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.
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.
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.
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.