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.
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 old lady in The Visit, seek personal justice for wrongs they have suffered, but most of Dürrenmatt's major heroes pursue absolute social and historical justice. The Emperor in Romulus the Great sets himself up as Rome's judge and condemns his corrupt civilization to death in the name of justice. In The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, Mississippi fights to reinstitute iron Mosaic justice in his unjust and chaotic society. The Bastard in King John uses all the power of his reason to work for justice and order in his war-tom country, whereas Titus of Titus Andronicus seeks justice for Rome as well as for his tortured family.
Dürrenmatt's seekers after justice are exceptional men. Most of them hold powerful and outstanding positions; yet they choose to play madmen, clowns or victims in order to achieve their goals. Typically, it is Romulus who focuses on the crucial question: "Do we still have the right to be more than a victim?" In the end-time in which they live, heroism can work only through deliberate self-victimization: Romulus's clowning, Möbius's and Titus's madness, the Bastard's and Bockelson's playacting. But even this reduced form of heroism is ultimately doomed, and the heroes end trapped by their own acts, victims now against their wills, able to prove their greatness only by bearing injustice. In his later plays, Dürrenmatt denies them even this most personal achievement. The monstrous disorder wins. "Nonsense is victor!", "And heroes there are none. Only victims."
Therefore, although both Dürrenmatt and his characters want to light up the world with the "pure ray of justice" (as is said of the four old lawyers in The Puncture), thus bringing meaning and dignity to their lives, what they achieve is "justice reflected in the eyeglass of a drunk …" Not content with showing the hero's victimization, Dürrenmatt demonstrates paradoxical reversal and grotesque parody of justice. Judges turn into executioners, just men into criminals, and justice into farce. "… Justice / Breeds murder and does not create an order." Although this quotation stems from the later and more farcically distorted Titus Andronicus, its message is inherent in all of Dürrenmatt's plays. It is foreshadowed in Sainte-Claude's reply to Mississippi, who has called him a fool because "There is no justice without God."
You are the fool. There is justice only without God…. We both have spilled blood; you killed three hundred and fifty criminals and I never counted my victims. What we do is murder; therefore we have to do it meaningfully.
As we shall see, Dürrenmatt's idealistic heroes are forced to accept this monstrous paradox and with it their defeats, whereas the cynical characters use it, or play with it, to serve their ends.
The Puncture (1956) offers an ironic combination of these possibilities when four jovial old lawyers sentence a chance visitor to death in the name of the highest ideal of justice. "… Only in the act of sentencing … does justice become knighted; there can be nothing higher, nobler, greater than when a human being is sentenced to death." Although this is only a game with which the four amuse themselves on their stag night, it causes the death of their victim. Traps, who executes their sentence by hanging himself. Traps believes that they have lit up his world with the pure ray of justice, and he proudly accepts his fate, since it bestows greatness and meaning on his muddled, mediocre existence. So justice breeds murder but also offers meaning to a senseless life.
The same is true of The Visit (1956). Here another grotesque version of fate—she might as well be called Clotho instead of Claire—offers to buy justice for a billion, demanding in return the death of Alfred III, the lover who had betrayed her many years before. Her idea of justice is squarely based on capitalistic manipulation, which has determined her life from the start. Claire's lover forsook her when she was pregnant so that he could marry a shopkeeper's daughter, and he bought witnesses to conceal his paternity. Forced into exile and disgrace, she recovered her fortune by selling herself in marriage to a series of millionaires; she then used the money to starve prosperous Güllen economically. At the opening of the play, the town is destitute, and although the worthy citizens begin by protesting Claire's demand tor justice and revenge, they go off to buy new yellow shoes—on credit, of course—and end by accepting her bargain. Ill is murdered communally, and the people get their money. Yet they, too, claim to act in the name of justice: to establish a just community, not to tolerate injustice. "It is not a matter of prosperity and good living, nor of luxury; it is a matter of wanting to realize justice…." Like Traps, Ill in the end becomes a willing victim; he accepts his death sentence, which in truth condemns his executioners, and gives content to his empty life.
In order to understand more fully Dürrenmatt's paradoxical view of justice, one has to examine both the nature of his world and his justice-obsessed heroes. Dürrenmatt throws his characters into critical situations and extreme moments; for him it is always A.D. 476, "a ghastly Götterdämmerung of civilization…." His characters have the sense of living in "the last evening of time", when "the end-time has set in."
Therefore, Dürrenmatt's plays focus on moments of crisis. As historical subjects, he has chosen the fall of Rome, the Thirty Years' War, the Anabaptist revolt in Münster; but his nonhistorical plays concentrate no less on critical situations: Claire's fatal visit in The Visit, the collapse of a band in Frank V, Schwitter's ever repeated dying moment in The Meteor, the murder of a political leader in The Fall. Not content with selecting such critical situations, Dürrenmalt further augments the effect by distorting, exaggerating, parodying the action to a point where extremes confront each other and turn into paradoxical reversals. Only in this way, he feels, can he fix reality precisely, make it transparent. He wants to think a situation through to its end, which to him means both creating a paradox and presenting the worst possible turn a story can take. The result is, as he says of King John, "nasty," but it reveals a truth which is confirmed by our time.
Yet for Dürrenmatt, the worst possible case is not a matter of losing one's head in despair. On the contrary, he relishes the opportunity to tell annoying stories and to challenge his audience with extreme contrasts and paradoxes. Furthermore, as we shall see, the worst possible turn a story can take has its vital and liberating implications, since it constitutes for him the essence of theater and of play; and above all, Dürrenmatt is dedicated to playing with theatrical possibilities and models of the world.
Romulus the Great (1949), set in A.D. 476 with the barbarians at the gates of Rome, shows a world at the point of collapse. Traveling through the country, one finds destroyed cities and smoking villages, men massacred, women ravished and children starving. It is, nevertheless, a parodical world; the Emperor of Rome is a fat, middle-aged clown whose one serious concern is the breeding of hens. While Imperial officials make desperate and often hysterical attempts to save "our civilization," the Emperor concerns himself with his menu—the cook is the only official accorded any importance—and the productivity of his hens, which are named after his Imperial predecessors. The clucking of these fowls disturbs the decrepit but peaceful palace, and hen droppings soil every path of the neglected garden and every crumbling wall. The only source of efficiency—itself grotesque—is the mighty Caesar Rupf, a manufacturer of trousers, who is ready to rescue the moribund empire with his millions if he can marry Romulus's daughter. Romulus, however, scorns such a deal, reminding his servant of a more pressing task: "To our duty, Pyramus. Let's have the chicken feed."
Futile heroism and self-sacrifice abound in this hopeless time. Aemilianus, Romulus's prospective son-in-law, who has just returned, mutilated, from a Gothic prison, is ready for any sacrifice to save the fatherland. "Our shame will feed Italy; through our disgrace it will regain its strength." But Romulus checks him, as he does the messenger who has ridden for a hundred hours without rest to bring the news of another defeat: "Go to sleep, prefect, the times have turned your heroism into a pose." Neither heroism nor wisdom nor planning can alter this "disorderly earth", which will forever be engulfed in wars and upheavals spreading suffering and injustice.
An Angel Comes to Babylon (1953) expresses a similar view of an ever-changing yet also never-changing chaos and confusion. Nebuchadnezzar alternates between ruling and being ruled; using his rival Nimrod as footstool, having his ministers spit at him, and then serving as Nimrod's footstool, being spat at in turn by the ministers. His only creation—or is it Nimrod's?—is the idiot son who hops through the palace. The other permanent element is the suffering and persecution of the people, symbolized in the red garb of the hangman. Heroic deeds and sacrifices are senseless. As the wise Akki tells his friends in his last and most bitter Macame, "Bear disgrace, walk any paths, bury, if the times demand it, wild hope, hot love, suffering, grace, and humanity, under a red hangman's grab."
Frank V (1959) is perhaps too blatantly a schematic parody of justice, recounting the fortunes of a dynasty of criminals and their "gangster-bank." (Incidentally, Dürrenmatt draws a parallel between this gangster-bank and the "gangster-monarchy," as he calls it, of Richard III.) At one point, two men invoke the aid of "divine justice" in robbing the bank; after they are discovered, the wife of the bank owner pronounces the verdict: "You are definitely accepted into our bank. The attempted break-in was laudable, even if amateurishly planned; the key was excellent work". When this same lady, after a lifetime of forgery, fornication and murder, confesses all and asks for justice, the president of the country in his turn gives a verdict:
My old sweetheart, come on, don't take it to heart
What you confessed may be nasty but
If I look more closely it's no big thing….
There can be no justice, for that would jeopardize world order and economics. Instead, the lady is complimented for having saved the bank, which continues on its course.
In his other plays, Dürrenmatt builds similar extreme worlds, alienated from order and meaning, and constructed so that justice is reduced to the absurd. However, his Titus Andronicus, a play which presents a purely parodical accumulation of monstrosities, paints an even starker picture of this "idiotic course of time". During the course of his career, Dürrenmatt intensifies the parody, the grotesque, the simplification, using these devices to reduce everything to theatrical essence. Personal meaning or individual conscience, even if manifested only in the acceptance of victimization, become less and less possible.
This development begins with The Physicists (1962), set in an insane asylum inhabited by three brilliant scientists and run by an insane hunchbacked spinster, a good example of Dürrenmatt's totalized scheme: a mad hero in a mad world. In King John (1968), "the comedy of politics" portrays secular and religious rulers caught in a web of pointless wars and equally pointless reconciliations which lead to further injustice and violence. The city of Münster in The Anabaptists is yet another place of unreason and injustice, where Catholics and Protestants indiscriminately exchange positions, invariably getting hurt in the process. One knight, for example, on being struck by the falling statue of his patron saint, is converted to Protestantism, while at the same moment his colleague becomes a Catholic, so that once again they find themselves in opposite camps. Those in power are cynical, and the Anabaptists are either deluded fanatics or opportunists. The only rational man, a mathematical monk who believes that "my reason can conquer this unreasonable world", is constantly threatened by the gallows, whether Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist.
In Titus Andronicus (1970), Dürrenmatt goes even further in exemplifying "the farce of politics". The opening lines at once reveal this world of pure parody, when Saturninus appeals to the patricians to elect him, not his brother, emperor of Rome:
Elect me, and if my brother Bassianus
Gets elected, stick this lewd pig immediately.
The play ends with the deaths and mutilations of all the characters, and the senselessness of all endeavors:
What use is justice, what use revenge?
They are only names for an evil affair
The globe rolls along in the void
And dies as senselessly as we all die….
With this background of chaos, accidents and inhumanity, the "monstrous disorder of things", Dürrenmatt concentrates on the actions of characters who make an effort to change "this world of breakdowns" (Panne, p. II). His heroes, like Romulus, are remarkable men; emperors, generals, millionaires, artists or scientists of genius, men of extraordinary powers who try to control, improve or order the world according to their visions of justice. They will not accept the injustice of the world as immutable, and reason is the chief weapon in their fights. Often their senses of logic and order are offended as much as their senses of tightness. Thus, Newton of The Physicists, finding disorder unbearable, has become a physicist out of love of order: "to reduce the seeming disorder of nature to a higher order"; and Schwitter of The Meteor (1966) flees from the "monstrous disorder of things" into a fantasy of reason and logic which he finds in art, which, as Dürrenmatt describes it, is a world closed in itself, with its own geometry. Most of Dürrenmatt's characters, dreaming of a higher order and a higher justice, aspiring to prove that the spirit is stronger than the matter, man, like to think in terms of computations which leave no remainder; but reality corrects their ideas, as Romulus admits at the end. Romulus's true greatness lies in this insight, rather than in his schemes, for as Dürrenmatt says, the only greatness which man can show in these times is to bear injustice.
Don Quixote, whose name is frequently mentioned in the texts, could be the model for all of Dürrenmatt's heroes. "We should all be Don Quixotes, if only our hearts were a little in the right place and we had a grain of sense under our scalps." Dürrenmatt's characters are indeed engaged in Quixotic struggles, against overwhelming odds, to which they dedicate themselves with single-minded enthusiasm, ready for any...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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