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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The New Trial

Peter Weiss

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To purchase The New Trial

Title: The New Trial
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Drama
Written: 1982 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 119 pages
Original in: German/Swedish
Availability: The New Trial - US
The New Trial - UK
The New Trial - Canada
Der neue Prozeß - Deutschland
  • German title: Der neue Prozeß
  • First produced in Swedish, in 1982
  • Translated and with an Introduction by James Rolleston and Kai Evers
  • Includes:
    • "Peter Weiss on The New Trial"
    • "A Conversation" between Peter Weiss, Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, and Anita Brundahl (1982), a translation of Jörg Scherzer's German text, based on the Swedish original
    • "Peter Weiss on Dramatic Style", a translation of Jörg Scherzer's German text, based on the Swedish original
    • "Peter Weiss on Some Roles in The New Trial", with sketches by Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss
    • "Reflections on a Director's Process", by Jody McAuliffe
  • The English-language premiere of The New Trial took place at Duke University, November 1998
  • Note that in the original Suhrkamp edition of Der neue Prozeß (1984) the conclusion of scene 31 as well as scenes 32 and 33 (i.e. the end of the play) were omitted. Presumably mistakenly. But still: inexcusably.

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting play, nicely presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Franz Kafka was a major influence on Peter Weiss: Kafka's work -- and his life -- shimmer shadowily in much of Weiss' own work. In 1974, at the suggestion of Ingmar Bergman, Weiss even adapted Kafka's novel, The Trial, for the stage -- a version Bergman rejected (it premiered in Bremen, in 1975). While Weiss then focussed his attention on his great work of fiction, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see our review), Kafka -- and specifically The Trial -- still had a hold on him. Completing Die Ästhetik des Widerstands in 1981, he turned back to writing for the stage. The New Trial was to be his last work, first staged in Stockholm a mere two months before his death.
       The New Trial is not an adaptation of Kafka's novel. Weiss did use The Trial as a template, but he maintained:

The only elements I have taken over from the novel are the reference to it in the title, the names of the characters, and -- as a core pattern -- certain of the dramatic locations.
       (Note that the references to the novel in the play are usefully described here in an appendix, "The Kafka Connection".)
       Weiss does, however, also acknowledge the play's "inner affinity" to Kafka. In fact, Josef K. -- the main character -- is very much Kafka's K., and the inner affinity is a conspicuous one. The New Trial is, however "a play happening in our own time, in which Josef K and the figures surrounding him are our contemporaries." K's hapless and almost helpless confusion is much the same in both play and novel, but in Weiss' new version the external factors have taken on new and very different dimensions.
       The New Trial is a character study. K's is a powerful role: he is an individual at odds with the world around him, and unable to grasp it all (K is, to some extent, also clearly an alter ego of Weiss). But The New Trial is also very much a political play.
       Weiss states: "The new theme emerged through a conversation with a specialist in economics" -- words that might (unfortunately) be enough to scare off many audiences. The play is an indictment of capitalism, of the all-powerful financial-industrial complex, but Weiss is careful in his presentation, admitting the complexities of the issues. Weiss doses the didacticism in the play, though he makes his position quite clear.
       K is Chief Attorney in a large (and seemingly ever-growing) company, working in the insurance department until he is promoted to headquarters. A serious, responsible worker, trying to help the people that come to him, he is often thwarted by his company, whose goals remain largely nebulous to K. "A new world is coming", Rabensteiner tells him, but it is not one K is prepared for.
       For all of Weiss' claims that The New Trial is set in our own time, much of it has a dated feel. The ominous company he works for is almost cartoonishly out of date, a Kafkaesque vision out of the 1920s that modern audiences will find it difficult to relate to (especially in America, where corporate culture is often more revered than actual culture). Similarly, the political activism -- including the many parties presenting their platforms, arguing for change, and trying to enlist support -- must seem almost baffling to contemporary audiences (again: especially in America).
       "I want order -- but a different kind of order", K says. "I want a larger order, an order in which everything makes sense." There does appear to be a larger order here, but it is a baffling one to K. Still, he does his best to do what he thinks is right. The family he tries to assist in his insurance role is rebuffed by the anonymous conglomerate he works for. K's solution -- where all his others fail -- is to let them move in with him in.
       "Your idealism -- we could use more of that !" the Public Prosecutor tells K. In fact, they only wish to abuse his idealism. His transfer to corporate headquarters allows the company to present a false front. K is "morally unimpeachable", and the company uses this to their benefit -- for as long as they need him. He is not the only one taken advantage of in this manner. His neighbour, Miss Bürstner, is similarly taken advantage of. "She is the exploited woman", Weiss writes in his character-notes. "She is given authority, but only apparently so."
       K is allowed to select the art that will then hang in corporate headquarters. He meets the artist Titorelli, who seems to produce an art that speaks to K's concerns, that can stand up to the corporation -- but art, too, becomes complicit. Art is not enough to counter the corporation: it is subsumed and turns against itself, twisted by the company. It shows the threatening forces but these are: "Forces which, as we show with our purchasing, we understand how to exorcise and control !"
       K thinks that because he is an insignificant person he can not do harm. Leni knows the awful truth: "Such an insignificant person can give a face to power." That is what K does, fatally.
       "Everything is the regime of lies", Weiss states. Only in the end does K almost comprehend. Still, he "remains standing, irresolute", moments too long. He can not bring himself to act, even to save himself.

       It is difficult to subtract the Kafkesque elements from the play, though it seems stronger if not read just in that light. As an echo of Kafka, an alternate reading of The Trial, it has some power, but its true strength is surely if seen standing on its own. (We'd like to imagine a colourful, perhaps even exaggeratedly modern staging, nothing as stark and black and white as Kafka seems always to be presented as -- and as the play is in the admittedly misleading black-and-white photographs of the American premiere included in this edition.)
       The play is fairly solidly translated (and certainly preferable to the original German Suhrkamp edition, which cut the last pages of the play, leaving a different, open end). An introduction by the translators, various appendices and notes (including comments by Weiss, as well as a conversation with him), and Jody McAuliffe's reflections on directing the English-language premiere all help explain the text, suggesting a number of approaches to it. The Dante connection (note the 33 scenes of the play) is fully explored, as is the Kafka influence. Aside from terrifying admissions by McAuliffe ("my students, by and large, had never even heard of Brecht, let alone Weiss") the pieces are interesting and very helpful. An odd omission is a list of the cast of characters, which we would have found useful.
       An unusual play -- not the sort of thing one finds being written or produced nowadays -- it is nevertheless a worthwhile one. This text, along with the useful supporting material, allows readers to imagine the play for themselves (if they're not too misled by the production-photographs) and thus seems an ideal approach to the challenging work.
       A must for those interested in either Weiss or Kafka, and certainly recommended to those interested in how political drama can be conceived.

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The New Trial: Reviews: 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
  • See also the Index of German literature 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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