Peter Weiss Weiss, Peter - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Peter Weiss 1916-1982

(Full name Peter Ulrich Weiss) German-born Swedish dramatist, autobiographer, novelist, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, filmmaker, translator, journalist, and illustrator.

The following entry provides an overview of Weiss's life and works. For additional information on his career, see CLC, Volumes 3, 15, and 51.

Weiss is considered to be among the most important and controversial dramatists to emerge in post-World War II Europe. Throughout his career, he viewed his work as an instrument for self-discovery and political debate. His dramas, autobiographical novels, films, and other artistic endeavors are informed by his lifelong commitment to Marxism, his sense of displacement from society, and the guilt he harbored for having escaped the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Biographical Information

Weiss was born on November 8, 1916, in Nowawes, an industrial province near Berlin. His father, Eugen Weiss, was a textile manufacturer of Jewish descent who had converted to Christianity; his mother, Frieda Hummel Weiss, was a gentile. They raised their children in the Lutheran church. In 1934 the family moved to England, and, two years later, to Czechoslovakia. Weiss enrolled in the Art Academy in Prague, where one of his paintings was awarded a first prize. At this time he began a correspondence with the novelist Hermann Hesse, whom he viewed as a father figure. Weiss fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 before the Nazi occupation and moved to Sweden, where his parents had permanently settled. Disillusioned by his family's adherence to bourgeois values while most of Europe was under siege, Weiss joined a commune of German-speaking artists and refugees in Stockholm. He exhibited his work in single and group shows and sold one painting to the National Museum. He taught courses in art and film theory, and made a number of short documentary films. In 1944 he married a Swedish painter with whom he had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1947. In 1952 he began to live with Gunilla Palmstierna, an artist who became his collaborator, designing the sets and costumes for his plays. The couple married in 1964. Throughout his life Weiss experienced feelings of isolation and alienation—recurrent themes in his novels and plays—and he underwent psychoanalysis for many years. He was the recipient of many awards for his work, including the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize of the German Academy of Language and Literature, which he received shortly before his death of a heart attack in 1982.

Major Works

In Weiss's autobiographical novels Abschied von den Eltern (1961; The Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (1962; Vanishing Point), he recounts the alienation and guilt he experienced during his adolescence and his eventual triumph of self-realization, juxtaposing his maturation with the rise of Nazism, World War II, and his family's flight from Germany. Weiss also published three installments of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, a series of novels centering on the artistic and ideological maturation of a young German intellectual. In these works, he draws upon his own experiences to chronicle Europe's turbulent political climate preceding World War II.

Weiss's dramas incorporate the same themes as his fiction. Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (1964; The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, commonly referred to as Marat/Sade) illuminates his pessimistic view of human existence since World War II. Set in an insane asylum and freely mixing dramatic genres, the play revolves around the two protagonists, the Marquis de Sade and the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, who embody for Weiss the dualism of humanity. Marat is the ideological, pre-Marxist intellectual who commits violent acts for the good of society, while Sade symbolizes self-indulgence and mindless anarchy. Marat/Sade won a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best foreign play. Weiss's next major drama, Die Ermittlung (1965; The Investigation), consists of transcribed testimony taken from the Auschwitz War Crimes trial held in Frankfurt in 1964 and 1965. By deliberately omitting the words “Jew,” “Nazi,” and “German” from the text, Weiss implies that the atrocities committed at Auschwitz were universal in nature and that all of humanity should share in their responsibility and guilt. His final dramas focus more on individuals than on historical incidents. Like his previous plays, these pieces are informed by Marxist doctrine. In Trotzki im Exil (1970; Trotsky in Exile), Weiss employs flashbacks to chronicle the life of Leon Trotsky, documenting his role as a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, his ideological differences with Joseph Stalin during the early years of the Soviet Republic followed by his expulsion from Russia, and his murder in Mexico City in 1940.

Critical Reception

Weiss is recognized as a significant German dramatist in the post-World War II period and his plays have garnered much critical attention. Commentators discuss the central thematic concerns of his work, such as alienation, the mechanisms of history, and the conflicts between individualism and collectivism, reality and illusion. The influence of such dramatic movements as the Theater of Cruelty and the Theater of the Absurd, as well as the writings of Franz Kafka, André Gide, and Bertolt Brecht, has also been studied by scholars. Critics maintain that Weiss created highly unorthodox plays that are imbued with vivid sensory perceptions intended to shock and assault the sensibilities of his audience. Because the majority of dramas revolve primarily around his Marxist beliefs and his nihilistic vision of postwar society, Weiss's works have sometimes been judged lacking in artistry. Yet his work has been acclaimed for its courage and honesty in exploring sensitive issues such as the Holocaust, the effects of war on society and the individual, and the destructive power of the Nazi regime.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Från ö till ö [published in German as Von Insel zu Insel] (sketches) 1947

De besegrade [published in German as Die Besiegten] (sketches) 1948

Die Versicherung [Insurance] (play) 1952

Duellen [published in German as Das Duell] (novel) 1953

Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers [The Shadow of the Coachman's Body] (novella) 1960

Abschied von den Eltern: Erzählung [The Leavetaking] (novel) 1961

Fluchpunkt: Roman [Vanishing Point] (novel) 1962

Das Gespräch der drei Gehenden [Conversation of the Three Wayfarers] (novella) 1963

Nacht mit Gästen (play) 1963

*Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade: Drama in Zwei Akten [The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade: A Play] (play) 1964

Die Ermittlung: Oratorium in Elf Gesängen [The Investigation] (play) 1965

Diskurs über die Vorgeschichte und den Verlauf des lang andaürnden Befreiungskrieges in Viet Nam als Beispiel für die Notwendigkeit des bewaffneten Kampfes der Unterdrückten gegen ihre Unterdrücker, sowie über die Versuche der Vereinigten Staaten Von Amerika die Grundlagen der Revolution zu vernichten [Vietnam Discourse] (play) 1967

Notizen zum kulturellen Leben in der Democratische Republik Viet Nam [Notes on the Cultural Life of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam] (nonfiction) 1968

Der Turm [The Tower] (play) 1968

Trotzki im Exil: Stück in Zwei Akten [Trotsky in Exile] (play) 1970

American Presence in South East Asia (nonfiction) 1971

Hölderlin: Stück in Zwei Akten (play) 1971

Die Ästhetik des Widerstands: Roman. 3 vols. (novel) 1975-81

*This work is commonly known as Marat/Sade.

Otto F. Best (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Best, Otto F. “Self-Analysis and Confession: Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.” In Peter Weiss, translated by Ursule Molinaro, pp. 14-23. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976.

[In the following essay, Best examines the novels Leavetaking and Vanishing Point as works of confessional literature.]

Abschied von den Eltern (tr. Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (tr. Vanishing Point) are important contributions to the genre of confessional literature. Both works are marked by the attempt to reconstruct the past in its entirety, to create an “objective” image of childhood, adolescence, and early...

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Kathleen A. Vance (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vance, Kathleen A. “Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers: The Phenomenology of Alienation.” In The Theme of Alienation in the Prose of Peter Weiss, pp. 6-54. Las Vegas, Nev.: Peter Lang, 1981.

[In the following essay, Vance investigates the alienation of the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, concluding that “the degree to which the characters are self-absorbed in their occupations measures the extent to which they are estranged from themselves, from each other, and from the world about them.”]

The central theme of Peter Weiss's narrative, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, is that of alienation. The...

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Stanton B. Garner, Jr. (essay date May 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garner, Stanton B., Jr. “Post-Brechtian Anatomies: Weiss, Bond, and the Politics of Embodiment.” Theatre Journal, no. 2 (May 1990): 145-54.

[In the following essay, Garner considers the influence of Bertolt Brecht on Weiss's work and classifies Weiss's dramas as post-Brechtian.]

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.

—Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”

forget the rest
there's nothing else

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Alexander Stephan (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stephan, Alexander. “The Civil War as Model: Peter Weiss, Spain, and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands.” In German and International Perspectives on the Spanish Civil War: The Aesthetics of Partisanship, edited by Luis Costa, Richard Critchfield, Richard Golsan, and Wulf Koepke, pp. 477-89. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992.

[In the following essay, Stephan asserts that Weiss's treatment of the Spanish Civil War in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands allows him to explore “the two central themes that have determined his life and writings for years: the possibilities and limits of resistance to violence, and the difficulty in portraying this resistance.”]


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Robert Cohen (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Robert. “Early Texts.” In Understanding Peter Weiss, pp. 21-39., Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Cohen offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Weiss's early work.]

Peter Weiss's early life is defined by everything it lacked: familial warmth, friendship, a home country, a language, success, and a future. It was a life of exile and isolation, in London, Varnsdorf, and Alingsås, where the young painter led his attic-room existence. It was a nearly autistic life, an ivory tower existence. This early experience of barely existing, of being dead to the real world, is the theme of Weiss's earliest work...

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Katia Garloff (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garloff, Katia. “Peter Weiss's Entry into the German Public Sphere: On Diaspora, Language, and the Uses of Distance.” Colloquia Germanica 30, no. 1 (1997): 43-67.

[In the following essay, Garloff discusses the issues of exile and diaspora in Weiss's work.]

Bin inzwischen zu einem ‘deutschsprachigen Autor’ geworden. Sitze in Stockholm, mit dem Blick auf Söderns Anhöhen, auf den Turm des Maria-Fahrstuhls, am Zeichentisch, an dem ich vor ein paar Jahren noch meine Filme entworfen, meine Collagen hergestellt hatte, und schreibe in der Sprache, die ich als Kind lernte und als 17jähriger verlor—1


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Robert Cohen (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Robert. “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature: Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Its Critics.”1History & Memory 10, no. 2 (1998): 43-67.

[In the following essay, Cohen examines the critical reaction to The Investigation and elucidates the central themes of the play.]

In the mid-1990s a critic referred to The Investigation (Die Ermittlung, 1965), Peter Weiss's play about Auschwitz and Nazi mass extermination, as one of those rare literary works able to overcome the “confusion, silence, and despair” produced by the “naked testimony” of witnesses at Holocaust trials. Lawrence Langer, whose...

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Klaus L. Berghahn (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berghahn, Klaus L. “‘Our Auschwitz’: Peter Weiss's The Investigation Thirty Years Later.” In Rethinking Peter Weiss, edited by Jost Hermand and Marc Silberman, pp. 93-118. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Berghahn regards The Investigation as “one of the best representations of the Holocaust for the stage” and chronicles the critical controversy surrounding the play.]

A living man has come and what happened here hides itself from him.1


My reflections on Peter Weiss are tinged with the subjective memories of how I received...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Best, Otto F. Peter Weiss, translated by Ursule Molinaro, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976, 150 p.

Offers a thematic and stylistic examination of Weiss's major works.

Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993, 206 p.

Full-length critical analysis.

Jost, Hermand and Marc Silberman, eds. Rethinking Peter Weiss, New York: Peter Lang, 2000, 199 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Pakendorf, Gunther. “‘I Have Arrived Twenty Years Too Late’: The Intertext of Peter Weiss'...

(The entire section is 181 words.)