Corday became so upset with her lover Desseret she began to strike at him, with such viciousness that several parents in the front row had to intervene. At one point the Herald stopped to deliver an impromptu dissertation about his cat and which foods tended to cause it to vomit. Every few minutes, Madame Coulmier galloped around the stage on an imaginary horse. And of course the Marquis de Sade was as high as a kite. During the fifteen minute intermission, I quickly smoked four or five spliffs behind a car in the parking lot, and I don't remember much about the second act at all. Maybe it was really, really good.

Finally came the ending, my piece de resistance… I'd rewritten it, a little. As the patients began to riot and Coulmier struggled to close the curtain, I leaped up atop Marat's overturned tub, the pink water trickling out across the asphalt and into the bleachers, and shouted over the bedlam:

"This is how history is carried on; the frenetic, ignorant desires of the individual giving rise to mad, uneven new creations that destroy the old and… re-perpetuate!"

And the children, little voices rising in a unified, cacophonous scream of joy, rushed forward off the stage and into the stands, leaping at their parents… I saw Madame Coulmier land in her father's lap, throwing her arms around his neck… Rossignol's mother stood quickly and managed to catch him as he flung himself toward her… one of the Sisters tore off her shirt as she ran, her leaf-tangled hair streaming like a wild tide behind her… Charlotte Corday strode purposefully and happily through the center of the mob, still clutching her unicorn… Jacques Roux executed a wild spinning jump-kick, which his father expertly blocked, catching him up in strong embrace… and then the curtain closed on the Marquis de Sade, consigning him once again to the emptiness of death, the anonymity of history. Just the way he'd wanted it.

"Really, your father really liked it."

"Oh, come on."

The day after the show, Mom came down to the beach and found me sitting there on the rocks. When I saw her step out of her car, I took a quick long drag on the spliff and shorted it on the back of my shoe. She approached slowly, and sat next to me, staring out at the lake as we talked.

"No, I mean it. And you know he doesn't usually go in for literary stuff…"

"It was hardly literary. I mean, it diverged somewhat substantially from the source text…"

"Bob? Do you have a drug problem?"

"What? Well, I wouldn't call it a problem…"

"All right, that's all I'll say about it. But if you ever need help, you know, your father and I are here."

"Yeah. Thanks. I guess you want me to get another job."

I looked to the side and caught my mother's face in profile; thin, angular, now just slightly puffy around the neck and cheekbones. The hair that she used to wear long now cut short and dyed to cover the gray. Her eyes as pastel blue as ever, so clear as to be unreadable, almost nonexistent. I have blue eyes, too.

"I wish you'd grow your hair long again," I quickly added.

"Well, if you're going to live with us… I know. I'm older now. Than I used to be."

"Mom, do you think I've got talent? Because when I was in school, I thought all you had to do was, like, party and have experiences and everything would fall into place. But now, it's like… I don't know. Think I'll ever make it as a writer?"

She turned to face me and I quickly averted my eyes, an instinct, to keep from revealing the dry, red, stoner stare.

"Do you?"

The lake was dark and deep. The waves were rolling in slowly and everything was drowned out, for a moment, in their steady persistent roar. Then somewhere behind us, deep in the green jungle-grass backyards of suburbia, I thought I could hear children, shouting and laughing.

About the author:

Bob Oswald is a lapsed English major living in Seattle, although he's actually from New York. Interests include literature, cats, children, veganism, and handguns. He's much too anxious to smoke marijuana in real life.

For further reading:

Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 8, No. 3, where "Bob Oswald Stages Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade with a Cast of Elementary School Children and Finally Does Something Right for a Change" ran on November 11, 2008. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short fiction.

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