Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2300
Weiss, Peter 1916–
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...
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- Critical Essays
Weiss, Peter 1916–
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 together they embody a number of crucial antitheses which extend beyond their historic functions: imagination versus action, poetry versus politics, stasis versus progress, anarchism versus communism, the yogi versus the commissar…. One of the weaknesses of Weiss's design is that in stating and restating his two positions he never lets them engage each other fully. Both Sade and Marat are probably irreconcilable aspects of the author's character (though as a Marxist, he claims to have more sympathy with Marat), but if so, they exist in separate compartments of his brain, and never lock in significant combat.
Instead of developing his theme, Weiss concentrates on his spectacle—the intellectual debate tends to get swallowed up in theatrical delirium. For the confrontation of Sade and Marat takes place not in a tribunal designed for rational discourse but rather in the bath hall of a madhouse. There, Sade … puts on plays for the entertainment of the director of the Charenton asylum and his family, the amusement of a fashionable audience, and the therapeutic advancement of the inmates, who function as Sade's acting company. Thus, Marat is not an actual historical personage but rather a figure invented by Sade and enacted by a maniac, while Sade himself functions both as the author-director of the play-within-the-play and as one of the characters in it…. [Weiss] is subtly suggesting (a suggestion which seems to invalidate his own politics) that human activity is insane, and that human history takes place in a madhouse….
There are, in short, divisions in the play which leave one with a divided response to it; and these are nowhere better exemplified than in its mixture of styles. Most commentators have already observed how Marat/Sade is a compound of two radically different approaches to the stage—the cool alienation techniques of Brecht and the boiling "total theatre" of Artaud—and we may speculate that each approach proceeds from a different side of the author's nature….
Weiss is a master of both theatrical traditions, but he is less masterly in combining them. What results is a double exposure with blurred edges in which the theatre of cruelty accounts for the stronger image….
[Marat/Sade] makes us remember why we go to the theatre, and makes us want to return, for this is a play that touches on the borders of our secret being. If it doesn't touch our core, then this may be because Peter Weiss has not yet learned to marshal his abundant energies toward a consistent goal, to choose a single artistic commitment from a wealth of possibilities. But if this brilliantly theatrical play finally fails to achieve dramatic art, we can be grateful for once that its defects stem not from an author's poverty of imagination but rather from his excess of it.
Robert Brustein, "An Embarrassment of Riches" (1966), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 140-45.
Peter Weiss's Exile is a great novel. It is not a supremely great novel. It is not of the stature of Pantagruel or Don Quixote or War and Peace or Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past. But it would be quite in place on the same shelf with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, The Trial, The Fall, Notes from Underground, and A Season in Hell: those unique unclassifiable odd works, each incomparably valuable in its own way, which we count among our most precious inner goods and which we love as much as the supremely great ones.
They are all mad. The madness of twentieth-century Germany, like the madness of nineteenth-century Russia, the madness of the American South, the madness of Rilke's, Kafka's, Capek's and Hasek's Prague, and the madness of Eastern Europe's Jewish ghettos, provides a richly exaggerated hothouse or rain-forest atmosphere for the production of strange, beautiful, horripilant flowers of literature. In Germany it produced expressionism, which has continued uninterrupted (even by the Nazi period) since—oh, since the publication of Morgenstern's Galgenlieder in 1909 and Rilke's The Notebooks in 1910, and which is now evolving through new forms with mad vigor in Günter Grass, Alexander Klüge and Peter Weiss. Exile challenges direct comparison with The Notebooks—a very temerarious thing to do: Sartre's Nausea suffers badly by the comparison. Exile doesn't.
J. Mitchell Morse, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXI, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 522-25.
[Weiss's] Investigation is the most brutal play of the horrors of Auschwitz. But curiously the chief victims of Auschwitz, its murdered Jews, are only once mentioned by name. All this despite the fact that Weiss himself suffered because of his impure racial origins—he had a Jewish father—and that this fact provided him with his favorite literary themes, exile and emigration. But Weiss, now in his middle years, has steadfastly refused to look upon Auschwitz in terms of a Jewish disaster or upon the Jewish question as truly a Jewish question. The phrase "Jewish question" to him is not real. It should be supplanted by "human question," with the Jews being merely the prototypes of the weak everywhere and their tormentors the representatives of the strong. If he has shown any sympathy for Jews—and he has scrupulously abstained from even expressing himself on Jewish issues—it has been concern for the perennial underdog, whatever the label….
Weiss has never been attracted to Zionism—which he would dismiss, were he to comment, as just another divisive element in a broad, unlined humanity. Nor has Weiss ever been drawn to the Jewish religion, or for that matter any religion…. Weiss has acknowledged no smaller loyalty than that to Man. In this universalist religion, so prevalent among Jewish intellectuals before Hitler, but approached more cautiously since, Weiss has found an entirely secular complex of gods. Among the younger writers growing to maturity after Auschwitz, Weiss appears to be the only major figure to have remained with—or returned to—this pre-Hitlerian cult.
Lothar Kahn, in his Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, A. S. Barnes, 1968, pp. 232-36.
[The statement that] only when a human being finds his language, his style of thought, can he begin truly to be himself … is … the key to the understanding of Peter Weiss. Weiss writes in German, but this language is not the German of present-day Germany, which has acquired all the sediment of its history, expressions and turns of phrase that originated in Nazi times, in the misery of the starvation of the immediate postwar period and the opulence of the economic miracle; it is the German he learned and spoke as a child, the German of a man who had to speak English, to speak and write Swedish for a living. No one else had exactly the same experience, no one else speaks exactly the same language. To have realized this, to have found his own language, and to have shown the courage to speak it, regardless of what others might think, is the secret of Peter Weiss's impact.
His Marat/Sade is written in doggerel verses, simple like those of some puppet play in Weiss's childhood, direct, cruel, primitive, infantile—and yet miraculously adapted to the subject matter, the argument of the play. But even more important than the language is the point of view…. Absolute freedom, absolute detachment is the exile's stance. He stands in the cosmopolitan crowd on the Paris boulevard, but he is not of it, just as he watched the war from neutral Sweden, feeling helpless, unable to rescue even the few personal friends from Prague and Berlin who appealed to him from the death that awaited them at Auschwitz and Terezin. The awareness that human beings are conditioned by their viewpoint obtrudes itself for the observer who stands outside and above the horrors of his time….
[At] the very core of [Marat/Sade] there is a philosophical argument of great subtlety and import: the debate between Marat and de Sade about the possibility of revolution. Marat defends the classic Marxist point of view: the world can be changed only if we impose a rational order by force. If we want to do good to our fellow men, we must start by being cruel to them at first. The Marquis de Sade's standpoint, on the other hand, is that of the extreme individualist….
And indeed, in looking into himself, de Sade has uncovered a vast world of violence and evil, a lust for torture, a wild desire to impose suffering on fellow human beings….
It is a brilliant restatement of one of the main debates of our time, the chief spokesmen of which in drama have been Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett. Marat/Sade may thus be seen as a debate between Brecht and Beckett, in which it seems that Beckett's standpoint wins, but which is conducted in Brechtian terms—thirty-three short scenes or tableaux and a multitude of alienation effects. The victory of the Beckettian standpoint is, however, by no means certain. After all, the text Marat speaks was written by de Sade; it is therefore only to be expected that de Sade's position will prevail. We, the audience, know that the argument was rigged and will therefore perhaps have to give the benefit of the doubt to Marat. And, in fact, since he wrote the play Peter Weiss himself has become a very vocal advocate of a Socialist—i.e., Marat's—point of view….
The place for such a theatre of agitation, surely, is not in the theatre with its established middle-class or intellectual audience, but in the streets. But there the exquisite sense of style of a poet like Peter Weiss would probably not be the right mode of expression.
Thus Weiss, in his later plays, exemplifies the very problem he posed in the Marat/Sade, the paradox of revolution itself.
Martin Esslin, "Peter Weiss: Dramatist Beyond Brecht and Beckett," in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (© 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 151-59.