Marat/Sade Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Peter Weiss’s brilliantly theatrical Marat/Sade, while exciting as entertainment, perhaps falls short of dramatic greatness. He has failed to harmonize the disjunctive traditions of Brechtian detachment with Artaudian illusionism, of astringent rationalism with delirious absurdism. His defects stem from an excessive fertility, however, rather than poverty of talent.

Many critics believe that Weiss’s subsequent plays indicate a decline in creative tension and skills. In Die Ermittlung (pr., pb. 1965; The Investigation, 1966), he wrote an oratorio based on the proceedings of the Auschwitz War Crimes Trial of 1964. Here he attempted to make documentary accuracy substitute for freely ranging dramatic imagination. The same polemical and ideological overkill constrains the effect of Gesang vom Lusitanischen Popanz (pb. 1966; Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, 1970) about Portugal’s suppression of the Angolan uprising in 1961, and of Viet Nam Diskurs (pb. 1967; Vietnam Discourse, 1970), which depicts Vietnam’s struggle for freedom from 500 b.c.e.to the present, with the United States predictably cast as the chief villain. In 1970 he wrote another propaganda play, Trotzki im Exil (pr., pb. 1970; Trotsky in Exile, 1971), a historical collage, drawn along narrow party-line ideology, of Leon Trotsky’s stormy career.

Weiss thus insisted on straitjacketing himself within a slavishly Brechtian ideology, but without the saving grace of his model’s ambivalence, irony, and wit. He stifled what may have been his true metier—absurdist drama in the vein of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco—and suppressed his Pirandellian bent for skeptical relativism. Marat/Sade announced a dramatist of major gifts, but many think that Weiss never used them fully.