Peter Weiss 1916-1982
(Full name Peter Ulrich Weiss) German-born Swedish dramatist, autobiographer, novelist, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, filmmaker, translator, journalist, and illustrator.
The following entry provides an overview of Weiss's life and works. For additional information on his career, see CLC, Volumes 3, 15, and 51.
Weiss is considered to be among the most important and controversial dramatists to emerge in post-World War II Europe. Throughout his career, he viewed his work as an instrument for self-discovery and political debate. His dramas, autobiographical novels, films, and other artistic endeavors are informed by his lifelong commitment to Marxism, his sense of displacement from society, and the guilt he harbored for having escaped the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.
Weiss was born on November 8, 1916, in Nowawes, an industrial province near Berlin. His father, Eugen Weiss, was a textile manufacturer of Jewish descent who had converted to Christianity; his mother, Frieda Hummel Weiss, was a gentile. They raised their children in the Lutheran church. In 1934 the family moved to England, and, two years later, to Czechoslovakia. Weiss enrolled in the Art Academy in Prague, where one of his paintings was awarded a first prize. At this time he began a correspondence with the novelist Hermann Hesse, whom he viewed as a father figure. Weiss fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 before the Nazi occupation and moved to Sweden, where his parents had permanently settled. Disillusioned by his family's adherence to bourgeois values while most of Europe was under siege, Weiss joined a commune of German-speaking artists and refugees in Stockholm. He exhibited his work in single and group shows and sold one painting to the National Museum. He taught courses in art and film theory, and made a number of short documentary films. In 1944 he married a Swedish painter with whom he had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1947. In 1952 he began to live with Gunilla Palmstierna, an artist who became his collaborator, designing the sets and costumes for his plays. The couple married in 1964. Throughout his life Weiss experienced feelings of isolation and alienation—recurrent themes in his novels and plays—and he underwent psychoanalysis for many years. He was the recipient of many awards for his work, including the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize of the German Academy of Language and Literature, which he received shortly before his death of a heart attack in 1982.
In Weiss's autobiographical novels Abschied von den Eltern (1961; The Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (1962; Vanishing Point), he recounts the alienation and guilt he experienced during his adolescence and his eventual triumph of self-realization, juxtaposing his maturation with the rise of Nazism, World War II, and his family's flight from Germany. Weiss also published three installments of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, a series of novels centering on the artistic and ideological maturation of a young German intellectual. In these works, he draws upon his own experiences to chronicle Europe's turbulent political climate preceding World War II.
Weiss's dramas incorporate the same themes as his fiction. Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (1964; The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, commonly referred to as Marat/Sade) illuminates his pessimistic view of human existence since World War II. Set in an insane asylum and freely mixing dramatic genres, the play revolves around the two protagonists, the Marquis de Sade and the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, who embody for Weiss the dualism of humanity. Marat is the ideological, pre-Marxist intellectual who commits violent acts for the good of society, while Sade symbolizes self-indulgence and mindless anarchy. Marat/Sade won a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best foreign play. Weiss's next major drama, Die Ermittlung (1965; The Investigation), consists of transcribed testimony taken from the Auschwitz War Crimes trial held in Frankfurt in 1964 and 1965. By deliberately omitting the words “Jew,” “Nazi,” and “German” from the text, Weiss implies that the atrocities committed at Auschwitz were universal in nature and that all of humanity should share in their responsibility and guilt. His final dramas focus more on individuals than on historical incidents. Like his previous plays, these pieces are informed by Marxist doctrine. In Trotzki im Exil (1970; Trotsky in Exile), Weiss employs flashbacks to chronicle the life of Leon Trotsky, documenting his role as a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, his ideological differences with Joseph Stalin during the early years of the Soviet Republic followed by his expulsion from Russia, and his murder in Mexico City in 1940.
Weiss is recognized as a significant German dramatist in the post-World War II period and his plays have garnered much critical attention. Commentators discuss the central thematic concerns of his work, such as alienation, the mechanisms of history, and the conflicts between individualism and collectivism, reality and illusion. The influence of such dramatic movements as the Theater of Cruelty and the Theater of the Absurd, as well as the writings of Franz Kafka, André Gide, and Bertolt Brecht, has also been studied by scholars. Critics maintain that Weiss created highly unorthodox plays that are imbued with vivid sensory perceptions intended to shock and assault the sensibilities of his audience. Because the majority of dramas revolve primarily around his Marxist beliefs and his nihilistic vision of postwar society, Weiss's works have sometimes been judged lacking in artistry. Yet his work has been acclaimed for its courage and honesty in exploring sensitive issues such as the Holocaust, the effects of war on society and the individual, and the destructive power of the Nazi regime.
Från ö till ö [published in German as Von Insel zu Insel] (sketches) 1947
De besegrade [published in German as Die Besiegten] (sketches) 1948
Die Versicherung [Insurance] (play) 1952
Duellen [published in German as Das Duell] (novel) 1953
Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers [The Shadow of the Coachman's Body] (novella) 1960
Abschied von den Eltern: Erzählung [The Leavetaking] (novel) 1961
Fluchpunkt: Roman [Vanishing Point] (novel) 1962
Das Gespräch der drei Gehenden [Conversation of the Three Wayfarers] (novella) 1963
Nacht mit Gästen (play) 1963
*Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade: Drama in Zwei Akten [The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade: A Play] (play) 1964
Die Ermittlung: Oratorium in Elf Gesängen [The Investigation] (play) 1965
Diskurs über die Vorgeschichte und den Verlauf des lang andaürnden Befreiungskrieges in Viet Nam als Beispiel für die Notwendigkeit des bewaffneten Kampfes...
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SOURCE: Best, Otto F. “Self-Analysis and Confession: Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.” In Peter Weiss, translated by Ursule Molinaro, pp. 14-23. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976.
[In the following essay, Best examines the novels Leavetaking and Vanishing Point as works of confessional literature.]
Abschied von den Eltern (tr. Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (tr. Vanishing Point) are important contributions to the genre of confessional literature. Both works are marked by the attempt to reconstruct the past in its entirety, to create an “objective” image of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. In the course of the confession events that are in the narrator's past take on shape and form in the present.
In each work a narrator gives an account of the contradictory nature which he discovers within himself and which he considers typical of his world and of his time. The authenticity of subjective frankness characterizes both works. The intensity of experience is controlled by a clear prose style that adheres to the exigencies of strict classical tradition. If Leavetaking is closer to the tradition of Rousseau's Confessions in its combination of self-analysis and truth-telling, Vanishing Point follows the pattern of the formative novel and especially of the novel of development, which...
(The entire section is 3025 words.)
SOURCE: Vance, Kathleen A. “Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers: The Phenomenology of Alienation.” In The Theme of Alienation in the Prose of Peter Weiss, pp. 6-54. Las Vegas, Nev.: Peter Lang, 1981.
[In the following essay, Vance investigates the alienation of the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, concluding that “the degree to which the characters are self-absorbed in their occupations measures the extent to which they are estranged from themselves, from each other, and from the world about them.”]
The central theme of Peter Weiss's narrative, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, is that of alienation. The concern of the novel is with alienation as a phenomenon, that is, with alienation as it is experienced by the characters in relationship to themselves, to one another, and to the world about them. The following study consists of an examination of the characters of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers in order to identify and elucidate the central theme of the novel.
Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers is the description, by the narrator, of life on an isolated farmstead. The narrator lives on the farmstead with the Tailor, the Captain, the Doctor, Herr Schnee, the Housekeeper, the Farmhand, and the family which consists of the Father, Mother, Son, and Infant. The only character in the novel who does not...
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SOURCE: Garner, Stanton B., Jr. “Post-Brechtian Anatomies: Weiss, Bond, and the Politics of Embodiment.” Theatre Journal, no. 2 (May 1990): 145-54.
[In the following essay, Garner considers the influence of Bertolt Brecht on Weiss's work and classifies Weiss's dramas as post-Brechtian.]
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.
—Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”
Marat forget the rest there's nothing else beyond the body
BRECHT, VERFREMDUNG, AND THE SUFFERING BODY
Bertolt Brecht's death in 1956 inaugurated a period in modern political theater whose theoretical and dramaturgical parameters have yet to be defined. It may appear presumptuous to apply the label “post-Brechtian” to a field that contains plays as diverse as Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Churchill's Cloud 9, Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, and Müller's Hamletmachine, but the term does find more than historical justification. Much of the political drama since Brecht's death has been written and performed with his formidable theoretical example in...
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SOURCE: Stephan, Alexander. “The Civil War as Model: Peter Weiss, Spain, and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands.” In German and International Perspectives on the Spanish Civil War: The Aesthetics of Partisanship, edited by Luis Costa, Richard Critchfield, Richard Golsan, and Wulf Koepke, pp. 477-89. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992.
[In the following essay, Stephan asserts that Weiss's treatment of the Spanish Civil War in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands allows him to explore “the two central themes that have determined his life and writings for years: the possibilities and limits of resistance to violence, and the difficulty in portraying this resistance.”]
Much has been written about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, especially by those authors that the Nazis had driven out of Austria and Germany after 1933. Alfred Kantorowicz, himself a veteran of the war and a writer, reckons the number of titles at more than a thousand.1 The forms used vary from the combat unit diary to eyewitness accounts from the thick of the front, from narratives to poems, from stage plays such as Brecht's Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar to novels such as Bodo Uhse's Leutnant Bertram, from contemporary documents in the style of Arthur Koestler's exposé Menschenopfer unerhört documentary to reportage such as Ludwig Renn's Im spanischen Krieg, which had to be revised a number...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Robert. “Early Texts.” In Understanding Peter Weiss, pp. 21-39., Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Cohen offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Weiss's early work.]
Peter Weiss's early life is defined by everything it lacked: familial warmth, friendship, a home country, a language, success, and a future. It was a life of exile and isolation, in London, Varnsdorf, and Alingsås, where the young painter led his attic-room existence. It was a nearly autistic life, an ivory tower existence. This early experience of barely existing, of being dead to the real world, is the theme of Weiss's earliest work published to date, where it appears turned on its head, as its title implies: “Traktat von der ausgestorbenen Welt” (“Treatise about the Died-Out World”). It was written in 1938-39, during the period when the twenty-two-year-old spent his second summer in the southern Swiss region of Ticino, near the revered master Hermann Hesse. It was the time when his parents fled from Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, which had just been annexed by fascist Germany, to Sweden, where Weiss was about to join them.
“TRAKTAT VON DER AUSGESTORBENEN WELT”
The world through which Peter Weiss traveled from Switzerland across Germany to Sweden was anything but “died-out”: Rather, it was filled with refugees not...
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SOURCE: Garloff, Katia. “Peter Weiss's Entry into the German Public Sphere: On Diaspora, Language, and the Uses of Distance.” Colloquia Germanica 30, no. 1 (1997): 43-67.
[In the following essay, Garloff discusses the issues of exile and diaspora in Weiss's work.]
Bin inzwischen zu einem ‘deutschsprachigen Autor’ geworden. Sitze in Stockholm, mit dem Blick auf Söderns Anhöhen, auf den Turm des Maria-Fahrstuhls, am Zeichentisch, an dem ich vor ein paar Jahren noch meine Filme entworfen, meine Collagen hergestellt hatte, und schreibe in der Sprache, die ich als Kind lernte und als 17jähriger verlor—1
Written in 1961, these sentences capture a crucial moment in Peter Weiss's literary career, the moment when he became a German-language author. Weiss had, in fact, written in German before, but it was only after the publication of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers in 19602 that he gained that public recognition as a “‘deutschsprachigen Autor’” to which he refers here, as his use of quotation marks suggests, with some uneasiness. At first glance, the success of Der Schatten ended Weiss's tenuous existence as a displaced, or more accurately placeless, artist. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who had converted to Protestantism after his wedding, Weiss left Nazi Germany with his family...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Robert. “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature: Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Its Critics.”1History & Memory 10, no. 2 (1998): 43-67.
[In the following essay, Cohen examines the critical reaction to The Investigation and elucidates the central themes of the play.]
In the mid-1990s a critic referred to The Investigation (Die Ermittlung, 1965), Peter Weiss's play about Auschwitz and Nazi mass extermination, as one of those rare literary works able to overcome the “confusion, silence, and despair” produced by the “naked testimony” of witnesses at Holocaust trials. Lawrence Langer, whose words are quoted here, should know. He himself had for a few days attended the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial which lasted from the end of 1963 through the summer of 1965 and on which The Investigation is based. In his article Langer holds that “Weiss lowers the barriers of the unimaginable” and “gradually narrows the space separating the imagination from the camp.” The play, in Langer's congenial interpretation, crosses a border which prevailing views on representations of the Holocaust consider to be nearly impassable: it allows the imagination to be “drawn into the landscape of Auschwitz,” it transforms the “literal truth” of the witnesses' testimonies into the “imagined truth of Auschwitz.”2
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SOURCE: Berghahn, Klaus L. “‘Our Auschwitz’: Peter Weiss's The Investigation Thirty Years Later.” In Rethinking Peter Weiss, edited by Jost Hermand and Marc Silberman, pp. 93-118. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
[In the following essay, Berghahn regards The Investigation as “one of the best representations of the Holocaust for the stage” and chronicles the critical controversy surrounding the play.]
A living man has come and what happened here hides itself from him.1
My reflections on Peter Weiss are tinged with the subjective memories of how I received the message of the Holocaust. As was typical for my generation, I heard nothing about it in high school. The Holocaust was the best kept secret of postwar Germany until the German translation of The Diary of Anne Frank was published in 1955. I saw the theater production in 1956 and read the book afterwards, but the full extent of the Holocaust was still shrouded in mystery. This changed at the beginning of the sixties, when I read Hannah Arendt's report Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), when I saw Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy (1963), and when I followed the heated debate about Pope Pius XII's indifference toward the suffering of the Jews. Finally, Peter Weiss's documentary drama The Investigation opened my eyes to...
(The entire section is 9341 words.)
Best, Otto F. Peter Weiss, translated by Ursule Molinaro, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976, 150 p.
Offers a thematic and stylistic examination of Weiss's major works.
Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993, 206 p.
Full-length critical analysis.
Jost, Hermand and Marc Silberman, eds. Rethinking Peter Weiss, New York: Peter Lang, 2000, 199 p.
Collection of critical essays.
Pakendorf, Gunther. “‘I Have Arrived Twenty Years Too Late’: The Intertext of Peter Weiss' Investigation into Auschwitz.” Acta Germanica 23 (1995): 69-78.
Underscores the theme of the search for identity in The Investigation.
Vance, Kathleen A. The Theme of Alienation in the Prose of Peter Weiss, Las Vegas, Nev.: Peter Lang, 1981, 228 p.
Delineates the theme of alienation in Weiss's work.
Additional coverage of Weiss's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48, 106; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 15, 51; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 69, 124; DISCovering...
(The entire section is 181 words.)