Weiss, Peter (Vol. 3)

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Weiss, Peter 1916–

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A German-born artist and playwright now living in Sweden, Weiss is still best known for his play "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade," known to English-speaking audiences as "Marat/Sade." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

A tricky fellow, Peter Weiss. He writes or speaks in such as yet insufficiently explored art forms as the open letter and the interview, and has refined them to a point of Brechtianly artful dodging. He revises his political position and artistic intentions from one public statement to the next, and he has raised charges of misquotation, bowdlerization, and unauthorized publication to the level of dazzling rhetorical figures. Into this world of shifting meanings and stances, Weiss's play Marat/Sade fits perfectly. (I use the dehydrated version of the title; quoted in full, it feels too much like an infringement of the copyright laws.) The play is a house of mirrors, a fun palace, a many-bottomed valise whose final bottom is infinity. It is highly sophisticated theatre, but only a slender addition to the drama….

Politically, the play is an extended and often interrupted agon between Sade the individualist and rational anti-rationalist, and Marat the fanatical populist and would-be reformer, so that the debate would seem to be between aristocratic and hedonistic self-realization and Marxism—except that this Marat is a brainchild of Sade's and, therefore, not real, and that Sade may be a madman and, therefore, likewise unreal. Which brings us to the philosophical plane, where the question is who is mad and who is sane, or what is reality and what illusion?…

Even anecdotally the play is an ambiguity: in the final chaos, it is impossible to assess who or what triumphs, if anything does. And formally, the play fluctuates between the doggerel of the medieval morality and the free verse of contemporary looseness. The raucous song interludes contribute yet another disturbing dimension. In every possible labyrinthine way, the implicated spectators are confounded and disoriented, until their dépaysement is complete. Marat/Sade begins at the confluence of Brechtian alienation, Pirandellian illusionism, and Artaudian shock treatment, and follows them to where they conjointly debouch into the sea of the absurd.

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1966 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1966, pp. 110-12.

Marat/Sade … is a work about which I have my reservations, but it is full of marvelous incident and it forms the occasion for an intoxicating evening of theatre. Inspired by his unusual material, Peter Brook, the director, has fashioned one of the most spectacular stage events of recent times, while the author, Peter Weiss, has provided him with a cornucopia of complex theatrical ideas. The play is at odds with itself …, but first I would like to express my admiration for this playwright's image-making power: he has an uncanny instinct for seizing upon central modern obsessions and transforming them, through a process of symbolic compression, into visual art. Ultimately, the play proves too rich for its own blood and fails to realize its extraordinary promise, but not before the author has taken us on a daring invasion of hitherto forbidden dramatic territory.

Weiss has conceived an imaginary confrontration between two fascinating antagonists: the Marquis de Sade, a cold voluptuary who attempts to transcend the malignity of man and nature through the passionate enactment of crime …, and Jean-Paul Marat, a rabid proto-Marxist French revolutionary who wants to overcome the malignity of man and nature through radical social-political upheaval…. The one is an extreme individualist, the other an extreme collectivist, and...

(The entire section contains 2300 words.)

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Weiss, Peter (Vol. 15)