One of my all time favorite pieces of theater is the Peter Weiss musical play “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.” a title which stubbornly but appropriately will not fit on any theater marquee so it’s usually called simply Marat/Sade. It is a play within a play, rather a play about an imaginary play which was supposedly performed by the inmates of an insane asylum in the suburbs of Paris shortly after the French Revolution. One of the themes of this grisly farce is that conditions After the Revolution are much the same as they were Before the Revolution save for thousands of heads in baskets. This is the sad fate of most revolutions. After a frenzy of catharsis, revenge and changes in nomenclature, the same conditions persist, driven by human nature and the indelible fact that some people are dominant while others are submissive, some are generous, others greedy, some are smart and others are stupid, some will inevitably rule and the rest will be ruled. Our American Revolution was a lucky fluke as revolutions go. There was a good, clean outcome and a fresh start was possible for the new republic on a virgin continent full of resources and possibilities. Most revolutions don’t enjoy these perfect hot-house conditions and more resemble the Second American Revolution which we call the Civil War, or the Russian or the French or Chinese revolutions where reaction to terror and chaos resulted in regimes equally as autocratic and repressive as the ones that were overthrown and after all the crying was done, the same social problems existed which caused the revolution in the first place only under different management.
Any autocrat can tell you that revolutions are usually the work of a restless or unruly middle class. Peasant revolts are easy to quell, just give them more bread and circuses and hire more police. But when a middle class arises and you have millions of over-educated, under-employed people rattling around who can read and write troublesome literature and organize themselves against you, this causes a tyrant to toss in his bed. Egypt is used to tyrants after about 3,000 years of them. Back in the Day, a pharaoh could scratch an X in the sand and say, “Give me a pyramid, right here.” But that was before the internet. Now the Israelites can go to Moses.com. and download the marching orders to their iPads which are ever so much lighter and handier than those old stone tablets.
Now we see a veritable orgy of revolutions taking place in the various monarchies and military dictatorships with which we’ve happily done business for the past half-century or so, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen are all joining in. Before the left-over neo-cons from the Bush era start slapping their chests and proclaiming that their prophesies about democracy breaking out in the Middle East like a glorious disease because of our invasion of Iraq are coming true, this student of history and revolution begs a little time for reflection.
Consider for a moment, the fact that elections are simply ritualized revolutions. They are ways that we, as civilized people, have found to deal with class rivalry in the same way that we use sports events to channel the natural rivalry between schools, cities and countries. Watching the wall-to-wall cable coverage of the Egyptian uprising cannot help but remind me of other mass events like unruly soccer games and the Altamont Rock Concert and the ’68 Chicago Riots at which I was present. Revolution is 90 per cent theater. All mass events are spectacle, which is a form of theater and this brings us back to Marat/Sade. The play-within-the-play portrays the much-embellished but true story of Marat, the radical pamphleteer of the Revolution, who was stabbed in his bath by the young, idealistic country girl, Charlotte Corday. You’ve seen it depicted in David’s famous painting. Corday is portrayed by a narcoleptic inmate who keeps falling asleep before she can consummate the act of assassinating the author of The Terror. In revolutionary myth, Corday represents the disappointed hopes of the naive masses. All they had wanted when they took to the streets of Paris was liberty, equality and fraternity served with a crust of bread, much like their modern comrades in Cairo, and what they ended with after thousands of heads had rolled was a more efficient despot than the one they had beheaded. The incipient revolutions that we see in the Mid East are in the first naive stages. The Poet’s Eye hopes that they will sustain and not be as ephemeral as the sliding pages of Facebook.
The first test will be whether the simple decapitation of the entrenched military bureaucracy by deleting Mubarak will suffice to correct the demonstrator’s complaints. My guess from superficial observation is that the oligarchs who now rule will likely remain in power with the help of a few cosmetic changes and re-branding of the dictatorship. No amount of tweets will be able to repair the rotten timbers of a corrupt system. I’m sorry, but 140 characters is just not enough to define a revolution. Getting the attention of the regime and the rest of the world is only the first step of a revolution. The following steps are less glorious and successively more painful.
One remarkable thing about the Egyptian uprising is the seeming absence of a dominant leader. At least from the vantage point of the world news media, no charismatic or symbolic figure has emerged to act as spokesman for the very evident popular movement. No Marat or Robespierre is in view, If crowds the size of the ones in Cairo appeared anywhere in America, every spokes-type from Glenn Beck to Al Sharpton would be breaking out their bullhorns and trying to jump in front of the march. There doesn’t seem to be any group or faction or party providing a focal point or philosophy for the general uprising. If nature abhors a vacuum, politics hates it even more. Someone will step to the front in Egypt. We can only hope that the person will be a benign genius dedicated to the prosperity of his country rather than the dominance of his click or clan. I recommend a poet. But more likely there is a young Egyptian artillery officer gazing across the Suez Canal right now with a Napoleonic gleam in his eye.
What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?
String up every aristocrat
Out with the priests and let then live on their fat
Four years after we started fighting
Marat keeps up with his writing
Four years after the bastille fell
He still recalls the old battle yell
“Down with all of the ruling class
Throw all the generals out on their ass”
Marat we’re poor
And the poor stay poor
Marat don’t make us wait any more
We want our rights and we don’t care how
We want a revolution
—inmate chorus, Marat/Sade