Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Is Produced Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss delivered a Marxist viewpoint in a masterful, absurdist documentary drama that established him as a leading playwright of the 1960’s and as a master of the Theater of Cruelty.

Summary of Event

Playwright Peter Weiss vaulted to international fame on April 29, 1964, with the opening of his Der Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter der Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (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, 1965; commonly known as Marat/Sade). The work was a play within a play, dealing with historical events of the French Revolution. Theater of the Absurd Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Marat/Sade (Weiss)[Marat Sade (Weiss)] Theater of Cruelty [kw]Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced (Apr. 29, 1964)[Weisss Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced] [kw]Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced, Weiss’s (Apr. 29, 1964)[Absurdist Drama Marat Sade Is Produced, Weisss] [kw]Marat/Sade Is Produced, Weiss’s Absurdist Drama (Apr. 29, 1964)[Marat Sade Is Produced, Weisss Absurdist Drama] Theater of the Absurd Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Marat/Sade (Weiss)[Marat Sade (Weiss)] Theater of Cruelty [g]Europe;Apr. 29, 1964: Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced[08040] [g]Germany;Apr. 29, 1964: Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced[08040] [g]West Germany;Apr. 29, 1964: Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced[08040] [c]Theater;Apr. 29, 1964: Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced[08040] Weiss, Peter Brecht, Bertolt Artaud, Antonin Brook, Peter

In Marat/Sade, Roux, a priest, serves as the mouthpiece to express several philosophical positions held by Weiss. Roux advocates the value of communal living and ownership. He also suggests that churches should be converted into schools, so the masses can be educated and overcome their social situation. Roux also calls for an end to all wars. The play ends with Roux confronting the audience with two questions asked by many dramatists in the twentieth century: “When will you learn to see?” and “When will you learn to take sides?”

Weiss’s methods of moral, social, and political commentary were deeply embedded in the theatrical techniques and style of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, as well as the theatrical alienation techniques pioneered by Bertolt Brecht. Brecht believed that an audience wholly caught up in a drama would be too passive to do the serious intellectual and critical work he wanted his plays to inspire, so he intentionally sought to create an intellectual distance between the audience and the drama. Weiss in turn used the Brechtian structure of short scenes, with each one having a separate title, to develop his plot. Through the plot and characters of Marat/Sade, Weiss argued that nature was indifferent to humankind. He also pointed to the belief that the strong overrun weaker people in society. Weiss considered individuals to be basically selfish. His contention was that it was worthless to espouse unrealistically idealistic solutions to situations in people’s lives.

Several movements in the theater and events outside the theater influenced Weiss. Realism;drama Inside the theater, from about 1870 until the early 1900’s, naturalism sought to put a “slice of life” on the stage for spectators. Not unlike realism, this movement believed that “reality” was contained in the existing material society. Realism became the dominant form from 1900 through 1950. As a movement, it sought to create an art form that systematically presented the human condition. It was thought possible to portray people as they lived, while providing audiences with answers to the difficulties in their lives.

By 1910, the theater began to embrace a host of countermovements Modernism;drama to realism and naturalism. These movements collectively constituted theatrical modernism. One was labeled expressionism: Expressionists were convinced that fundamental truth for individuals could be found only through the human spirit and its desires and visions. A similar modernist reaction to realism was futurism. This movement rejected the past and its materialism. The answer to people’s problems was believed to exist in the future, as individuals were transformed into machinelike perfection.

Not every movement in the theater was hopeful that society could overcome its problems. Dada provides an example of a movement that was skeptical of this claim. Adherents to this movement were disturbed by the madness of World War I. Their works replaced rationality with madness and absurdity. The effects of Dada were felt strongly in the 1960’s. The Surrealists, meanwhile, thought that the only way for people to find solutions to the world’s problems was through understanding the human psyche. Surrealists focused on the unconscious as the artist’s source for representations that would reveal the reality hidden by rational, realist representations of the world. Absurdists adopted a similar philosophy.

After 1950, a full-fledged movement appeared that was labeled by Martin Esslin as absurdism, or the Theater of the Absurd. Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet were caught up in a genre that revealed to the world a universe gone mad. Absurdists saw life as senseless and irrational. Their plays challenged conventional ideas of plot, action, character, and language. For these dramatists, productions themselves were creative acts, not just portrayals of play scripts on a stage. New production techniques involving adaptation of the physical space, music, dance, painting, kinetic art, mime, gesture, chanting, and lighting were employed along with the deemphasis on the value of traditional language and play structure.

Outside the theater, three movements had a significant impact on the work of Weiss. First, Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution and the origin of species suggested the ever-changing nature of the world. Second, Sigmund Freud’s psychic determinism established the notion that people’s actions were actually motivated by unconscious, hidden fears and motives. Finally, Karl Marx’s writings on economic determinism convinced Weiss that society was the domain of the rich and powerful.

Weiss was influenced by the writings of Albert Camus Camus, Albert , Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul , and Antonin Artaud. The existentialist Camus believed that the universe was in chaos. Morality was a fabrication designed to keep the average person in line. Camus believed that the ultimate truth was that life is filled with chaos, contradictions, and everyday inanities. Sartre, also an existentialist, believed that the world was neutral. People and societies assigned meanings to facts and events, rather than those facts and events having inherent meanings. Further, Sartre believed that “truth” was a lack of logic, order, and certainty. Holding to similar beliefs, Artaud developed the Theater of Cruelty. This was an attempt to have drama reach unconscious, buried human impulses. He thought it was necessary to subvert the conscious mind and confront the spectator through the psychic in order to bring about personal and social change. Artaud attempted to establish direct communication between the audience and the theatrical event as well as between the characters and the action on the stage.

Perhaps the most influential person affecting Weiss, however, was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht developed the “epic” theater. It was Brecht’s work with the Berliner Ensemble that perfected many of the theatrical techniques used by Weiss. Brecht worked with themes dealing with humanitarian causes and progressive social reforms. In his theater, he used dialogue to comment on sociopolitical, religious, and economic conditions. Brecht used such devices as a relatively bare stage with set pieces instead of full sets, lack of a front curtain and the usual imaginary “fourth wall” between the actor and the spectator, projections, placards, musicians on the stage, episodic scenes, and lighting in full view of the audience to achieve his purposes.

Brecht used these devices to alienate the audience, to distance them from the dramatic action so that they would have to confront, think about, and respond to the need for change in society. Weiss used Brecht’s “historification.” In the plot structure of Marat/Sade, Weiss draws attention to the “pastness” of the events shown to illustrate that change can occur. He wanted his viewers to accept the idea that they can bring about change in the world. In Marat/Sade, it is possible to see the eclectic assimilation of these various influences.


Marat/Sade represents the epitome of a distinctively twentieth century dramatic technique. The play established the use of documentary drama as a practice in the theater. Although the play was not entirely based on historical fact, it did present Weiss’s ideas in a historical context and used real-life characters including the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Marat. The use of documentary drama spread from the theater into the film and television industries. As the line between documentary works and entertainment blurred, both film and television often failed to draw a clear distinction between the art form and real life.

The impact of Marat/Sade on the theater is best realized when it is understood that the play represents the best theatrical elements drawn from Brecht, didacticism, absurdism, and the Theater of Cruelty. Weiss used alienation, historification, songs, a play within a play, a herald making announcements (Greek chorus), action set in an asylum (representing the irrationality of an absurd world), frequent interruptions, interpolations, discussions that transcend the immediate action of the plot, vast amount of spectacle, and one-dimensional characters (character types).

Weiss brought together a variety of dramatic elements that have influenced modern theater. Inclusion of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Meyerhold, Vsevolod “living newspaper” is evident in Weiss’s dramatic creation. Marat/Sade contains several characters telling many brief stories. As noted above, the play is constructed as a play within a play, with several subplots developed simultaneously. Another element of the play is its exemplification of the Theater of Cruelty. It is filled with the sights and sounds of an asylum. Movements, cries, and noises give as much, if not more, meaning to the dramatic action as do the scripted words. Surrealism is yet another element of drama perfected in the play. The juxtaposition of “realities” can be found in the dramatic action. The “reality” of the various characters is commented upon by themselves and others. At various times during the drama, the plot line is interrupted by one or more of the characters. The characters make comments that challenge the audience to consider alternate views of “reality.”

In effect, Marat/Sade rejects the concept of the well-made play by incorporating the irrational, dreamlike realities of the insane to comment on historical events. Weiss seems to have developed a dramaturgical form that focuses on the subjective reality of his characters while suggesting that the external world beyond the asylum was empty and meaningless.

Marat/Sade helped revolutionize modern theater. It allowed modern practitioners to reject conventions of dialogue. Weiss showed that in place of a standard script it is possible to use fragmented and nonsensical dialogue and that it is possible to use episodic action in place of the traditional dramatic structure. Through Marat/Sade, he demonstrated that sequential logic is not necessary. Elaborate sets and scenery were no longer needed. Weiss thrust the audience into the action of the play, as a part of it rather than casual observers of it. Weiss demonstrated that it was possible to deal with the relativity of the human experience from a historical perspective in an entertaining manner. He challenged the audience to look at history, learn from it, and avoid the mistakes of the past.

The modern theater has learned that it can abandon rationality and logic. Using a historical setting, Weiss showed that it is possible to deal effectively with human paradoxes and with their illogical behaviors. Marat/Sade used a historical setting to reveal a degenerate society and depraved humankind. Contemporary artists have learned to recognize that it is possible to understand reality by confronting human situations that deal with the absurd human condition.

Peter Brook’s production of Marat/Sade in London and later in New York City was part of a series of plays billed as “Theater of Cruelty.” Brook included Marat/Sade because the activity of the characters along with the multiple acting areas represented the Artaudian mode of theater. The Theater of Cruelty was a rejection of traditional use of texts and language. Brook’s production used constant activity, heightened by sights and sounds, and incorporated the use of nudity and sex. Further, Brook used physical violence directed toward the audience to create a theater of cruelty, exactly as Artaud had urged. Marat/Sade has become recognized as the masterpiece of the Theater of Cruelty.

The success of Marat/Sade led Weiss to write another documentary drama entitled Die Ermittlung Investigation, The (Weiss) (1965; The Investigation, 1966). Other works of his include Trotski im Exil (1970; Trotsky in Exile, 1972) and Hïlderlin (1971). These focus on broad universal issues rather than examinations of specific historical events or facts.

Other playwrights capitalized on the success of Marat/Sade. A movement known as “theater of fact” evolved. Plays representing this movement include Der Stellvertreter: Ein Christliches Trauerspiel (The Representative, 1963; also known as The Deputy, 1964) by Rolf Hochhuth and In der sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964; Oppenheimer, 1967) by Heinar Kipphardt. The influence of this type of avant-garde theater seemed to decline in the 1970’s. Commercial demands in the contemporary theater took their toll on the production of works similar to Marat/Sade.

Weiss’s Marat/Sade represented “total” theater. In this play, all elements of the theater worked together. Marat/Sade and other plays of this type have continued to be produced. The play has remained a part of theater workshops and summer stock companies; college and university theaters have continued to produce the play. As the epitomizing example of the Theater of Cruelty, Marat/Sade, with its use of all the dramatic elements, has had an ongoing impact in the theater. Theater of the Absurd Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Marat/Sade (Weiss)[Marat Sade (Weiss)] Theater of Cruelty

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berwald, Olaf. An Introduction to the Works of Peter Weiss. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003. An entry in the Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture series, this monograph provides a useful introduction to the themes and practices central to Weiss’s theater. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert J. Ball. The Essential Theatre. 8th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004. Brockett discusses the nature of theater along with providing an excellent overview of the continuing absurdist tradition in modern theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003. This comprehensive study is required reading for the serious student of the theater. Brockett provides a thorough look at trends and movements affecting the evolution of absurdist drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gillespie, Patti P., and Kenneth M. Cameron. Western Theatre: Revolution and Revival. New York: Macmillan, 1984. The authors offer a short discussion of Peter Weiss and Peter Brook’s production of Weiss’s Marat/Sade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roose-Evans, James. Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Today. New York: Universe Books, 1970. Roose-Evans provides a clear and concise discussion of major movements in the theater. This book gives the reader a unified view of what has led to much of the contemporary practice in modern theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Edwin. The Theater Experience. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991. The author examines numerous aspects of the theater in a discussion that highlights various developments in staging, acting, directing, and playwriting. Contains an excellent set of five appendixes including “Major Theatrical Forms and Movements” and “Historical Outline.”

Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen

Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy

Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble

Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity

Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The Hostage

Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd

Categories: History