Many works are called “cultural events.” The term is used rather too freely, in fact. But if by “cultural event” you mean a work different from anything that precedes it, one that invades the public consciousness and leaves an indelible mark, then Peter Weiss’ play—as staged and subsequently filmed by Peter Brook—The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (or Marat/Sade for short) certainly qualifies.
The concept, and even some of the flavor, is in the title itself. During his imprisonment at the titular asylum, the Marquis de Sade did indeed stage dramas with the other inmates. These were endorsed by the asylum director as a form of therapy. The play and the film (which essentially is the play on film) is an imagining of de Sade’s (Patrick Magee) staging of the murder of Marat (Ian Richardson) by Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson). The thrust of the work is that de Sade and the inmates do not present the politically approved version of the play, but one that attacks the present regime (that of Napoleon) with barely disguised contempt. Claims that these are simply depictions of the past are merely sops to the increasingly concerned asylum director Coulmier (Clifford Rose).
It’s essentially an allegorical play within an allegorical play; the point of which is that things have not changed or improved after the revolution. By extension, the work clearly implies that this remains true even in 1963 when Weiss wrote the play, in 1964 when Brook staged it and in 1967 when he filmed it. And today? Well, let’s just say it might have been written yesterday. It’s that fresh and that relevant. Told in rhyme and song, Marat/Sade entertains, informs, moves and horrifies in equal measure. Brook’s decision to keep the play in its single setting doesn’t result in anything stage-bound. With the help of cinematographer David Watkin, the action is kept moving within the confined space. Watching it today, it’s still a cultural event.