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Bastille Day Sade 

A look at liberation through the lens of the Marquis de Sade

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
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It is said that in July 1789 the Marquis de Sade cried out that his fellow inmates were being tortured and killed behind the high walls of the Bastille. Less than two weeks later, rioters stormed the royal penitentiary and set all seven of the Bastille's prisoners free. The marquis was not among them, his transfer to an insane asylum at Chareton having been arranged several days earlier. While Sade's contribution to Bastille Day, which signified if only symbolically the onset of the French Revolution, remains a matter of historic conjecture, his role in literature does not. It is from his name that the term "sadism" is derived, less for his real-life pursuits of abusing prostitutes and serving girls than for his imagined ones of raping and killing men and women at will. Before the marquis was transferred to Chareton, he set some of his fantasies/philosophies to paper: Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, a script in which a failing libertine convinces a priest of the waste and error of piety; 120 Days of Sodom, a novel in which enslaved teenagers are subjected to an array of sexual perversions involving blood, shit, and wine; and Les Infortunes de la vertu, an early version of the infamous novel Justine, in which a young girl who continues to believe in the goodness of God is placed in increasingly vulgar circumstance. In a peculiar way, French society embraced the Marquis de Sade. Despite his aristocratic background, he was elected to political office after the revolution, which didn't slow down his writing of Philosophy in the Boudoir, Juliette, and Crimes of Love. In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the "anonymous" author imprisoned once more. Upon being transferred to Chareton yet again, the marquis began a long-lasting love affair with a 12-year-old girl and was encouraged by the asylum director, Abbe de Coulmier, to stage plays on the premises using inmates as actors. Sade's scandalous theatrical presentations became wildly popular among the French upper class, and his work held sway over subversive French poets and philosophers for years to come. (Notably, the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who lauded the marquis as "the freest spirit that has yet existed"; and the French existentialists, who, like Simone de Beauvoir, praised his philosophy of radical freedom.) But the most direct heir to Sade's twisted creative intellect was the Grand Guignol, a theater in Montmartre, Paris, that specialized in explicit plays, with an emphasis on sex, mutilation, and murder -- usually in that order -- from 1897 to 1962, when the bloom of the modern film industry made shock theater somewhat redundant.

"Grand Guignol is one example of pure theater that most theater historians ignored because it was déclassé," explains UC Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, author of The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror, the first thorough examination of Grand Guignol published in English.


"Pricks, aye pricks, those are my boon companions, unto me they are everything," reads Delfina Hasiwar, her unblemished beauty illuminated by a dim beam from the same flashlight that passes over the coarse words of Sade's Juliette. "I live in the name of nothing but the penis sublime; and when it is not in my cunt, nor in my ass, it is so firmly anchored in my thoughts that the day they dissect me, it will be found in my brain!"

The crowd titters sheepishly under the fading skylight of the San Francisco Performing Arts and Library as another winsome member of Thrillpeddlers -- the Bay Area-based, Guignol-inspired theater troupe responsible for the annual Shocktoberfest -- moves among the elegant bookshelves.

"A barrel of shit was placed in the chamber appointed for pleasures," marvels Lisa Jenai Hernandez, at the beginning of an excrement-filled fantasy from 120 Days of Sodom.

"I remove his garments, aid him to climb in, and the old pig slides down into his element," Hernandez continues gleefully as her loose black hair falls across the pale silk of her slip. "[A] hole has been specially bored for the purpose, and, fifteen seconds after having immersed himself, his prick, almost stiff, pops through the aperture; he orders me to frig it, covered with filth and horrors. I do as I am told; he ducks his head down into the shit, splashes in shit, swallows shit, shouts, discharges, and, clambering out, trots off to immerse himself in a bath."

A few groans mingle with the laughter of the crowd. The two women seated in front of me glance at one another uneasily and shift in their chairs as the Sade readings give way to a staged excerpt from the classic Grand Guignol play Le Marquis de Sade by Charles Méré. Jill Tracy fills the unfortunate shoes of Maxa, Paris' favorite "Priestess of Sin and Horror" and the leading lady of the Grand Guignol, who in this role falls prey to the fiendish marquis, played tonight by Richard Louis James.

The two women seated in front of me leave as soon as Tracy's breasts are cut with a knife the first time, but this is nothing. According to Mel Gordon, Maxa was murdered more than 10,000 times, over the course of her relatively brief career, by 60 torturous techniques.

She kept journals.

"There isn't a spot on my body that hasn't been exposed in spasms of torture and trembled in weird paroxysms," says Tracy in her smoky singer's purr as a picture of the theater where Maxa performed appears on the screen upstage. "I have been shot, burned, poisoned, flogged in the nude, bitten by snakes, dismembered on a butcher's table, strangled, left bleeding to death -- all at the whim of the playwrights."

A poster for the original Le Marquis de Sade illuminates the stage.

"Little by little, these half-insane roles affected me like a potent drug. I became a victim of fiction," says Tracy, unveiling a life seemingly as degraded as the stories that inflamed the Parisian imagination.

"None of the perverted sentiments I had to act out on the stage were strange to me. Not even the sensation of being burned," continues Tracy as the black strap of her slip falls off her porcelain shoulder. "I had become an easy victim for maniacs who like to scorch the soft white flesh of women with glowing cigarettes.

"It was my bad luck that love never was for me a romantic longing."


There are those who speculate that the Grand Guignol filled a void left by the discontinuance of public executions in Europe. Mel Gordon's explanation is simpler.

"Any one of us could go mad and rape and kill," suggests Gordon in his lecture on the French "free body," a concept inspired by the French Revolution and taken to extremes by Sade.

"Grand Guignol didn't work in New York, San Francisco, or Berlin, not because of the sex and violence, but because of the comedy. The comedies interspersed throughout the horror plays attacked the clergy, the political establishment, the medical establishment, the whole power structure. The theater critics hated the comedies."

The crowd laughs.

"I was glad to see this crowd laughing in all the inappropriate places tonight."

Happy belated Bastille Day.

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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