Simply because of the tendentious nature of most of what he wrote, Peter Weiss will always remain a controversial figure in the history of German letters. Although hailed by some in the 1960’s as a second Bertolt Brecht, he was seen by others as essentially derivative and as an offensively blatant disseminator of Marxist propaganda. Value judgments aside, however, it must be acknowledged that Weiss was an inventive playwright, except, perhaps in his documentary pieces. He burst onto the German dramatic scene with the premiere of Marat/Sade in West Berlin’s Schiller Theater on April 29, 1964, and the play was, overall, enthusiastically received. It remained popular for several years and was even filmed in 1967.
Weiss’s subsequent documentary phase, which mirrored explicitly his “final conversion” to Marxist theory and socialist systems (announced by Weiss in Swedish and German newspapers in 1965), drew less and less critical attention as his works grew more strident. Although many had sensed in Marat/Sade a dramatist who would take his genre in new directions, these hopes were soon dampened by Weiss’s docudramas, which seemed simply patterned after the sociopolitical avant-grade theater of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Weiss was nevertheless very popular in Eastern Bloc countries, at least until he revised somewhat his political opinions as a result of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. With Hölderlin, Weiss returned to a more creative concept of drama, but he devoted the decade from 1970 to 1980 almost exclusively to epic concerns. The New Trial, a dramatization of Franz Kafka’s novel Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), premiered in Stockholm a few weeks before Weiss’s death. Weiss received numerous literary awards, among which were the Lessing Prize in 1965 and the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1966.