Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 102)
Friedrich Dürrenmatt 1921–1990
Swiss dramatist, novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, essayist, and critic.
The following entry provides an overview of Dürrenmatt's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 8, 11, 15, and 43.
Along with Bertolt Brecht, Dürrenmatt is considered one of the most important German-language dramatists of the 20th century. His plays are largely tragicomedies for, according to Dürrenmatt, true tragedy is impossible to write, but "we can achieve the tragic out of comedy." Paradoxes and irony are predominant in Dürrenmatt's fiction where he uses clever reversals to illustrate the cruelty of the world.
Dürrenmatt was born in Switzerland in 1921, and grew up in an intellectual family—his father was a minister and his grandfather had been a member of parliament. Many of the biblical and mythological allusions that appear in his work came from his parents' retelling of mythological and biblical tales. Later he studied theology, philosophy, literature, and science at the Universities of Bern and Zurich. He left school without completing a degree in order to pursue writing. In 1943 he wrote his first play, Komödie, which, though unproduced, set his style. Three years later he saw his first two plays produced—Es steht geschrieben (1947; It Is Written) and Der Blinde (1948; The Blind Man). Dürrenmatt used historical and religious events and people out of context to create these morality plays. It Is Written was ill-received by audiences (deemed an overly large and complicated production in both plot and staging), but critics nonetheless recognized Dürrenmatt's talent. With Romulus der Grosse (1949; Romulus the Great), his self-proclaimed "un-historical historical comedy," Dürrenmatt achieved acceptance by both audiences and critics alike. International recognition came with the production of Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi (The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi) in 1952. This play, about an upper class man and woman committing murders, was followed by a religious parable of selfless love in a material world—Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon: Eine Fragmentarische Komödie in drei Akten (1954; An Angel Comes to Babylon).
With international success, Dürrenmatt had perfected his tragicomic style of writing. Most of his work utilized anachronistic settings or unusual reversals. This trend continued with his two most popular works: Des Besuch der alten Dame (1956; The Visit) and Die Physiker (1962; The Physicists). The Visit concerns a rich woman returning to the village where she grew up. Upon her return, she offers the citizens millions of dollars to kill her old suitor. The play centers on the moral struggle the impoverished citizens must go through—deciding between financial freedom and the morality of becoming hired killers. The Physicists centers around three physicists in an insane asylum. The three pretend to be mad and "believe" that they are Einstein, Newton, and Moebius. In order to keep secret their knowledge of how to destroy the world, they each commit murder. Dürrenmatt was also regarded as a successful fiction writer. As early as 1950, with his detective story Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and His Hangman), he had applied his plot-twisting style to novels. Der Verdacht (1953; The Quarry), a sequel to The Judge and His Hangman, and Das Versprechen (1958; The Pledge) are also considered to be among his more important works.
Although some critics recognized Dürrenmatt's talent when he wrote It Is Written, it wasn't until Romulus the Great that he developed widespread critical acclaim. His most praised works continue to be The Visit, for which he won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and The Physicists. Through the years critical reception of his work has varied, though critics have tended to favor him despite often lukewarm receptions from audiences. With his adaptation of August Strindberg's Dance of Death, he attained favorable reception for Play Strindberg (1969) as well as some critical acceptance for Koenig Johann (1968; King John) and Titus Andronicus (1970)—adaptations of Shakespeare's works. During the 1960s, Dürrenmatt became more and more disillusioned with the direction in which the theater was headed and turned toward fiction. Der Aufiraug (1986; The Assignment) was one of his last works to receive critical praise. Striving to maintain his style of the unusual, Dürrenmatt tells the story of The Assignment in twenty-four chapters, each one sentence long. The rest of the narrative runs through twists and turns as the characters are all simultaneously observing and being observed by others in the novel. As Jennifer Michaels notes, "Dürrenmatt creates a powerful image of the alienation and the dehumanization that … people experience in the modern world." Throughout his career Dürrenmatt highlighted a world which he saw in chaos and which was, in his own words, something "monstrous, a riddle of misfortunes."
Es steht geschrieben [It Is Written] (play) 1947
Der Blinde [The Blind Man] (play) 1948
Romulus der Grosse [Romulus the Great] (play) 1949
Der Richter und sein Henker [The Judge and His Hangman] (novel) 1950
Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi [The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi] (play) 1952
Der Verdacht [The Quarry] (novel) 1953
Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon [An Angel Comes to Babylon] (play) 1953
∗Herkules und der Stall des Augias (radio play) 1954
Der Besuch der alien Dame [The Visit] (play) 1956
Das Versprechen [The Pledge] (novel) 1958
Frank der Fuenfte [with Paul Burkhard] (play) 1960
Die Physiker [The Physicists] (play) 1962
Der Meteor [The Meteor] (play) 1966
Koenig Johann [King John] (adaptation) 1968
Play Strindberg (adaptation) 1969
Titus Andronicus (adaptation) 1970
Der Mitmacher, ein Komplex (play) 1976
Achterloo (play) 1983
Der Auftraug [The Assignment] (novel) 1986
Midas (novel) 1990
∗Herkules und der Stall des Augias was expanded and produced as a play in 1962.
(The entire section is 135 words.)
SOURCE: "Justice Breeds Murder: Justice in Dürrenmatt as Theme and as Theatrical Material," in Modern Drama, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 73-86.
[In the following essay Robinson examines Dürrenmatt's use of justice. She looks at how justice is depicted as paradox and how the characters "choose to play madmen, clowns or victims in order to achieve their goals."]
In Dürrenmatt's plays "justice is at stake," as Palamedes tells his father in The Blind Man. Dürrenmatt tends to examine every situation and every action from the standpoint of justice, discussing such themes as the possibility of changing the world through justice, the perversion and parody of justice in our world, and man's injustice versus the justice of God. As far as his characters are concerned, they are obsessed with it; it is the idea of justice which makes their existence meaningful. "If there is no justice, one parts easily from it [life]," says the man who is about to die in Nighttime Talk With A Despised Man. Dürrenmatt's characters fight to their last breaths for their visions of justice, however distorted. For no matter how elevated or debased their aims, their conflicts arise from their pursuits of justice: whether hunting down a criminal, sentencing a son, robbing a bank, seeking revenge, destroying or saving an empire, they all believe themselves to be fighting for justice and order. Some of them, like the...
(The entire section is 6880 words.)
SOURCE: "Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Story 'Das Sterben der Pythia': Farewell to Theatre and a Return to Fiction and Essays?", in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 614-18.
[In the following essay, Spycher examines Dürrenmatt's use of chance and coincidence, specifically in "Das Sterben der Pythia," in place of fate.]
For decades after World War II the two Swiss writers Max Frisch (b. 1911;…) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (b. 1921) were regarded as two leading playwrights of the German-language theater. But after his play Biografie (1967) Frisch did not write another for some ten years. This new play, Triptychon, was published in book form in 1978. Will there be a next one? It is an open question. Dürrenmatt, on the other hand, has kept writing for the theatre at a fairly steady pace. His last success, however, was Play Strindberg (1969). His subsequent "comedies" have all been failures with the public: Porträt eines Planeten (1970/71), Der Mitmacher (The Accomplice; 1972), Die Frist (The Deadline; 1977), Die Panne (The Breakdown; 1979); also his adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1969/70), as well as his subjective productions of Goethe's Urfaust (1969/70), Büchner's Woyzeck (1971/72) and Lessing's Emilia Galotti (1974/75). He decided not to attend the premiere of Die Frist, and he...
(The entire section is 3816 words.)
SOURCE: "Scientific Method and Rationality in Dürrenmatu" in German Life and Letters, Vol. 35, No. 1, October, 1981, pp. 64-72.
[In the following essay, Wright shows how Dürrenmatt explores what is real by juxtaposing scientific method and speculation in his detective novels.]
Dürrenmatt's work so often presents us with an incalcuable world thwarting man's attempts to shape it, that the world's rationality seems questioned and thus the whole scientific enterprise to understand it. Nowhere does this seem more evident than in the detective novels, where scientific procedures are apparently mocked. In lectures of recent years Dürrenmatt has dealt directly with such philosophical issues, comparing in particular the views of Spinoza and Einstein, and acknowledging the importance that the thought of Karl Popper has come to have for him. An analysis of the detective novels will show just how much of what he now makes explicit was contained in his earlier work, suggesting that underlying his work is a coherent philosophical position that has changed little. While his work constitutes a critique of the Cartesian strand of rationalism, of which Spinoza is an extreme representative, his position remains firmly rationalist.
The novels contain an exploration of scientific method, presenting competing views of it that reflect the battles in physics fought out in Germany between the wars. The...
(The entire section is 4131 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Achterloo in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer 1984, p. 409.
[In the following review, Mueller praises Dürrenmatt, but is disappointed by Achterloo.]
How I greeted the opportunity to review a new Dürrenmatt play when I first unpacked Achterloo. As a long-time friend of his story Der Richter und sein Henker (which I have taught so often I know entire passages by heart) and the plays Der Besuch der alten Dame and Die Physiker, I was delighted to receive the playwright's latest work and to have a chance to proclaim its worth. After reading the play, I realize that it is not only I who has aged in teaching German literature; it appears that the creators of contemporary German classics have also aged. Dürrenmatt, it seems, is not what he used to be. This potpourri of characters from and allusions to history and the playwright's own earlier plays does not achieve the coherence of before.
Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and Dürrenmatt's own Physiker seem to have provided the inspiration to write this play, for in the closing lines we discover that the events have occurred in an insane asylum and that the actors were inmates of the asylum. In Achterloo Dürrenmatt continues the demythologizing and deheroicizing of important historical personages that he began in "Das Sterben der Pythia." Here Napoleon,...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
SOURCE: "Lovers, Labours, and Cliff Top Meals: The Architectonics of Dürrenmatt's two Herkules Dramas," in Seminar, Vol. XX, No. 4, November, 1984, pp. 279-89.
[In the following review, Wolfe compares the love scenes in the 1954 radio drama to the 1963 stage version of Dürrenmatt's Herkules. She contends that the love scenes were awkward in the radio drama, but are a more important subplot in the stage play.]
No other radio play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt has elicited such criticism, no other theater piece such impassioned denials as Herkules und der Stall des Augias. Deeply offended by the lampoon of their heroic tradition, and resentful of what appeared as a dark attack on the democratic process itself, Swiss audiences and reviewers alike rejected the two Hercules dramas. This was the emotional, public reaction to Dürrenmatt's playful handling of hallowed institutions; scholarly attention, however, turned inward, to a structural irregularity which seemed to force a "feeble lesson, a comfortable reconciliation of opposites." The love sequences of both the 1954 radio and 1963 stage versions have been unanimously regarded as subordinate and external to the central theme of courageous commitment to evolutionary change, a theme which had found its culmination in the final, garden scene. The critic Renate Usmiani, in considering that final scene in the radio version, voiced the...
(The entire section is 2897 words.)
SOURCE: "Space, Scenery and Action in Dürrenmatt's Plays," in Assaph, Vol. C, No. 3, 1986, pp. 191-206.
[In the following essay Yaron discusses how Dürrenmatt's use of specific and detailed stage directions yields an allegorical background for his plays.]
When I undertake the writing of a play, the first step which I make clear to myself is where this play is to take place.
The Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, attaches great significance to the place of action (Handlungsort) in his plays. He deals with this subject in great detail in his essay "Theater Problems", where he also underlines his predilection toward variegated scenery. Indeed, in his stage directions regarding the scenery, Dürrenmatt's love for the colorful setting is distinctly expressed. One manifestation of variegation is the sense of "overflowing", which is shown, for instance, in his detailed demands concerning the scenery of Ein Engel Kommt Nach Babylon. In the opening stage directions to the second act we read:
The second act is to be played beneath one of the Euphrates bridges, in the very heart of Babylon. The sky is shut out by towering skyscrapers and palaces. The orchestra pit again represents the river, and...
(The entire section is 5985 words.)
SOURCE: "Through the Camera's Eye: An Analysis of Dürrenmatt's Der Auftrag …," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 141-147.
[In the following, Michaels examines Dürrenmatt's use of observation in Der Auftrag. Typical of his work, Dürrenmatt's characters are in a dichotomy—this time of not wanting to be observed, yet wanting to observe.]
In his recent work, Der Auftrag oder Vom Beobachten des Beobachters der Beobachter: Novelle in vierundzwanzig Sätzen (1986), as in his earlier works, Friedrich Dürrenmatt is sharply critical of many trends in modern technological society. The tone of the work is suggested by the introductory quotation from Kierkegaard's Either/Or to which Dürrenmatt refers on two further occasions in the novella: "What portends? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment. When a spider hurls itself down from some fixed point consistently with its nature, it always sees before it only an empty space wherein it can find no foothold however much it sprawls. And so it is with me: always before me an empty space; what drives me forward is a consistency which lies behind me. This life is topsy-turvy and terrible, not to be endured." This quotation expresses the atmosphere of despair, emptiness, and uncertainty that, despite Dürrenmatt's characteristic grotesque humor and his inventive twists in the...
(The entire section is 3098 words.)
SOURCE: "Crimes of the Mind," in New Republic, Vol. 200, June 5, 1989, pp. 39-41.
[In the following review, Birkerts looks at the mind games and plot twists which Dürrenmatt has placed in The Execution of Justice and The Assignment.]
Friedrich Dürrenmatt is best known on these shores as one of Switzerland's two world-class playwrights, the other being Max Frisch. Both came to prominence after World War II, tilling the then-fertile soil of European malaise. Both filtered an existential pessimism into refined, often paradoxical investigations of good and evil, guilt and accountability. Politically neutral, culturally Germanized, the status of these Swiss writers seemed to mandate that ambiguity of thought and deed should be their proper subject. Dürrenmatt's two best-known plays, The Visit and The Physicists, reconnoiter precisely this terrain.
But Dürrenmatt, like Frisch, also turned his hand early on to novels, and to non-fiction prose of various descriptions. The Execution of Justice, which appeared in Germany in 1985, addresses many of Dürrenmatt's familiar themes—just as the title suggests. Nothing, however, can prepare us for the innovations of The Assignment, which was released the very next year. Careers, too, can make quantum leaps.
In 1950 Dürrenmatt published a short novel, The Judge and His Hangman, enormously...
(The entire section is 2305 words.)
SOURCE: "Terror as Usual in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1, March 1991, pp. 86-93.
[In the following essay on Dürrenmatt's The Assignment, Scanlan explores the fragmentation of identity and "the paired themes of terrorism and literary realism."]
The history of terrorism has been entwined with the history of the novel ever since serialization of Dostoevski's The Possessed began in 1871. Perhaps in spite of traditional assumptions, still not entirely lost, about the clear distinctions between literary and political activities, it is inevitable that terrorists sometimes seem to resemble novelists. Marginalized plotters both, they seek to impose their own constructions on a chaotic and resistant reality, relying on their ability to move the emotions of strangers. And though terrorists attract attention through violence, their targets are almost always symbolic, and their aims must finally be explained in language. Moreover, as leftist critics frequently argue, the public perception of terrorism is itself highly constructed. To say so is not to aestheticize the cruel reality of terrorist activities—to gloss over, for example, the fate of the passengers on Pan Am flight 103—but to argue that the ways in which government officials and the press represent terrorism are remarkably similar to the ways in which popular fiction does so....
(The entire section is 5199 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Midas oder Die schwarze Lenwand, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 708-709.
[The following is a favorable review of Dürrenmatt's Midas oder Die schwarze Lenwand.]
The nucleus of the opusculum Midas oder Die schwarze Leinwand is narrated by one of its characters, the writer significantly named F.D. An industrialist appears before his company's board of directors, where it is made clear to him that his firm is bankrupt and that his business practices will land him in jail. His friends on the board are ready to help him. They will take over the company, pay his debts, and provide for his family. They have taken out an insurance policy on his life. All he has to do is sign the policy and step out of his villa punctually at 8 P.M., and a truck will run him over. The industrialist agrees to the scheme and signs the document. He then visits his mistress and a pastor to say a sort of vicarious farewell without telling them what he intends to do. He has a similarly opaque conversation with his family during supper, then steps out of the house, and the truck rolls down the street, "a gigantic, sullen animal."
F.D. states that he intended to develop this nucleus into a filmscript, but "then Midas had to come to my mind…. The bankrupt industrialist became a tycoon." F.D. makes these revelations during the last few pages of the work, long...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Cory, Mark E. "Shakespeare and Dürrenmatt: From Tragedy to Tragicomedy." Comparative Literature 32, No.3 (Summer 1980): 253-73.
Examines Dürrenmatt's adaptations and how they reveal his political motivations as well as his mastery of tragicomedy.
Geldrich-Leffman, Hanna. "Vision and Blindness in Dürrenmatt, Buero Vallejo and Lenz." MLN 97, No. 3 (April 1982): 671-93.
Explores the use of blindness and its two-sided nature of impairment and link to subconscious, creative powers.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. "Behind the Law: Staging of Guilt in Kafka via Dürrenmatt." Journal of the American Academy of Religion LX, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 35-55.
Masuzawa looks at Dürrenmatt, especially his earlier works, as creating variations of Kafkan themes.
Reid, J. H. "Dürrenmatt in the GDR: The Dramatist's Reception up to 1980." The Modern Language Review 79, Part 2 (April 1984): 356-371.
Provides an historical review of Dürrenmatt's reception in the former East Germany.
Robinson, Gabrielle. "Nothing Left but Parody: Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Tom Stoppard." Theatre Journal 32, No. 1 (March 1980): 85-94....
(The entire section is 266 words.)