Peter Weiss Biography

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Peter Ulrich Weiss was born on November 8, 1916, in Nowawes, near Berlin, the son of a Swiss mother and a Czechoslovak father. Weiss’s Jewish father had converted to Christianity, so Weiss was reared as a Lutheran, attending school in Nowawes and Berlin. In 1934, the rise to power of National Socialism forced the Weiss family to emigrate to Great Britain, where Weiss studied photography. Two years later, Weiss returned to the Continent to study at Prague’s Academy of Art, but because he was intensely unhappy there, he moved to Switzerland in 1938. In 1939, he finally settled in Sweden, where he met and married Gunilla Palmstierna, an artist who designed the costumes for his plays. In Stockholm, Weiss began to shift his attention away from painting. After producing a series of documentary and surrealistic short films—as well as one feature-length work entitled The Mirage (1959)—Weiss began, in the late 1950’s, to concentrate his energies on writing. A meeting with his boyhood guru, Hermann Hesse, in Montagnola was most encouraging to the young writer, and other acknowledged influences on the early Weiss were Kafka, Alfred Kubin, and the Surrealists. Primary among the specifically dramatic influences were August Strindberg, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett.

Weiss’s early dramatic efforts met with only scant success and were not accepted in German theaters until after the success of Marat/Sade, when Weiss was already in his late forties. Although he eventually became a Swedish citizen, Weiss continued to write in German until his death in Stockholm, in May of 1982.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,740 words.)