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An Introduction to the Works of Peter Weiss

An Introduction to the Works of Peter Weiss

Olaf Berwald
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 178
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  • Book Info
    An Introduction to the Works of Peter Weiss
    Book Description:

    The plays and prose works of the German writer, director, and political activist Peter Weiss (1916-1982) were immensely influential in the shaping of European Modernism in the second half of the twentieth century. Weiss's writings are driven by the desire to find creative responses to the question of how an artist and writer who makes use of a wide variety of techniques of artistic expression can also participate in political activism. Combining exploratory aesthetic openness with an uncompromising ethical drive, Weiss's literary works, especially the plays Marat/Sade (1964), The Investigation (1968), and Hölderlin (1971) as well as his novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-81) continue to provide vital points of reference for any discussion of culture and politics in our times. Berwald's study serves as a comprehensive introduction to Weiss's work and vision. The introductory chapter outlines Weiss's life and work in exile. Three chapters provide detailed discussions of Weiss's theater work, from his early grotesque plays and the documentary dramas from the 1960s that address Auschwitz, Angola, and Vietnam, to his most complex plays in which intellectuals are staged as outsiders. The subsequent four chapters discuss Weiss's prose works, which include his autobiographical novels from the early 1960s, essays and notebooks on art and politics, and his summum opus, The Aesthetics of Resistance, one of the most important European novels of the twentieth century. Olaf Berwald is Assistant Professor of German at the University of Tennessee.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-623-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In searching for an art of writing capable of confronting the violent beginnings of the new millennium, it is indispensable to study the literary oeuvre of Peter Weiss (1916–1982), whose plays and narrative works have helped to shape European modernism in the second half of the twentieth century. Weiss’s literary works explore how a writer can assume social responsibility while working toward multifaceted modes of artistic expression. Combining aesthetic openness with an uncompromising ethical drive, Weiss’s literary works, for example his plays Marat/Sade (1963) and Die Ermittlung (1965, The Investigation), and especially his novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (1975–...

  5. 1: Subversive Slapstick: The Early Plays Der Turm, Die Versicherung, Nacht mit Gästen, and Mockinpott
    (pp. 11-21)

    Der Turm, Peter Weiss’s first drama, was written in 1948 and premiered in a Swedish version on a small stage in Stockholm two years later.¹ In the German-speaking countries, it first appeared as a radio play in 1962, before its first production, directed by Irimbert Ganser, took place in Vienna in 1967. Detlef Heusinger’s opera Der Turm (1988), whose libretto is based upon Weiss’s play, premiered in Bremen in 1989.²

    The topos of the tower as a scenic construction of painful passivity has a long literary history, including Calderón de la Barca’s “comedia seria” La vida es sueño (1630) and...

  6. 2: The Choreography of Documents: Die Ermittlung, Gesang vom Lusitanischen Popanz, and Viet Nam Diskurs
    (pp. 22-32)

    In his notebooks from the 1970s, Peter Weiss invents a poignant auctorial job description that disregards conventional generic distinctions between documentary and poetic works: “Dante, der Reporter.”¹ Weiss’s productive juxtaposition of Dante’s poetic techniques and historical documents concerning crimes against humanity in the twentieth century has been thoroughly examined by Christoph Weiss, who makes frequent use of unpublished fragments in which Weiss approaches what he envisions to become his “DC (Divina Commedia) Projekt.”² Weiss is by far not the only writer who employs Dante’s construction of hell in order to address organized killings in the twentieth century. In “Herrn Dante...

  7. 3: Staging Writers as Outcasts: Marat/Sade, Trotzki im Exil, Hölderlin, Der Prozess, and Der neue Prozess
    (pp. 33-68)

    This chapter discusses five plays that simultaneously advocate radical political uprisings and criticize hierarchical structures of orchestrated change. These plays examine to what degree economic and political systems can obliterate the dignity of the individual as well as creative thought.

    Weiss’s most famous play, Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade. Drama in zwei Akten (Marat/Sade), first written in 1963 and constantly revised until 1965, premiered in Berlin in 1964, under the direction of Konrad Swinarski.¹ Peter Brook’s productions of the play in London (1964) and...

  8. 4: Scenarios of Stagnation: Early Prose
    (pp. 69-81)

    Weiss’s early prose is worth studying as a transitory but necessary experimental phase of his writing. Without the excessive explorations of narrative deadlocks and exercises in disturbing repetitiveness that marks his early prose, Weiss, who conceded the slow maturation process of his art, would probably not have been able to produce his more complex and inexhaustibly rich later works. The fact that much of his early prose was rejected by publishers and only became accessible after Weiss had become famous might indicate the unfinished character of the early prose texts that often read like self-absorbed psychoanalytic vignettes and dream journals....

  9. 5: Autobiography and Fiction: Abschied von den Eltern, Fluchtpunkt, and Rekonvaleszenz
    (pp. 82-98)

    The German author and literary scholar W. G. Sebald, whose novels explore the work of mourning and remembrance, refers to his reading experience with Weiss’s Abschied von den Eltern (1961, Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (1962, Vanishing Point) as the beginning of his own efforts to think through the recent history of German violence.¹ Weiss’s notebooks and semiautobiographical novels are permeated by self-critical remarks about the precariousness of turning one’s life into a text. Shortly after the subsequent deaths of his mother and father in 1958 and 1959, Weiss wrote two major works of autobiographical fiction. The narrator of Abschied von den...

  10. 6: Poetics and Politics: Essays, Open Letters, and Fragments
    (pp. 99-106)

    Throughout his literary career, Peter Weiss developed his views on art, politics, and the role of the writer. He published his aesthetic reflections and programmatic interventions in the form of essays, notebooks, open letters, and speeches. They were usually first published in newspapers, small independent theater booklets, or anthologies, and most of them have been collected in his volumes Rapporte (1968) and Rapporte 2 (1971). Weiss’s programmatic outlines and analyses of a wide range of works of art are inextricably linked to the composition of his plays and novels. The uneasy relationship between art and politics is discussed in many...

  11. 7: Perception as Resistance: Die Ästhetik des Widerstands
    (pp. 107-130)

    Weiss’s main contribution to world literature, the three-volume novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance), which was published between 1975 and 1981, resists clear genre classification.¹ The narrative’s prosaic descriptions of artwork change into disturbingly dense and evocative poetic representations of corporeal pain and endangerment. The historically based novel documents the lives and deaths of German resistance fighters against the Nazi regime.² Despite its documentary character, the text remains a work of fiction, operating with an abundance of intertextual allusions and mythological undercurrents. The protagonists patiently expose themselves to the works of Dante, Kafka, Géricault, and many others....

  12. Works Consulted
    (pp. 131-160)
  13. Index
    (pp. 161-170)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 171-171)