Peter Weiss Essay - Critical Essays


Peter Weiss once said that every written word is a political statement, and he always insisted on being regarded as a “political” writer. In defining exactly what this meant, Weiss was fond of quoting the expressionist Ernst Toller, who wrote that “the basic prerequisite of the political writer is to feel responsible for himself and every one of his brethren in the human community.” Throughout his career as a writer, this sense of commitment and engagement remained a constant for Weiss. Obvious in all but his earliest writings is an involvement with political and social events, a collective concern expressed in the confrontation of ideological prototypes, of oppressors versus oppressed, of good against evil, of statement and dialectically modifying counterstatement. Manifest in Weiss’s literary art is not only this political sensitivity but also an aesthetic one, a clear feeling for the means of communication, for the visual and graphic possibilities of a creative and forceful employment of words. The problem with such didactic political writing, however, is that it is easier to write interesting dramatic fare about individual conflicts than about the issues underlying political and economic world events. A related pitfall is that didactic writing can easily degenerate into dogmatic preaching that fails to allow its audience the freedom to arrive at an autonomous decision regarding the matter at hand. This charge has often been leveled against Weiss’s documentary dramatic pieces.

Early Plays

Although not his first effort, Marat/Sade was Weiss’s stage breakthrough, the piece that vaulted him to immediate international fame. Its three dramatic predecessors have never become popular and remain relatively unknown. The Tower was written in 1948 but was not staged until 1967. The work is a heavily symbolic psychological allegory about an escape artist who longs for but fears freedom. Die Versicherung, written in 1952 and produced in 1966, but not produced in Germany until 1969, is a surrealistic critique of bourgeois customs and standards. Night with Guests, staged in the Berlin Schiller Theater in 1963, is another one-act allegory based on the interplay of light and darkness. The play’s gruesome fairy-tale atmosphere is reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, and the use of doggerel underscores this impression. The characters in the play act in a rigid, stylized manner, even as they murder one another with rhythmic exclamations.


It was in this same theater, one year later, however, that Weiss’s Marat/Sade was performed. Not the least imposing aspect of this work is its full title: 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. Although not intended to be a historical or factual documentary, this two-act, baroquely titled work is indeed a play about historical events and their twentieth century implications.

The historical setting for the play is the insane asylum at Charenton, France, on July 13, 1808. In essence, the drama is a play-within-a-play, as the historical director of the Charenton Asylum, M. Coulmier, did in fact frequently allow his inmates to perform plays for therapeutic reasons. Beyond this, he even invited the dignitaries of Parisian society to view these performances for their entertainment. The play-within-a-play is a work under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, who actually was an inmate at Charenton. This fictional play (which the historical marquis did not write) dramatizes the bathtub murder of Jean-Paul Marat, whose assassination had taken place some fifteen years earlier.

The plot of Sade’s play deals with the murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday, a young woman who was greatly disturbed by the heavy toll of bloodshed that the French Revolution was exacting under the left-wing rule of the Jacobins. By killing Marat, she attempted to put a stop to the bloodshed. The real meat of the play, however, is not as much the murder of Marat as it is the latter’s ideological confrontation with the Marquis de Sade, who uses the play to stage an imaginary debate about the Revolution with an imaginary Marat. The debate is witnessed by M. Coulmier and his family, who are sitting on an elevated dais and who are the inner play’s audience. As such, they possess an affinity to the outer play’s audience—those in the theater itself, who are, by implication, asked to judge the winner of the Marat-Sade debate.

The philosophical-political confrontation of the two men is a clash of polar opposites, of radical social commitment and collective anarchism (Marat) versus extreme individualism, disillusionment with reality, and the desire to be left alone with private illusions (Sade). The two debate the nature of life and death, of justice and revolution, with Marat emerging as a precursor of Marx, and Sade as a pre-Freudian who is convinced that humankind is inherently selfish and incapable of establishing a society based on equality. A third position is espoused by Charlotte Corday and her Girondist lover, Duperret, who share the goals of Marat but who reject his methods. They idealistically desire freedom and equality but find bloodshed intolerable.

In the end, however, all positions seem to be canceled out because the play terminates in a most ambiguous manner. The asylum inmates surge forward in a violent outbreak, shouting senselessly as one of them screams, “When will you learn to take sides?” As the curtain falls, the marquis laughs cynically at the entire scene. Weiss does not take sides with this ending. The viewer is left with three positions, all of which have exponents in the play: the Marat thesis, which insists that violence is necessarily part of lasting social change because the empowered will never willingly divest themselves for the sake of the powerless; the Sade contention, which states that revolution and political violence simply serve as an outlet for base and dangerous human impulses, and that humankind is incapable of attaining the chimera of the classless society; and the third position, which acknowledges the human weakness described in the Sade...

(The entire section is 2560 words.)