Weiss, Peter (Vol. 15)
Weiss, Peter 1916–
German-born playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and translator, Weiss left Germany during the Nazi regime. He resides in Sweden but continues to feel a sense of exile. The positive critical acclaim received by his play Marat/Sade was the high point of his career. Criticism was less favorable in response to the Marxist political stance of his later documentary dramas. Many critics claimed that his interpretations of such subjects as colonialism in Angola, Vietnamese history, and the Auschwitz trials were weakened by the lack of narrative tension and credible characterization. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48, rev. ed.)
[Because I'm] isolated, not belonging to any country, any city and any language—I have to find a place where I can just be alive as much as possible. And this, I think, the theatre stage makes possible, because there everything immediately is alive. If I write a book, I still sit in my room and it's an expression of my isolation and of the feeling that I don't belong to anybody. But as soon as it's on the stage I feel alive….
I don't think it's enough just to write, and it's not enough to write my individual stuff. I think it's absolutely necessary to write with the point of trying to influence or to change society. (p. 18)
[Marat/Sade] is very personal. On one side, I'm the individual who thinks it's hopeless to change anything in society, that we can't do anything and its just like hell anyhow; whatever we do is just doomed to be a disaster. That's the point of Sade. He says: "Well, I do my art and do it as well as I can, and I don't bother what's going to happen around me." And then there is the other point of view: we are in between other people and we want to change something, our lives and perhaps the lives of the others too; that's the point of the socialist and of Marat. And those two absolutely different points of view, they always get together and try to find some solution. (p. 19)
Personally, of course, I am for Marat because I think the things he says are the right things to...
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A play of high caliber has finally ended [the postwar sterility of German Theater]. Time for unreserved applause arrived in May 1964 with the Berlin premiere of Peter Weiss' [Marat/Sade]. (p. 163)
Critics found themselves praising an author hardly expected to father the new masterwork of the German stage. They considered Peter Weiss a novelist….
The autobiographical novels Leavetaking and Flight-point had rendered in a calm, easy-flowing prose an individual's stormy un-shelling from society, family, and guilt-feelings, an exhausting tearing-loose from what is both wanted and rejected, as affiliation and chain, home base and prison…. What Weiss' novels of formation (Entwicklungsromane) describe realistically is also the core of "The Tower", his 1948 radio play. "The Tower" delineates Weiss' Huis Clos: family, fellow artists, and society are a circus in a tower—here the young and the animal are trained and will be enslaved unless they break away. The protagonists of the novels, like Pablo of "The Tower", struggle to come to terms with the narrowness of such a tower-prison and of its inhabitants, and finally escape. Yet, there is one further step, beyond flight, developed more fully in the compressed and parabolic existentialist radio play: To achieve complete individuation, and to be a stranger no longer, Pablo, the "jail breaker" and "escape artist", in turn relinquishes his freedom by...
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Theatricality and insanity—the two most potent subjects of the contemporary theater—are brilliantly fused in Peter Weiss' play, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade…. (p. 163)
It is through its depiction of theatricality and insanity that Weiss' play is also a play of ideas. The heart of the play is a running debate between Sade, in his chair, and Marat, in his bath, on the meaning of the French Revolution, that is, on the psychological and political premises of modern history, but seen through a very modern sensibility, one equipped with the hindsight afforded by the Nazi concentration camps. But Marat/Sade does not lend itself to being formulated as a particular theory about modern experience. Weiss' play seems to be more about the range of sensibility that concerns itself with, or is at stake in, the modern experience, than it is about an argument or an interpretation of that experience. Weiss does not present ideas as much as he immerses his audience in them. Intellectual debate is the material of the play, but it is not its subject or its end…. (p. 165)
Weiss' play cannot be treated like an argument of Arthur Miller, or even of Brecht. We have to do here with a kind of theater as different from these as Antonioni and Godard are from Eisenstein. Weiss' play contains an argument, or rather...
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Franz P. Haberl
Unlike Weiss's earlier plays (including Marat/Sade … which were either totally or partially imaginative, his latest dramatic works are "documentary dramas" based exclusively on factual reality. Weiss describes his new medium as a "theater of reportage" which "refrains from any sort of invention. It takes authentic material and mirrors it from the stage, unchanged in content, [but selected and] adapted in form."… Weiss wants to inform his audiences about the causes of the most important events which shape their lives and about the connections between these events. He believes that the general public cannot or should not form political opinions on the basis of the inadequate information provided by the mass media which are controlled by "groups which have an interest in a policy of obfuscation and concealment."… Weiss envisages his documentary theater as an "instrument for the formation of political opinions."
Weiss realizes that the question of dramatic effectiveness is the touchstone of such a theater and he cautions against turning the stage into a political forum without regard for artistic achievement…. His documentary dramas do not present individual conflicts, but struggles between opposing socio-economic forces. "Authentic persons" appear on the stage, not in their own right, but as representatives of certain social interest groups…. Most spectators will readily understand Weiss's explanation of the economic and...
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To my mind there is a strong element of spurious arrogance, of pretentiousness and slickness in everything Peter Weiss has written for and thought about the theatre. His psychological alienation seems to have strengthened his artistic self-confidence. He is nothing if not original, seemingly unconcerned about traditional forms and genres and yet cleverly drawing from the treasure house of European literary traditions. The main fascination of his writing lies in its masterly ability to fuse and blur distinctions and oppositions. In the prose works this manifested itself as a fusion of acutely objective descriptions of events and emotional states with an abundance of private fantasies; in the plays as a curious blend of primitive and sophisticated formal elements which resulted in a dramatic collage rather than in an organically developed dramatic form. The only external unity of the collage is an acknowledged debt to Dante (who, after Hesse and Kafka, is a major influence in Peter Weiss' work): a numerical pattern of eleven divisions (cantos!), each subdivided by three, first introduced in Marat/Sade and kept up for all the following plays. This seems to be more a disciplinary framework for the writer than an immediately discernible structural principle for the spectator…. [Somehow, Weiss] manages to impress the stamp of originality on everything he writes. Is it that he has genuinely rethought from scratch, as he claims, the function and shape...
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Sidney F. Parham
The stereoscopic vision of [Marat/Sade] … enables the modern spectator to see 1793 and 1808 simultaneously…. Our interpretation of history is determined by the politics prevailing in our time. Weiss, then, attempts to define both the object viewed and the standpoint from which it is viewed. The effect of this is Brechtian Verfremdung—one cannot give oneself up to the events of the play. Rather, one is forced to watch the relationship between the two time schemes, and whatever meaning one finds in this play is conditioned by one's understanding of this stereometric sense of time.
But can we really talk about the "meaning" of Marat/Sade? Is it a play about politics or a play about madness? Directors have created coherent, popular productions from both assumptions. My title deliberately recalls R. D. Laing's book of 1967, The Politics of Experience. I believe that Laing's "existential psychology" might provide a method for looking at this play and resolving some of its contradictions. The publication date of Politics rules out any direct influence, and indeed my argument is not that there is direct influence but that the psychological insights of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and of Laing will help to resolve the contradictions between madness and politics that we find in the play.
Laing is an existentialist by the simplest and most direct of Sartre's definitions, "Existence...
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