Madame De Sade is a play in which nothing happens - three times over. Three acts where the real action - the Marquis' orgiastic whipping frenzies and bloody splatter-fests - are only divulged with keening pathos by M. de Sade (Rosamund Pike) and with coquettish exuberance by the Contesse de Saint-Foid (Frances Barber). The juicy stuff happens off-stage. Which is a pity.
The play's main protagonists invert the usual moral frame - where the Marquis's brutal sexual transgressions are held in holy esteem by his wife, sister-in-law and de Saint-Foid (a kind of 18th Century whipped up Jilly Cooper), while his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreil (Judi Dench) doggedly tries to protect her daughters from the tsunami of sexual violence and scandal. Yet she alone becomes mired with the play's true moral repugnance by prolonging the Marquis's imprisonment through her own duplicity. She is the only one deserving our disgust apparently.
Of course, this unholy tale is spun against the backdrop of revolutionary France, where the ancien regime is crumbling under the weight of its corruption and vanity like a vertiginous powdered wig encrusted with acres of lice-riddled lard. The implication being that the Marquis's transgressions are so abhorrent to the social order as his gloves-off brutality holds an unshaking mirror to the order's own corruption. It's a neat trick and one Freud would call 'projection'.
But Madame de Sade isn't a good play. Not enough happens and there's far too much declamation, like a long-winded speech night at the Women's Institute. But, it is a very interesting cultural artifact. Written in 1965 just before the emergence of the gay liberation movement, by the troubled and sexually repressed gay Japanese artist, Yukio Mishima, the play bubbles with the thrill of transgression. A society which 'projects' its anxiety, horror, disgust and violence into the body of a polymorphously perverse libertine writer, De Sade must have felt uncannily familiar for Mishima, who committed ritual suicide in 1970.
Madame de Sade is a part of a glorious, glittering, and now, mostly defunct, pantheon of gay literature where the prostitute, outlaw, thief and murderer are transformed into figures of reverence. I'm especially thinking of the work of Jean Genet, Joe Orton and John Rechy. Their idea of celebrating the outsider -wearing the hurled abuse of straight society as a crown of glory was an important, and necessary step to sexual emancipation. It may seem tired and hackneyed now, but it really was revolutionary then.