Peter Weiss

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Peter Ulrich Weiss (vis) is considered one of the most prominent playwrights and novelists of the German postwar era. Born in a suburb of Berlin to a Jewish family on November 8, 1916, he originally wanted to be a painter. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930’s, Weiss’s family emigrated to England, and he then studied for several years at the art academy in Prague. He then finally moved to Sweden in 1939, where he spent the remainder of his life, becoming a Swedish citizen in 1945. Weiss began writing in 1946 at the age of thirty, and his first poetic efforts were written in Swedish. He was also involved at this time in making experimental films and documentaries. In 1952 Weiss began living with the Swedish artist Gunilla Palmstierna, who did the stage design for many of his later plays. A politically committed individual, he traveled to North Vietnam in 1968 to observe at firsthand the effects of the war there. Throughout the course of his career, Weiss was the recipient of numerous literary prizes and honors. He died May 10, 1982, in Stockholm.

Weiss’s first writings were highly experimental, surreal narratives. The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body presents a first-person narrator who records his highly associative, almost hallucinatory impressions over a six-day period. Weiss’s early interest in film is apparent in this text in which objects, events, and characters are recorded in a neutral fashion as they occur. The Conversation of the Three Wayfarers shares the same disjointed, surreal perspective as the author’s first novel. It records the three narrators’ conversations, which consist of fantasies, vaguely remembered events, and meandering observations on life. These texts suggest Weiss’s attempt to come to terms with the discrepancies between the objective complexity of reality and his subjective perception of it. The Leavetaking and Vanishing Point are autobiographical novels in which Weiss seeks, here in a more personal way, to assess the nature of his reality. They deal with existential themes of personal alienation, the difficulty of authentic communication, and the individual’s search for an identity separate from family and friends. These works represent Weiss’s growing realization of the close interrelationship between self and society.

The dialectical play Marat/Sade brought Weiss international acclaim. It is a work about the history of ideas and political realities of revolution and social change. Its fictional premise is that of a play about the assassination of the progressive French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat that is being staged and directed by the infamous sexual libertine Marquis de Sade within the Charenton mental asylum. This play-within-a-play becomes a dialogue between Marat and Sade on the nature of humankind, society, and the possibility of progress. Marat represents the optimistic Enlightenment position of the perfectibility of man, that the goals of the revolution—liberty, social equality, and brotherhood—can be realized. Sade presents a darker, more pessimistic picture in which perverse sexuality and repressed desire produce a society of irrational violence and destruction. Weiss’s dramatic writing is strongly influenced by the practice of the Brechtian stage; that is, he uses songs and cabaret-style techniques to present his message. The dramatic oratorio The Investigation deals with the horror of the Nazi concentration camps and addresses in broad terms the issue of modern political oppression. The political plays Song of the Lusitanian Bogey and Vietnam Discourse present strongly propagandistic condemnations of the history of capitalist colonization and exploitation in developing nations such as Angola and Vietnam. Weiss used, as he does in many of his works, extensive documentary sources in writing these plays.

The plays Trotsky in Exile and Hölderlin deal with the...

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situation of the politically committed but alienated intellectual. In the former play, the socialist exile, who was at odds with the other early theoreticians of Marxism, reflects upon what he sees as the misguided course of the Russian revolution and speaks for the ideals of true socialism and the creative freedom of the visionary writer-intellectual. Weiss sees his own situation as a committed socialist author as being analogous in certain respects to that of Trotsky. In the latter play, based on the tragic life of the eighteenth century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, Weiss again explores the fate of the socialist intellectual artist whose inspired visions of a just and equitable society place him both at the forefront of the revolutionary thought of his era and at odds with the less progressive spirit of the times. The playDer Prozess is an adaptation of the 1925 novel by Franz Kafka, which was translated into English as The Trial (1937). Weiss did the original stage adaptation in 1975 and revised it as Der neue Prozess (The New Trial) in 1982. Kafka’s novel deals with existential and psychological themes of the estranged personality which Weiss then transformed into a socialist critique of alienation in a capitalist society.

Weiss’s last major work was the extended novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (the aesthetics of resistance). It is a mixture of fictional, autobiographical, and documentary materials in which the author speculates in the guise of the narrator about what his life might have been like had he been born into the lower classes. He discusses the socialist commitment that has been so significant in his life. Weiss’s final literary work returns, in certain respects, to the autobiographical concerns of his first writings and summarizes the social concerns that had dominated his creative work throughout his career.


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