Peter Weiss

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Weiss, Peter 1916–

German-born playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and translator, Weiss left Germany during the Nazi regime. He resides in Sweden but continues to feel a sense of exile. The positive critical acclaim received by his play Marat/Sade was the high point of his career. Criticism was less favorable in response to the Marxist political stance of his later documentary dramas. Many critics claimed that his interpretations of such subjects as colonialism in Angola, Vietnamese history, and the Auschwitz trials were weakened by the lack of narrative tension and credible characterization. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48, rev. ed.)

Biography

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[Because I'm] isolated, not belonging to any country, any city and any language—I have to find a place where I can just be alive as much as possible. And this, I think, the theatre stage makes possible, because there everything immediately is alive. If I write a book, I still sit in my room and it's an expression of my isolation and of the feeling that I don't belong to anybody. But as soon as it's on the stage I feel alive….

I don't think it's enough just to write, and it's not enough to write my individual stuff. I think it's absolutely necessary to write with the point of trying to influence or to change society. (p. 18)

[Marat/Sade] is very personal. On one side, I'm the individual who thinks it's hopeless to change anything in society, that we can't do anything and its just like hell anyhow; whatever we do is just doomed to be a disaster. That's the point of Sade. He says: "Well, I do my art and do it as well as I can, and I don't bother what's going to happen around me." And then there is the other point of view: we are in between other people and we want to change something, our lives and perhaps the lives of the others too; that's the point of the socialist and of Marat. And those two absolutely different points of view, they always get together and try to find some solution. (p. 19)

Personally, of course, I am for Marat because I think the things he says are the right things to do. And I understand Sade because Sade has the pessimistic view and because Sade, in a sort of visionary way, can see already Stalin in the things Marat says. Therefore he is pessimistic; he doesn't believe in the ideal socialism Marat preaches. (p. 20)

[On the other hand, perhaps I'm not a political writer despite my intentions] because as soon as I get involved with political conflicts, I get in touch with the mad world we are living in. When I read the speeches of the politicians they are very close to madness to me, and then I reach a point where I don't understand it any longer. And at the same time now I have to understand, I have to find out what they are meaning because it's their world I'm living in. And so my solutions very often are not clear because the world I live in is not clear. It's mad and it's too difficult for me to understand….

[As an artist I can't produce a world created and ordered by me. My] only alternative is that I give my doubt, that I show my situation of doubtfulness and the great difficulties I undergo to find some way out of it. That's the only thing I can reach. (p. 21)

Peter Weiss, "Peter Weiss in Conversation with A. Alvarez," in Encore, Vol. 12, No. 4, July-August, 1965, pp. 16-22.

Hans-Bernhard Moeller

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A play of high...

(This entire section contains 1496 words.)

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caliber has finally ended [the postwar sterility of German Theater]. Time for unreserved applause arrived in May 1964 with the Berlin premiere of Peter Weiss' [Marat/Sade]. (p. 163)

Critics found themselves praising an author hardly expected to father the new masterwork of the German stage. They considered Peter Weiss a novelist….

The autobiographical novels Leavetaking and Flight-point had rendered in a calm, easy-flowing prose an individual's stormy un-shelling from society, family, and guilt-feelings, an exhausting tearing-loose from what is both wanted and rejected, as affiliation and chain, home base and prison…. What Weiss' novels of formation (Entwicklungsromane) describe realistically is also the core of "The Tower", his 1948 radio play. "The Tower" delineates Weiss' Huis Clos: family, fellow artists, and society are a circus in a tower—here the young and the animal are trained and will be enslaved unless they break away. The protagonists of the novels, like Pablo of "The Tower", struggle to come to terms with the narrowness of such a tower-prison and of its inhabitants, and finally escape. Yet, there is one further step, beyond flight, developed more fully in the compressed and parabolic existentialist radio play: To achieve complete individuation, and to be a stranger no longer, Pablo, the "jail breaker" and "escape artist", in turn relinquishes his freedom by voluntarily returning to the tower. In this way only can he settle with his past and acquire his real name, Pablo, instead of "Niente" (nothing).

While integrity and integration of the individual predominates in the preceding creations, the unifying structure of a protagonist's personality is abolished in the two experimental novels, The Shadow of the Coachman's Body and The Conversation of the Three Walking Men. Both recall Weiss' own description of Strindberg's concept of man: a collage in flux rather than a unified character. Both novels dispense with the traditional plot. (p. 164)

[This] experimental, vanguard aspect is also remarkable in the Marat play, and seems to have prompted its enthusiastic reception….

Marat, however, includes no one dependency [on form]: from pantomime to alienation, from the play about time (Wilder) to that of traumatic memory, from the feverish Expressionist outcry to the Theater of the Absurd, from the medieval Dance of Death to the political revue. This spectrum proves that the author has sovereign command of the stylistic achievements of past drama, which he integrated and unified in a novel way. (p. 165)

Basically, the architecture of the play combines a philosophical discourse and a sequence of semi-historical scenes from the French Revolution illustrating the philosophical argument. The setting is an asylum's therapeutic bath. As in Duerrenmatt's The Physicists, the world takes on the face of a mental institution. And Weiss expresses quite clearly that he means our world; firstly by using figures and events from actual history; secondly, by styling in his two opposed protagonists typical exponents of the Western personality. (p. 166)

[The complete] baroque title divides the weight among three separate, but equal elements, which constantly interlace: "The Persecution and Assassination of Marat"—this is the semi-historical stratum; "Performed by the Inmates of Charenton"—this the play in the play; and "Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade"—this the layer of consciousness.

The structure of the play within a play requires minimally a double role for most every actor except Sade—mental patient and dramatis persona. The multi-layered make-up of nearly all characters, their montage personalities, blur time. (p. 167)

This blurring is enhanced as the action switches among the following historical phases: 1793—French Revolution and Corday's assassination of Marat; 1808—Sade's production of the play within the play in the Charenton sanatorium; and 20th century—the hour of the performance, evoked occasionally by the herald's asides to the spectators.

This drama runs counter to a sense of the clock—the fanning of the plot into many brief scenes of divergent points of time only further handicaps the timekeeper. Piecing it into 33 scenes, Weiss minimizes the story itself—film-like fragments convey changing moods…. The intellect, here represented by Sade, stands above time. Doesn't the mind exist polychronologically? Weiss suggests this: Sade's yesterday, today, and tomorrow, merge in his consciousness and its manifestations on stage.

Time is meaningless for Weiss, and accordingly he reflects our world in the French Revolution, a forerunner of our epoch in terms of change, conflict, and brutality. He stimulates the audience's concern through the underlying analogies…. The unfolding of the plot, however, regularly implied that they had just followed another political Pied Piper into a blind alley. An eminently political play unfolds—political significance unifies even its comic and absurd scenes into one explosive punch. (pp. 167-68)

[The] play abounds in polemic against self-deceit, belligerence against false authorities, and revolt against any presentation of reality as ultimate. It avoids ideology by the surprise twist of uprising against the revolutionary himself and his comforting blindfold of ideology…. Sade persecutes Marat by making him aware of the shortcomings of his political thoughts and acts; in the play, the marquis' existentialist imagination conceives and delivers a swan song of revolution….

Marat's is the most spectacular of a sequence of failures by the revolutionary activists. (p. 168)

Faced by failure, Marat may now be put to death in a speechless scene; not another word is wasted on him. His demise not only terminates the play within the play, but also practically coincides with the end of the entire drama. Unlike its counterpart in Hamlet, the play within the play is now nearly identical with the main plot in length. Moreover, the device outflanks its conventional function as a sideline or subplot of the whole by becoming an irreplaceable constituent. Without Marat of the play within the play, would Sade have an adversary in the dispute, the drama its philosophical level? On the other hand, the clashes of these two antagonists and their views on life have such a forceful appeal in themselves that they let us forget about the complex architecture of the play which in effect subordinates Marat, the activist, to the existentialist marquis. (pp. 168-69)

Satire, slapstick, and the comic potential of alienation are the prevailing vehicles of humor. Characters, above all the epic speaker, in disarming naïveté recurrently claim that the abuses of 1793 have since been remedied. The audience participates in the author's irony by recognizing in these grievances today's very problems…. An aggressive and macabre stigma is nearly always attached to the humor—but how can a lunatic cast help producing ludicrous caricatures?

In addition to comic relief, an emotional undercurrent offsets the intellectual reasoning. As in Expressionist drama, pitch and rhythm make for highstrung staging. While Marat is overcome by a vision in which his past is resurrected on stage, the platform literally quakes. A fever of action ebbs and rises in tune with a musical accompaniment; a musical theme marks, for instance, Corday's entries; the quartet contributes songs; and the inmates' occasional excitement leads to chanting and marching. Parts of the plot are rendered in a highly sensual mode. Sade terms the actual assassination "foreplay" ('Liebesspiel')—Eros joins Death in a Dionysian synthesis. Weiss creates atmosphere and images in which one senses that joy is inseparable from pain, reason from emotional irrationality. Whoever suppresses this ambivalence of life evades truth and never takes possession of his potential wealth. (pp. 169-70)

The message is clearly stated, even though ambivalent in nature: What a pity about mankind! And yet, what an intoxication to live! The shipwreck of Marat and all other Faustian would-be perfectors of the world is celebrated with the fascination of a primitive ritual.

For the first time in Weiss' compositions, there is included in this play a compassion for a larger community or class. The autobiographical novels and the radio play concentrated on an individual. The experimental novels, on the other hand, put man and self into question by chosisme or by a depersonalizing mosaic presentation. Did isolated self-absorption on the one hand, and autonomy or senseless mass of the things on the other hand, become too much of a philosophical vacuum for Weiss? (This is not to question the creativity, craft, and accomplishment of these works it is simply that an evolution toward more social engagement, modifying in turn the artistic formula, takes place.) Did Weiss observe that a continuation of these approaches might lead to a dead end? Has he set out on a group or community oriented path forever? This would be indicated by The Investigation, his 1965 oratorium on Auschwitz and the Auschwitz trial, and also by Weiss' description of his forthcoming trilogy about Dante's Divine Comedy. In any case, the common note remains: unfathomableness and danger are sensed in every situation; man is outlined as a being in torture—fettered, whether by others or by family, by one's own drives or ideas—yet, one who is constantly searching for freedom and improvement, and constantly doubting. (p. 170)

Hans-Bernhard Moeller, "German Theater 1964: Weiss' Reasoning in the Madhouse," in Symposium (copyright © 1966 by Syracuse University Press), Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 163-73.

Susan Sontag

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Theatricality and insanity—the two most potent subjects of the contemporary theater—are brilliantly fused in Peter Weiss' play, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade…. (p. 163)

It is through its depiction of theatricality and insanity that Weiss' play is also a play of ideas. The heart of the play is a running debate between Sade, in his chair, and Marat, in his bath, on the meaning of the French Revolution, that is, on the psychological and political premises of modern history, but seen through a very modern sensibility, one equipped with the hindsight afforded by the Nazi concentration camps. But Marat/Sade does not lend itself to being formulated as a particular theory about modern experience. Weiss' play seems to be more about the range of sensibility that concerns itself with, or is at stake in, the modern experience, than it is about an argument or an interpretation of that experience. Weiss does not present ideas as much as he immerses his audience in them. Intellectual debate is the material of the play, but it is not its subject or its end…. (p. 165)

Weiss' play cannot be treated like an argument of Arthur Miller, or even of Brecht. We have to do here with a kind of theater as different from these as Antonioni and Godard are from Eisenstein. Weiss' play contains an argument, or rather it employs the material of intellectual debate and historical reevaluation (the nature of human nature, the betrayal of the Revolution, etc.). But Weiss' play is only secondarily an argument. There is another use of ideas to be reckoned with in art: ideas as sensory stimulants. Antonioni has said of his films that he wants them to dispense with "the superannuated casuistry of positives and negatives." The same impulse discloses itself in a complex way in Marat/Sade. Such a position does not mean that these artists wish to dispense with ideas. What it does mean is that ideas, including moral ideas, are proffered in a new style. Ideas may function as décor, props, sensuous material.

One might perhaps compare the Weiss play with the long prose narratives of Genet. Genet is not really arguing that "cruelty is good" or "cruelty is holy" (a moral statement, albeit the opposite of traditional morality), but rather shifting the argument to another plane, from the moral to the aesthetic. But this is not quite the case with Marat/Sade. While the "cruelty" in Marat/Sade is not, ultimately, a moral issue, it is not an aesthetic one either. It is an ontological issue. While those who propose the aesthetic version of "cruelty" interest themselves in the richness of the surface of life, the proponents of the ontological version of "cruelty" want their art to act out the widest possible context for human action, at least a wider context than that provided by realistic art. That wider context is what Sade calls "nature" and what Artaud means when he says that "everything that acts is a cruelty." There is a moral vision in art like Marat/Sade, though clearly it cannot (and this has made its audience uncomfortable) be summed up with the slogans of "humanism." But "humanism" is not identical with morality. Precisely, art like Marat/Sade entails a rejection of "humanism," of the task of moralizing the world and thereby refusing to acknowledge the "crimes" of which Sade speaks…. (p. 171)

A misunderstanding of the artistic aims implicit in Marat/Sade due to a narrow vision of the theater accounts for most of the critics' dissatisfaction with Weiss' play—an ungrateful dissatisfaction, considering the extraordinary richness of the text…. That the ideas taken up in Marat/Sade are not resolved, in an intellectual sense, is far less important than the extent to which they do work together in the sensory arena. (pp. 173-74)

Susan Sontag, "Marat/Sade/Artaud" (1965), in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966, pp. 163-74.

Franz P. Haberl

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Unlike Weiss's earlier plays (including Marat/Sade … which were either totally or partially imaginative, his latest dramatic works are "documentary dramas" based exclusively on factual reality. Weiss describes his new medium as a "theater of reportage" which "refrains from any sort of invention. It takes authentic material and mirrors it from the stage, unchanged in content, [but selected and] adapted in form."… Weiss wants to inform his audiences about the causes of the most important events which shape their lives and about the connections between these events. He believes that the general public cannot or should not form political opinions on the basis of the inadequate information provided by the mass media which are controlled by "groups which have an interest in a policy of obfuscation and concealment."… Weiss envisages his documentary theater as an "instrument for the formation of political opinions."

Weiss realizes that the question of dramatic effectiveness is the touchstone of such a theater and he cautions against turning the stage into a political forum without regard for artistic achievement…. His documentary dramas do not present individual conflicts, but struggles between opposing socio-economic forces. "Authentic persons" appear on the stage, not in their own right, but as representatives of certain social interest groups…. Most spectators will readily understand Weiss's explanation of the economic and political factors and will side with the oppressed against the oppressors. However, the mere recital of facts and figures, no matter how pertinent and shocking, will not sustain the spectator's interest for two or three hours, or produce the emotional effect without which drama cannot exist. Weiss effects the necessary emotional involvement—without sacrificing deliberation and reflection—by alternately presenting individual fates and general statements. (p. 358)

Gesang vom Lusitanischen Popanz ("Song of the Lusitanian Bogey") is a satirical musical … with serious overtones. The play consists of a historical account of the conquest of Angola and Mozambique by Portugal … and of an exposition of the present socio-economic conditions in these areas. (pp. 358, 360)

The whole play is made up of a series of dialectical arguments, usually presented in this fashion:

(1) The oppressors state their position on a given issue…. (2) A raisonneur recites or chants a rebuttal based on statistical evidence…. (3) The chorus makes a general explanatory statement about the problem…. (4) An individual African or a group of Africans … recount how the oppressors thwart any attempt by the oppressed to improve their situation. (p. 360)

This technique of alternately appealing to the intellect and to the emotions by presenting statistics and their interpretations through choruses or single choral characters and by presenting individual suffering through the mouths of the victimized individuals is dramatically very effective. It produces catharsis and reflection and thus goes a long way toward making the documentary drama an "instrument for the formation of political opinions." (pp. 360-61)

The full title of Viet Name Diskurs is "Discourse about the early history and the progress of the long-lasting war of liberation in Vietnam as an example of the necessity of armed struggle by the oppressed against their oppressors and about the attempts by the United States of America to annihilate the bases of revolution."…

During the first part of the drama,… black and white figures discuss and, to a lesser extent, act out the "long-lasting war of liberation of Vietnam."… As these facts and historic processes confront the spectator with their starkness and repetitiousness, he experiences a strong emotional identification with the collective hero of this epic drama, with the Vietnamese people…. But the response of the thoughtful spectator does not confine itself to the emotional level. The repetitiousness of the historic events presented on the stage forces the spectator of 1969 to make connections with contemporary history, to place this contemporary history in its proper perspective, and to think about facts which the mass media do not choose to present.

During the second part of the drama the stage is dominated by white figures representing the current oppressors of the Vietnamese people. Through a series of discussions between leading politicians and military men (mostly American), Weiss provides detailed background information about the present war in Vietnam. (p. 361)

The second part of Viet Nam Diskurs is too static and cerebral, even for documentary drama. There is almost no physical action and no emotional appeal. The long discussions and declarations address themselves exclusively to the intellect, as an essay or newspaper article would. Furthermore, these discussions involve almost exclusively one side—the group dressed in white. Thus there is no conflict between opposing sides; the "villains" are among themselves.

The second part of Viet Nam Diskurs notwithstanding, it is fair to say that Weiss's documentary dramas are quite effective, both as dramas in the Aristotelian sense, and as instruments for the explanation of reality. (p. 362)

Franz P. Haberl, "Peter Weiss's Documentary Theater," in Books Abroad (copyright 1969 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer, 1969, pp. 358, 360-62.

Gertrud Mander

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To my mind there is a strong element of spurious arrogance, of pretentiousness and slickness in everything Peter Weiss has written for and thought about the theatre. His psychological alienation seems to have strengthened his artistic self-confidence. He is nothing if not original, seemingly unconcerned about traditional forms and genres and yet cleverly drawing from the treasure house of European literary traditions. The main fascination of his writing lies in its masterly ability to fuse and blur distinctions and oppositions. In the prose works this manifested itself as a fusion of acutely objective descriptions of events and emotional states with an abundance of private fantasies; in the plays as a curious blend of primitive and sophisticated formal elements which resulted in a dramatic collage rather than in an organically developed dramatic form. The only external unity of the collage is an acknowledged debt to Dante (who, after Hesse and Kafka, is a major influence in Peter Weiss' work): a numerical pattern of eleven divisions (cantos!), each subdivided by three, first introduced in Marat/Sade and kept up for all the following plays. This seems to be more a disciplinary framework for the writer than an immediately discernible structural principle for the spectator…. [Somehow, Weiss] manages to impress the stamp of originality on everything he writes. Is it that he has genuinely rethought from scratch, as he claims, the function and shape of theatre in a world whose complex issues and social structures seem to elude presentation in the traditional individualist terms, or is it rather that his peculiarly forceful and certainly highly neurotic personality with its strongly developed instinct for fashionable avantgardist trends has manipulated people into believing that he has found (at least in Marat/Sade) a truly innovatory style that comes to grips with contemporary reality? On close inspection his style reveals highly derivative strains, often disguised as parody, pastiche, irony, and his originality turns out to be on the surface only, easily exploited by brilliant staging. Peter Weiss is an impressive manipulator of language, emotions, and theatrical techniques who has developed an uncanny instinct for the right subject at the right moment…. (pp. 57-8)

What, after all, is there to admire and respond to in Marat/Sade if not its clever and complicated artistry: the box-within-box-within-box structuring of time levels, theatrical illusions and scenic shifts, the intricate verbal patterning of primitive pastiche doggerel with the subtleties of various kinds of free verse? Granted the original idea of using the historical model of de Sade's theatre, i.e., of presenting the two major philosophical attitudes our time inherited, as one might say, from the French Revolution (individualism and socialism) in the double distortion of art and insanity; but to what end? Not, surely, to clarify the issues rationally or even emotionally. A German critic called the piece a didactic play without a didactic opinion. Another, analyzing the later The Investigation, concluded that nothing in this dramatic rewriting of the Frankfurt concentration camp trial ever really gets investigated. The appeal, in both cases, and particularly in the seemingly so objectified, de-emotionalized Auschwitz play, is straight to the emotions and to the senses, without pausing to examine ambiguities and ambivalences; the spectator is literally bullied into a mesmerised state where reason and critical faculty are confused and suspended. The rationalist labels such as investigation, discourse, documentary, historical Peter Weiss is so fond of putting into the titles of his plays cannot disguise this blunt and basic fact about his theatre. (p. 58)

His entire work shows a strong tendency in favour of the prevailing Zeitgeist: the switch from psychopathology to politics, for example, followed the trend of the times and does not really represent the opening up of new pastures…. His savage aggressiveness, his need to be with-it and, ultimately, his decision to become the self-styled spokesman for the underdog and the collective are attempts at breaking out of [the isolation caused by his bourgeois unbringing and his exile]…. Yet there is always a false, forced note, an ice-cold impersonality in the theoretical utterances of this searcher for truth and truthfulness in artistic expression. He speaks, with the air of the ingénu, about 'showing his doubts' (with reference to Marat/Sade), about 'presenting whole truths' (in his documentary theatre), about attempting, more specifically, 'the enormity of historical events' by abolishing character, plot, action in the theatre. And yet: is it conceivable that he might be turning a tremendous shortcoming—the lack of a personality of his own and of true creativity—into a virtue by rationalizing it away in impressive verbiage about finding complex forms for complex states etc., etc.?… [Weiss's total theatre] is minus the individual, minus psychological conflict, minus, as he thinks, invention. The stage is set not for the unrolling of a plot but for the presentation of an event, a situation. Of course the author cannot do away with character entirely; yet, since he professes a total lack of understanding for the theatre that works with identifiable characters, he uses character only in an allegorical fashion, as mouthpiece, personification of an idea, an emotion, a force…. [The] complexity of social reality Peter Weiss is so fond of invoking and at so much pains to mirror in his complex form … resists communication, refuses to materialize plausibly in these stage worlds. Marat/Sade, for instance,… remains dead at the centre, its formal complexity—or sophisticated incoherence—mirroring nothing but the fashionable clichés and intellectual ambiguities of modernism. There is no humour and no humanity, only mockery, and irony, and the cold fanaticism of the aesthete, the pessimist, the frustrated idealist. The whole a cruel and gloating caricature of history and social reality whose springs of action are seen to be, alternatively, primitive collective drives and rationalizations of individual neurotic states. This simple formula, frozen into the perfection of art, marked, in terms of audience reaction, the high point of Peter Weiss' dramatic career so far. Marat/Sade a dramatic poem of impressive surface subtlety yet rather confused and poor in intellectual structure—where is the presentation of historical events as promised in the elaborate title, where the red thread of an intellectual argument? It presents complexity, yet, arguably not so much that of social reality, either in 1806 or in 1964 as that craved and created by the mind of the modern intellectual. It thus defeats its own purpose and remains at bottom, with all the dazzling fireworks of theatrical display, a grand and abstract allegorical oversimplification of the rich and concrete texture of real life. Theatre at its most illusionist! No amount of clever pastiche writing, of naturalistic and pantomimic shock effects, could ever disguise this blunt fact to any but those who allowed themselves to be manipulated by the play's seemingly sensational originality. (pp. 59-60)

The East German production of the play had put a positive reading on the Marat figure while relegating Sade to second place. It had thus given an orthodox Marxist interpretation to an ideologically ambiguous and open-ended work. The author was impressed—and converted…. Art as an end in itself, as the independent region where the painter and the prose writer and the budding dramatist Peter Weiss had tried to practice self-examination, was discarded, its place taken by the conception of art with an active and exclusive political and social commitment…. Peter Weiss now claimed to have found a true alternative in the formula of committed art as a means to an end more constructive than the descriptions, analysis and free-wheeling experimentation of an art designed to feed the voracious cultural pipelines of Western cultural life; an art that works towards social change and points out alternatives to the unsatisfactory social models of the present age. This political formula of art is put in terms of another equation (replacing the previous one of complex reality = complex art): revolutionary content demands revolutionary art, a slogan which involves the commitment to 'fight for the most daring forms', i.e. for freedom of choice in the formal though no longer in the content. In other words: forms must be free, but content is sacred.

Since writing this manifesto ['Ten Working Theses of the Writer in a Divided World'], Peter Weiss has tried very hard to implement its theses…. [But why] have both the Angola and the Vietnam play had so little impact in a world—including the Western—obsessed by the issues of anticolonialism, war, revolution? Was it merely because they are written by a professed Socialist or rather because they are simplistic, dishonest, ineffective, in short, bad plays? (pp. 60-1)

[Somehow,] in spite of its very plausible shape, [The Investigation] did not come up to expectation; it turned out not to be too cool but rather to be too emotional; cast in an all-out, high-pitched intensity which proved strangely monotonous, in spite of the subtle structuring the documents had undergone in the hands of the dramatist, who had supplemented his Dantesque eleven-thirty-three pattern by a topographical scheme of scenes moving from the camp ramp to the gas oven. The unvarying emotional intensity deadened the responses to the steady flow of witness-reminiscences, accused-remonstrances, judges-questions. This was not due to the deliberate lack of theatrical effects but rather to the lack of emotional variety, and to a certain unremitting predictability. Peter Weiss might counter with another of his equations: this and no other reaction can equal the dehumanisation of the camps, its minimizing of human life, the trivialization of horror. Art mirrors life—or, to carry on consistently, triviality mirrors triviality. So what? Is that all there is to say and feel about the subject, and hadn't it been said before, notably at the time of the Eichmann trial? Somehow one felt manipulated and conned once again by an apparently changed and yet basically the same Peter Weiss whose mesmerizing single-mindedness (which some call his originality, his refusal ever to repeat himself) imposes a sense of sin on whoever fails to rise to the occasion and to experience what is expected of him, or to achieve a genuine appreciation of this or any other of his plays…. [Questions may also be raised about the selection and reliability of material used in his documentary dramas.]… Peter Weiss is as subjective and irrational as ever in his Angola and Vietnam plays, backed up, as he is now, by the conviction that he has become the conscience of the world, the spokesman for the underdogs, the exploited and manipulated people…. His intellectual position has become one of all-good v. all-bad, a total identification with one side and total rejection of the other. The black-white polarization has never made for good art, because it leaves no tensions, no room for development, no unpredictability…. Peter Weiss is a very shrewd rationalizer: by rejecting individualist art as 'of the stone age' he covers up his own inadequacy and inability to create images of real-life complexity, and manages to gloss over the negative nature of his retreat to facts, 'data, experience that is verifiable', to collage and the elaborate exposition of an all-too-simple basic position. Remains the shaping and structuring which … is deliberately artificial and superimposed, and cannot be anything else since there is no 'invention', no creative imagination which genuinely experiences organic development and the living complexity of the observable world. Allegorical …, topographical … or choreographic patterns … take the place of the traditional organic forms, the 'action' is divided rhythmically, the facts are shaped stylistically, the story—i.e. the chronological report—is interrupted, interlarded with 'reflections, monologues, dreams, flashbacks, contradictions', the structure, in short, is 'dissolved'. All this is designed to lead the audience to 'attention, consciousness, reflection', and thus to shoow that Documentary Theatre is the true alternative to 'that drama whose main theme is its own anger and despair and which clings to the concept of an absurd world without remedy'. Yet what is explained, ultimately, in these superficially complex, desperately inventive dramatic structures is not the opaque reality of the isolated crisis spots singled out for presentation on the stage, but only the author's obsessive partisanship, his—not entirely—convincing commitment to the cause of revolution. There is very little persuasive force in the elaborate documentation and much less of the earlier hypnotic power. Both The Lusitanian Bogey and Vietnam Discourse failed to add any new angles to the fashionable Leftist position. And Trotsky in Exile [came] … and went without causing much stir or acclaim. On stage, the two latest Peter Weiss plays appear like straight copies of early Communist Agitprop theatre, with more crude emotionalism and fewer imaginative ideas than Brecht, cold and dead compared to the revolutionary and missionary fervour of Majakowski and his Russian contemporaries. Preaching to the converted, they fail to convert the uncommitted or to frighten the enemy. (pp. 61-3)

Gertrud Mander, "Who's Afraid of Peter Weiss?" in Drama, No. 101, Summer, 1971, pp. 57-63.

Sidney F. Parham

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The stereoscopic vision of [Marat/Sade] … enables the modern spectator to see 1793 and 1808 simultaneously…. Our interpretation of history is determined by the politics prevailing in our time. Weiss, then, attempts to define both the object viewed and the standpoint from which it is viewed. The effect of this is Brechtian Verfremdung—one cannot give oneself up to the events of the play. Rather, one is forced to watch the relationship between the two time schemes, and whatever meaning one finds in this play is conditioned by one's understanding of this stereometric sense of time.

But can we really talk about the "meaning" of Marat/Sade? Is it a play about politics or a play about madness? Directors have created coherent, popular productions from both assumptions. My title deliberately recalls R. D. Laing's book of 1967, The Politics of Experience. I believe that Laing's "existential psychology" might provide a method for looking at this play and resolving some of its contradictions. The publication date of Politics rules out any direct influence, and indeed my argument is not that there is direct influence but that the psychological insights of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and of Laing will help to resolve the contradictions between madness and politics that we find in the play.

Laing is an existentialist by the simplest and most direct of Sartre's definitions, "Existence precedes essence." For Laing all behavior is a response to one's perception of his condition in the world. He further argues that the social forces which activate the psychological phenomenon of repression alienate the normal man from his own experience…. (pp. 236-37)

The double-bind may be defined [according to Laing and Bateson] as a situation in which an individual or group is faced with two mutually exclusive choices and the results of either choice are disastrous. It is "heads I win, tails you lose." (p. 237)

[They argue] that the hallucinations common to schizophrenics are in fact curative. They represent an "inner journey" which the patient must complete and from which he returns with fresh insights into his place in the world. The psychiatric process should not try to abort this trip, as it often does, but to insure a safe return from it. (p. 238)

There are a number of "double-binds" in [Marat/Sade], but the central one, around which all the rest of the play is constructed, might be formulated as follows: the current oppressive regime must be replaced; it can be replaced only through violent revolution; but violent revolution breeds oppressive regimes. The stereometric time allows us to see both sides of the double-bind…. The situation of the patients is an exact parallel to this political situation. They are in an oppressive situation; their attempts to escape that oppression confirm Coulmier [the director of the asylum] in the diagnosis of madness and justify further repression.

Sade's ironic question "What's the point of a revolution without a general copulation?" takes on real meaning in this reading. A revolution must readjust society so that man's alienation from his experience is lessened. It should be an act of personal as well as political liberation. The frenzy of the mimes suggests that Weiss sees revolution as personal liberation, but release which cannot be maintained. If revolutionary violence is in fact "curative madness," society has not yet found a way to come back from the trip. To accept Marat's contention that we simply have not gone far enough opens up the horror of endless violence until the revolution devours itself. Also, as Sade points out. Marat's own attempts to regularize and direct that violence caused it to lose much of its liberating character. Yet every alternative to violence returns us to oppression. There is no escape. The situation is absurd in a philosophic as well as in an actual sense, and both Sade and Marat see it that way. Marat accepts Sade's description of Nature as indifferent; their only quarrel is over the response. Sade is willing to resign himself to this indifference, to live in a state of meaninglessness, but this reaction is a form of madness. Marat will hallucinate meaning; he will turn himself inside out; he chooses to act in revolt against Nature's indifference. This attitude is also madness. In an absurd world the only sane response is madness. The question of Marat/Sade is whether one form of madness is preferable to another.

Weiss does not ask this question aloud, nor does he explicate the form of the double-bind in the intellectual manner of my discussion. The genius of the play is that Weiss has discovered a way to think dramatically. His play does not communicate the idea of a double-bind, but the experience of one. Because the audience knows that the speakers are madmen, it is never sure how to respond. Is that gesture, mime, etc., the character or the maniac playing him or both? The stage violence is in itself shocking, but because the context of each act is at least twofold, the spectator is unsure how to respond. At nearly every point in the play, the spectator is faced with two equally valid and outrageous choices. Like the characters in the play, he is in a doublebind. He is offered the choice of two or more equal and opposite absurdities. (pp. 238-39)

[Marat/Sade] is Weiss's first attempt to use history, his first attempt to explore social issues, and the first of his works not to have a hero seeking to define the nature of his self. This rejection of self and its implied rejection of Kafka prevent the play from becoming "a history play."… The play is not concerned with the discovering of "a self" in a mad world. Rather the madness points up the absurdity of these concerns in the face of actual political oppression. The importance of personal concerns pales before the fact of counterrevolution. Sade rejects the revolution as impersonal, as not pleasing to him. Neither Marat nor Weiss will accept this posture…. Weiss understands that the "self" cannot validate the world. The events themselves are more important than our perception of them. The stereometric time in Marat/Sade makes this point clear. Each event may be perceived differently by each character, and the audience can see each event in several contexts. The play seems to search for some kind of objective reporting which defines both the events and the character's attitude toward them. In the character of Sade. Weiss discovers that the self is rarely just; the demands of ego outweigh the demands of society. To redress this imbalance, Weiss exposes in all of the characters their lack of objectivity. Against their wills they become reporters. It is this striving for objectivity that makes Marat/Sade important to documentary drama and pushes Weiss toward that form. (pp. 248-49)

Sidney F. Parham, "'Marat/Sade': The Politics of Experience, or the Experience of Politics?" in Modern Drama (copyright © 1977, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XX, No. 3, September, 1977. pp. 235-50.

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