Mishima Yukio (the pen name Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) probably remains the most famous of modern Japanese writers in the west, though more for his grotesque suicide than for his writings. Given his very public interest in making his own life a series of performances with more than a little sadomasochism in evidence, most notably in the identification of the protagonist in the autobiographical novel Confessions of the Mask being entranced by Reni’s painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the pose from which he had himself photographed, and the movie Yukoku/”Patriotism” that he adapted from his own novella and in which he played the solider who commits seppuku.
1965 audiences of Mishima’s play Sado Kōshaku Fujin, translated by Donald Keene as “Madame de Sade,” either in Tokyo or New York likely had more than an inkling of a personal interest by Mishima in sadomasochism. Perversely (though less so than it might at first seem), Mishima’s play is to a considerable extent “about” Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740 -1814) without his ever appearing on stage. His in-laws, at least two of whom are onstage at any time, call him “Alphonse,” which is also the name by which the pious Baronesse de Simiane remembers him (as a sweet, golden-haired lad).
Mishima was generally one for telling rather than showing (well, with the exception of “Patriotism”!). The outrages against morality Alphonse committed with rented bodies (servants and prostitutes) and on the page (writing the novel Justine) are related, mostly by his wife, whose most memorable line is that if her husband “is “a monster of immorality, I must be a monster of devotion.”
Experiencing the play now, I can’t put Mishima’s widow Sugiyama Yoko, whom he married to please his mother, was also a monster of devotion. She kept “Patriotism” for being showed for decades after Mishima’s seppuku, and managed to keep Paul Schrader’s movie “Mishima” banned in Japan, and did everything she could to prevent any mention of her husband’s homosexuality (perhaps the least of his kinkiness).
His character Renée, Marquise de Sade, is not the one bent on sanitizing her husband’s notoriety. Rather it is her mother, Madame de Montréal, who attempts that. Renée protects the manuscript of Justine, written in prison. She stands by her husband while he is jailed, which was most of the time between 1773 and 1790, with the last year in the insane asylum of Charenton after the Bastille was stormed. He twice escaped, one time with his sister-in-law, Anne. Anne is an advocate of living in the moment and says that if she ever needs memories, she will make some up.
Renée is loyal to memories of her husband as tender (as Mishima seems to have been to his wife, living his S&M fantasies away from home) and is even more at odds with her mother than with her sister. So long as Alphonse is in prison, Renée does everything she can to visit him, take him food, and safeguard his writings.
Madame de Montreuil wants to keep her son-in-law locked up, where he can instigate no further scandals… and her daughter can monopolize his affections. Freedom is a major issue in the very talky play. Renée wants him physically free, her mother wants him protected from the consequences of his fantasies—along with not having the family name/honor further besmirched.
The managing others aspect reminds me of Les liaisons dangereuses, though, as translator Donald Keene recalled, “Mishima was fascinated by the theatre of Racine and wanted to explore the idea of the long speech, where the off-stage action is hinted at or described by another person. To make this sound lively in English and not just a series of recitations, I had to work hard to get the words sounding just right.”
The text runs more than a hundred pages with many very long speeches (arias) and not much white space. Speaking the lines takes nearly three hours, though apparently the staging in London this past winter with Dame Judi Dench as Madame de Montreuil and Rosamunde Pike in the title role was exhilarating and the whole five-week run sold out. Earlier, a staging by Ingmar Bergman was a success d’estime (in Swedish in New York, with Keene’s English translation in headphones!).
The play lacks action and lacks male parts (though the Marquis is talked about a great deal). In writing about Sade, Simone de Beauvoir asked, “Must we burn Sade?” Her answer was fairly similar to Renée’s. The imperious (mother knows best) Madame de Montreuil holds her own as an advocate of preventive detention of a man determined to break all bonds of convention, and there are juicy parts for (invented) representatives of flouting conventional (the Comtesse de and Catholic orthodoxy (the Baronesse de Simine).
Mishima was intrigued that the marquise was devoted while the marquis was jailed and refused to meet him once he was released (and her mother considered him “in with” the new regime that had released him, so potentially useful to her survival…)
I wish I could have seen Dench and Pike duel about their concerns. One may hear them and other cast members talk about the parts and story on youtube at
(Since first I read the play, I have been to LaCoste, so can better picture where the marquis and marquise were at home.)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
Also see my discussion of the all-male cast of “My Friend Hitler,” which seems to me about delusions rather than about freedom. Mishima thought both showed “the impossibility of eroticism.”