Study Guide

Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss Essay - Weiss, Peter (Vol. 15)

Weiss, Peter (Vol. 15)

Introduction

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.)

Biography

[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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Hans-Bernhard Moeller

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 voluntarily returning to the tower. In this way only can he settle with his past and acquire his real name, Pablo, instead of "Niente" (nothing).

While integrity and integration of the individual predominates in the preceding creations, the unifying structure of a protagonist's personality is abolished in the two experimental novels, The Shadow of the Coachman's Body and The Conversation of the Three Walking Men. Both recall Weiss' own description of Strindberg's concept of man: a collage in flux rather than a unified character. Both novels dispense with the traditional plot. (p. 164)

[This] experimental, vanguard aspect is also remarkable in the Marat play, and seems to have prompted its enthusiastic reception….

Marat, however, includes no one dependency [on form]: from pantomime to alienation, from the play about time (Wilder) to that of traumatic memory, from the feverish Expressionist outcry to the Theater of the Absurd, from the medieval Dance of Death to the political revue. This spectrum proves that the author has sovereign command of the stylistic achievements of past drama, which he integrated and unified in a novel way. (p. 165)

Basically, the architecture of the play combines a philosophical discourse and a sequence of semi-historical scenes from the French Revolution illustrating the philosophical argument. The setting is an asylum's therapeutic bath. As in Duerrenmatt's The Physicists, the world takes on the face of a mental institution. And Weiss expresses quite clearly that he means our world; firstly by using figures and events from actual history; secondly, by styling in his two opposed protagonists typical exponents of the Western personality. (p. 166)

[The complete] baroque title divides the weight among three separate, but equal elements, which constantly interlace: "The Persecution and Assassination of Marat"—this is the semi-historical stratum; "Performed by the Inmates of Charenton"—this the play in the play; and "Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade"—this the layer of consciousness.

The structure of the play within a play...

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Susan Sontag

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 it employs the material of intellectual debate and historical reevaluation (the nature of human nature, the betrayal of the Revolution, etc.). But Weiss' play is only secondarily an argument. There is another use of...

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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 political factors and will side with the oppressed against the oppressors. However, the mere recital of facts and figures, no matter how pertinent and shocking, will not sustain the spectator's interest for two or three hours, or produce the emotional effect without which drama cannot exist. Weiss effects the necessary emotional involvement—without sacrificing deliberation and reflection—by alternately presenting individual fates and general statements. (p. 358)

Gesang vom Lusitanischen...

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Gertrud Mander

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...

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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...

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