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Peter Weiss Biography — Marat/Sade



By Peter Weiss
Directed by Dale McFadden

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February 5-6, 9-13 at 7:30pm
February 13 at 2:00pm
Wells-Metz Theatre

Biography of Playwright Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss was born in an upscale neighborhood of Berlin on November 8, 1916, to Eugen Weiss, a man of Jewish heritage, and Frieda Hummel Weiss, an actress born in Switzerland. Between 1934 and 1939, Peter Weiss moved with his family from Berlin to London, then to Czechoslovakia and to Switzerland before finally settling in Sweden to find more permanent refuge from the Nazis. From that time until his first book was published in 1947, Weiss made a living through a variety of employment opportunities: fabric designer, lumberjack, farm laborer, and journalist. In that same period, he also married Swedish painter Helga Henschen, had a daughter, became a Swedish citizen, and was divorced from Helga.

For the following two decades, Weiss supervised classes in art and film theory at the University of Stockholm and taught painting as therapy at a prison, a precursor to the art therapy central to the plot of Marat/Sade. In 1964, when he married Gunilla Palmstierna, he had established himself as a writer and finished Marat/Sade, the play that would make him internationally famous.

Through the end of the 1960’s Weiss wrote a series of plays criticizing the oppressive efforts of several governments, marking a shift in the political nature of his work. These plays are The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos, an account of the trial of twenty-two former Auschwitz guards; Song of the Lusitanian Bogey about the brutal suppression of the 1961 native uprising in Angola by both governmental and private concerns of the Portuguese; Vietnam Discourse, which traces the history of Vietnam from 500 B.C.E. to 1963, and whose full title is twice as long as that of Marat/Sade; and Trotsky in Exile, which confronts the Stalinist government for its suppression of Trotsky’s role in the establishment of communism in the Soviet Union.

Trotsky in Exile failed to garner the success Weiss had hoped for, which disheartened the playwright. Already insecure in his theatrical work (as demonstrated by his inability to hold his ground when directors severely changed the ending of his play Marat/Sade), Weiss withdrew from the theatre scene for several years. The next decade was the most truly isolated of Peter Weiss’s life (although in personal journals he claims to have been an outsider for most of his life). Weiss was scorned by the left in West Germany and considered an "undesirable" in East Germany during this time. He published only three more plays from that time until his death from a heart attack on May 10, 1982.

—Eric "C" Heaps
first-year M.A./Ph.D. student