Friedrich Dürrenmatt Essay - Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 1)

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 1)

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–

Swiss playwright, novelist, and painter. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Dürrenmatt has sought to shock his contemporaries out of their smugness and stir their consciences. In presenting plays that deal with contemporary problems, he has not hesitated to use drastic means such as grotesque exaggeration, parody, slapstick satire, and cabaret tricks. He is rightly called "uncomfortable" by the critics, a satisfying epithet for a playwright who wishes to arouse and excite and who has nothing but scorn for literature that soothes and comforts. Modern man is on trial in Dürrenmatt's works; all his heroes—usually passive, "negative" heroes who endure rather than conquer—are tried, tested, and forced to make moral decisions in a confused world which they do not understand but must withstand. (Preface)

The futility and frustration which result from man's striving might seem to relate Dürrenmatt's outlook to Kafka's whose prose has exerted such a strong influence on him. But Dürrenmatt has a deeply religious faith in God, even if His ways with man are inscrutable and beyond human understanding. And he also has an awareness of death that is different from Kafka's. These two philosophical views, together with Dürrenmatt's sense of a divine ordering of the universe maintained in the face of repeated failures to participate in this order, distinguish one author from the other. They share the same sense of being excluded from the world order as long as man strives for a goal and tries to interfere with it; but they are poles apart in the emotional response to this situation; for instead of despair, frustration, and futility that find no resolution, Dürrenmatt progresses to hilarious fun, mockery, and laughter—laughter on the verge of an eschatological abyss—in a word, to a grotesque grasp of reality. It is not only disillusioned detachment and ironic distance which enable him to achieve this humorous view of the world, but also a profound faith in the possibility of divine grace. (p. 24)

In all of Dürrenmatt's mature works, serenity of soul is typically coupled with the acceptance of death and an insight into the fundamental, if inscrutable, justice of the world order and the rightness of God's universe, including the final judgment of death. Characteristic is the victim's smile of joy in anticipation of final fulfillment. (p. 39)

In all of Dürrenmatt's plays, the problem of justice is the central theme. From the early plays we know that the emphasis will be on a distortion of justice, a fanatic and exaggerated form of righteousness which will appear ridiculous when its true relation to the cosmic order is revealed. (p. 46)

Dürrenmatt's fame rests on The Visit more than any other work, for it is his best play, the one most frequently and widely performed, the one translated into the most foreign languages, and, of course, the play that established his reputation on this side of the Atlantic. It is a play with so many depth dimensions that only repeated readings and viewings yield the full meaning. It may be, and has been, interpreted from many different points of view. It is the most frequently cited of all his plays, especially as an exemplary tragicomedy…. As in most of Dürrenmatt's works, the theme of justice is central, and what is shown is the perversion of justice in human terms. The inability of man to cling to his ideals in the face of economic pressure is a central motif in the play…. Language is used almost exclusively to conceal thoughts and intentions and veil them with words that are formally correct but palpably insincere. (pp. 52-5)

Certain themes emerge as common to all of Dürrenmatt's dramatic productions. Different as the works may seem, they are all related in sharing the same basic concerns: justice and man's inability to achieve it in a world remotely and obscurely part of a divine plan; serenity and peace of soul in the humble acceptance of a necessary but inscrutable fate; the destruction of order in a community; the potential goodness of the world (always in combination with man's unlimited capacity for destroying this goodness); the viciousness of economic ambition; the tendency to act on the basis of slogans instead of humane considerations (the tyranny of abstract ideals over personal relations); satire on bureaucracy and the cumbersome mechanism of government; the tragic or tragicomic results of moral rigidity; and the loneliness and frailty of man in all his relationships. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; and the reader may add to it at will. The themes are obviously serious and profound problems of life in the modern world. The reader must be warned again and again that Dürrenmatt's major concerns are always presented in comic form, that the motifs which set the plots in motion are often hilarious, and that the plays are comedies in which primacy must be assigned to the wit and humor of the stagecraft and not to the message or moral. (p. 88)

Dürrenmatt's short stories are not responsible for his fame, although they have contributed greatly to his popularity with the reading public. Stories like "Traps" and "Once a Greek" are successful literary works in their own right and not merely chips from the workbench of a great playwright. Like the plays, they are all thematically concerned with the problem of justice in an imperfect world, and therefore they help to round out the portrait of a major dramatist of our time. In style and language they are constructed of the same elements that form the plays, but with less closely knit dialogue, a greater sense of freedom and play for its own sake, and the more obvious purpose of sheer entertainment. The use of grotesqueness is similar to that found in the larger works, but without the will to achieve universality or breadth of implication and validity. The characters and the plots are more personal, intimate, and concerned with private, individual fates rather than with the larger cosmic issues of the plays. All the qualities of Dürrenmatt's works for the stage are present in profusion, but on a smaller, more modest scale. (pp. 118-19)

Murray B. Peppard, in his Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Twayne, 1969.