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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Peter Weiss

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Inferno

Title: Inferno
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Drama
Written: 1964 (2003)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Inferno - Deutschland
  • Stück und Materialien
  • With an afterword by Christoph Weiß
  • With a biography/bibliography
  • Written in 1964, Inferno was first published in 2003
  • The world premiere of Inferno was of Johannes Kalitzke's opera version, at the Bremer Theater in June, 2005
  • The world premiere of the original play-version of Inferno was at the Badische Staatstheater Karlsruhe, January, 2008
  • Inferno has not been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting personal, contemporary use of the Dante-material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Rundschau . 29/1/2008 Peter Iden

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die Verschränkung des historischen Dante mit dem Zeitgenossen der sechziger Jahre des vergangenen Jahrhunderts, der sich nicht einpassen kann, und den kritischen Erinnerungen von Weiss selber, der sich fragt, wie man als Überlebender existieren soll angesichts der Millionen von Opfern, die nicht überlebt haben -- diese Gleichzeitigkeit mehrerer Figuren (und Epochen) in einer einzigen hat Weiss ermöglicht durch oft jähe Wechsel von Stimmungen des Albtraums, der surrealen Groteske, der wüsten Farce und manchmal fast realistischer Passagen. In nur einer Form, das ist hier die Botschaft, ist die Welt längst nicht mehr zu fassen." - Peter Iden, Frankfurter Rundschau

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dante's Divine Comedy was always one of Peter Weiss' guiding texts. He used it, in a variety of ways, in several of his works, and among his great but unrealised projects was a contemporary version of the Divina Commedia. Inferno -- written in 1964, but put aside and only published more than twenty years after his death, in 2003 -- was the first part of this planned dramatic trilogy. Another part, Paradiso, became the play now known as The Investigation, but the trilogy never took shape as a whole.
       Dante is the central character in the 33-canto Inferno, with the poet Virgil accompanying him. This Inferno is, however, a very different one from the one of Dante's own work.
       In his afterword Christoph Weiß quotes from Weiss' notebooks, the playwright having written that in his Inferno-piece he wanted to create: ""eine ganze neue Theaterform / ein mimisches Theater und ein Geräuschtheater" ("an entirely new form of theatre / a mimic- and sound-theatre").
       The piece requires ten actors. One plays Dante, but all the others fill more than one role. Virgil is also Giotto, an actor playing the "Chef" (the Boss) plays eight other roles, mostly authority-figures of some sort (including Charon, Pluto, Ulysses, and Minotaurus). There's also a divided chorus (for strophe and antistrophe), appearing in a variety of disguises, the members of which also fill other roles
       The character- and costume-changes, the shifting, surreal setting, and Weiss' short scenes and simple but stylised dialogue allow for expressive theatre: movement and sound -- suggested in Weiss' stage directions -- clearly have a great deal to do with the (potential) success of the play. It is a performance piece, allowing for a variety of approaches. The text is evocative enough to allow one to imagine some of the possibilities, but this is clearly a play that succeeds or fails depending on the director's vision.
       The story is of Dante's journey through this hell. The scene opens with him there, on a podium, with a laurel wreath on his head and a staff -- but he's anything but regal or prepossessing: he stands there: "klein und schmächtig kreidebleich" ("small and delicate chalk-white").
       Dante is unable to speak -- the first scene closes with him opening his mouth but unable to utter a word -- and seems in state of deep shock. He doesn't remember -- or doesn't want to -- and the scenes he is confronted with seem unreal to him: when he finally begins to speak (in the fifth scene) he is amazed by city streets that look like the streets in the city where he was raised -- except that they are peaceful, without the threats that originally drove him from there. Like much of the play, this return (of sorts) is, as Christoph Weiß notes in his afterword, also autobiographical: Dante's wanderings through this Inferno are much like Weiss' post-World War II return to Germany, and this hell is a reflection of 1960s Germany. This isn't a fire-and-brimstone hell -- which seems to be one of the difficulties Dante has with it, because the malign is still very much in evidence, but the horrors of a different sort than the ones found in Dante's own Inferno.
       In real life Dante was an exile from Florence (and sentenced to death in abstentia). Weiss, too, was an exile, and here he heaps on Dante the guilt of the survivor-exile who escaped the worst of what happened at home. Those Weiss' Dante finds in this Inferno accuse him of being unfit to in any way judge them or what happened in his absence. They mock him for his fear and for fleeing, and condemn him even for his failure to do anything about his much-beloved Beatrice:

Bei Dante hat der Held lieber zu flüchten
und der verlockenden Umarmung zu entsagen
als nachzugeben seinen Süchten
und die dazugehörigen Gefahren zu ertragen.

(In Dante the hero would rather flee
and renounce the tempting embrace
instead of yielding to his desires
and enduring the attendant dangers.)
       Dante is condemned for his very art: "nur im Gedicht hatte er zur Liebe Mut" ("only in his poetry did he have the courage to love").
       Scenes depict and allude to various contemporary horrors, including the mass-murder of the Jews and, at the very end of the play, the atomic bomb. Regarding past events Dante continues to use the same excuse: "Nein / ich war nicht dabei" ("No / I wasn't there"), but in Weiss' play that is not enough to absolve him.
       Dante undergoes several transformations in the play: the mute poet-on-a-pedestal of the opening scene is stripped of his clothes, left naked to the world, for example. There are a succession of stages, including the opportunity for him to compromise himself and serve, in comfort, in this world (he declines); eventually he is literally caught in a net. Throughout he is largely passive: things are done to him, while he remains uncertain of how to deal with this overwhelming might (and his own overwhelming guilt).

       Peter Weiss' Inferno is fascinating as an autobiographical text, and is an interesting creative consideration of 1960s Germany. Weiss' vision of this hell on earth gains and loses, probably in roughly equal measure, from his very personal take. His survivor-guilt, compounded further by the memory of his own lost Bea (his sister), is something he has explored in other works (most notably in the autobiographical novels Vanishing Point and Leavetaking), but his approach here is particularly daring. It is also, ultimately, only half-successful.
       Inferno is an interesting theatrical experiment, and it will be interesting to see how it will translate to the stage (the first production is scheduled for 2004/5). Weiss was an innovative dramatist, and Inferno is an ambitious piece of theatre. It is also a product of the 1960s, born in the very shadow of his first success, Marat/Sade; indeed, part of the feeling of being completely overwhelmed no doubt stems from what Weiss was going through in 1964 when he was writing this play (Marat/Sade premiered in late April of that year). Quite possibly, too, it would benefit from being seen as part of a greater whole (the planned trilogy), rather than by itself.

       Christoph Weiß's afterword provides a good introduction to and overview of the play. A volume of supporting material, edited by Yannick Müllendeer, is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2004 and should provide an overview of the ca. 1000 pages of Inferno-related material Weiss left behind.

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Inferno: Reviews: Reviews of the opera-version: Peter Weiss: Other works by Peter Weiss under Review Works about Peter Weiss under Review:
  • Werner Schmidt's biography, Peter Weiss: Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen
Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of Drama at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Peter Weiss (1916-82) was born in Germany. A remarkable artist, he was a talented painter who then turned to writing. Only slow to achieve recognition with his fiction he burst onto the international scene with the stunning success of his play, Marat/Sade. Winner of many West and East German literary prizes, he was also the author of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, the most important German novel since The Tin Drum.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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