“In our last conversation, several hours before he died, we spoke of the source of artistic creation,” recalled Gunilla Palmsteirna-Weiss in her speech accepting the Büchner Prize, one of Germany’s most coveted literary prizes, on behalf of her recently deceased husband, the German-born writer Peter Weiss. “It is the black chasm which all of us carry within ourselves: just as there are black holes in space, in the macrocosm, so also in man, in the microcosm. In order to overcome this black hole, this emptiness, we must constantly be conquering it…. Peter was constantly in close combat with the abyss.”
Born in 1916 on the outskirts of Berlin to a Hungarian-Jewish father who had converted to Christianity and a Swiss- German mother, Weiss had narrowly avoided the abyss as a young man. As the rise of National Socialism made life more and more precarious, the Weiss family moved to London, then to Czechoslovakia, where Weiss’s father managed a textile factory. In 1938, after the Germans occupied the Sudetenland, Weiss’s parents took refuge in Stockholm; Peter, who had been studying at the Academy of Art in Prague, soon joined them. Weiss became a Swedish citizen in 1946, and through the late 1940s made his living as a journalist for a Swedish paper. Around this time, he began writing poetry in Swedish, while painting and directing experimental and documentary films. Although he went on to write his best-known work in German, he never resettled in the land of his birth.
It was in the mid-1960s that Weiss first came to prominence as a dramatist, with his meditation on the French Revolution, Marat/Sade–or, in the play’s more evocative full title, 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. Marat/Sade premiered at the Schiller Theater in West Berlin in 1964 and soon after achieved international fame in its English rendition staged by Peter Brook. Weiss’s deeply imaginative and unsettling play, which hinges on a fictional debate between the detached, skeptical Sade and the engagé, forward-looking Marat, struck a chord with theatergoers attuned to similar high-pitched debates that defined the political battles of the day. In large part thanks to Brook, who would adapt it for the screen in 1967, the play reached an unusually wide audience for an avant-garde production, playing for many months in Germany, England, the United States and elsewhere.
By the time Marat/Sade appeared, Weiss had already produced a considerable body of literary work written in both Swedish and German, including poems, other plays and novels. His enduring preoccupation with violence, oppression, persecution and human frailty would permeate much of his subsequent dramatic work, from The Investigation (1965), a stark, fact-laden documentary play based on the observations he made while visiting the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt the previous year, to Vietnam Discourse (1968) and Trotsky in Exile (1970).
These dramatic works grew not only from a Brechtian conviction that playwrights have a duty to awaken the consciousness of theater audiences but also from a commitment to leftist politics offstage. Weiss had begun to immerse himself in Marx’s writings while completing Marat/Sade, and his own leanings–his dialectical understanding of history and the recurrent oppositions treated in his writing–were often made palpable, in particular in his aim to trigger sustained critical reflection on the part of the audience. “If I want anything from an audience,” Weiss explained, “it’s that they listen very carefully and be completely awake, not hypnotized, absolutely alive, answering all the questions in the play.”