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Remobilization from the Left: Peter Weiss' Viet Nam Discourse THOMAS A. KAMLA • IN A LETTER TO THE EDITORIAL STAFF of Theater heute in 1965,I Peter Weiss expresses his discontent with the formalistic, politically evasive tendencies pervading postwar German literature, arguing that the time has come for a type ofliterature which directly confronts the problems of social reality.2 Only a year earlier, with the appearance of Marat/Sade, Weiss himself was not yet quite so realistic in his own mode of literary creation; in this play the logicality of historical conflict is dramatized within an absurd, "formalistic" medium, implying that ideological debate and method of presentation were still in need of reconciliation. Weiss soon attained the appropriate medium for presenting social conflict when, a year later, he clarified once and for all the issue of individualism contra collectivism that had gone unresolved in the play: "Between the two choices offered me today, I see the possibility of settling existing world misunderstandings only in the socialist order."3 The revolutionary doctrine espoused by Marat now becomes artistically programmatic for the author; as a politically engaged playwright embarking upon a new realism Weiss turns to documentary drama for portraying "dialectic confrontation [and a] continuous openness to change and ... development."4 The rebirth of German documentary theatre in the 1960s (its tradition can be traced to the Agitpropstucke of the twenties) came about for definite historical reasons. An increased concern for vital moral and political issues on a local as well as international scale prompted playwrights to draw on the unaltered factual situation for their dramatic ma337 338 THOMAS A. KAMLA terial. Their only freedom lay in the selection of data5 and in the way it was presented to the viewer. The degree to which dramatists exercised artistic freedom determined just how much theatre could be distilled from a documentary background. Weiss' thoughts about documentary drama were tabulated in the spring of 1968 under the title "Peter Weiss: Das Material und die Modelle."6 These notes, dealing predominantly with the subject of social conflict, show an obvious affinity with Brechtian Verfremdung as an element of the historical dialectic: "Depicted are not individual conflicts, but socio-economically determined attitudes. Documentary theatre ... does not work with stage characters and milieu portrayal, but with groups, fields of force, tendencies."7 Weiss goes on to observe the dialectic as part of a dynamic process: "The figures who appear are placed in a historical context. Coincident with the exposition of their actions , development is shown, of which they are the determining factor."8 Finally, Weiss notes the interrelatedness of actively opposing forces: "An event red.ounds to the advantage of one side. Another side is adversely affected by it. The parties stand in opposition to one another; the dependent relationship between them is thereby illuminated."9 Weiss was faced with a variety of tasks in writing Viet Nam Discourse (1966-68), not the least of which centered on the problem of documentation. As a dramatist he was not content with staging a series of historical events for their mere pedagogical or informative value. By assembling his material for the stage, he was recasting documentation in the form of art. This integration of documentary material into an artistic framework (rhythmic prose, chorus, pantomime, numbers typifying historical forces, caricature) did not detract from the realities Weiss wanted to portray, an opinion held by some critics.1O As an illustration, we refer to the Berlin Ensemble production of Viet Nam Discourse in April, 1968, which depicted American politicians and industrialists in a state of suspension . Dulles, Johnson, Kennedy, and other officials were lowered from the gridiron in chairs from which consultations were held at various heights above the stage. The anti-American polemic pervading most of Part II becomes more intellectually provocative through this kind of staging device. In this scene the audience is both entertained and, in true Brechtian fashion, critically awakened by Weiss' satiric intent: to expose American foreign policy in Viet Nam as "hanging in the air," that is, as lacking foundation or fundamental principles. In addition to these and other techniques involved in the staging of documentary material, Weiss also had to consider the nature of...

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