Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 11)
Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–
A Swiss-German dramatist, novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist, Dürrenmatt views the world as chaos and believes that modern man is no longer master of his own fate. Because of this, pure tragedy is no longer possible: comedy and the grotesque are for Dürrenmatt the theatrical forms of our time. His works reveal his obsession with justice in a world where the complexity of power only reinforces human impotence. His response to this world is not despair, however, but rather courage and unwillingness to surrender in the face of absurdity. Dürrenmatt has explicated his approach to drama in a volume of brilliant essays, Theaterprobleme, where he explores the meaning of his own plays, their critical reception, playwriting, and the role of the artist. He has also contributed to the genre of the detective story, which he feels reflects the ambiguity of truth and justice for contemporary society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Adolf D. Klarmann
[Two facts stand out about Duerrenmatt's work], even upon a casual examination of his plays. Almost all have been reworked at least once, and almost all bear unusual baroque title and subtitles in which, as may be expected, the term "comedy" predominates in one form or another. It is Written (1945–46) and The Blind Man (1948) have no subtitles. Romulus the Great, "an unhistorical comedy," exists in two versions (1949 and 1957). The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, "a comedy," produced in New York early in 1958 as Fools are Passing Through in an adaptation by Maximilian Slater, has two versions (1952 and 1957). An Angel Comes to Babylon, "a fragmentary comedy in three acts," has three versions (1948, 1953, and 1957). The Visit of the Old Lady, "a tragicomedy in three acts," of 1956 was originally to have the subtitle "a bullish comedy." (p. 79)
In Duerrenmatt's love of the macabre, there is a definite kinship to Kafka and E. Th. A. Hoffmann and a spiritual affinity to the graphic art of Alfred Kubin in the conceptualization of a situation as well as in its mise en scène. Duerrenmatt visualizes scenes with the eye of an experienced draftsman before he translates them into the idiom of an imaginative stage…. (p. 81)
It is Written [Duerrenmatt's first play], the play about the Anabaptists in Münster, in spite of its immaturity and its lack of economy and...
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Friedrich Dürrenmatt has written three detective novels. None of them has that aura of philosophical profundity which surrounds his other works: plays like Der Besuch der alten Dame, for instance, or prose works like his "noch mögliche Geschichte," Die Panne. But the detective novels do have a reason for being.
In many of his works Dürrenmatt is concerned directly or indirectly with an almost obsessive idea: justice…. In each of the detective novels it is the main idea and in each one it is treated differently. To be more precise, we might say that these novels are variations on a theme.
Dürrenmatt's optimistic philosophical conclusion in Der Richter und sein Henker, Der Verdacht, and Das Versprechen is this: If man wants justice, he must pursue it, but more often than not, the certain attainment of it is something he must leave to Heaven. What literary form is better suited to that "message" than the detective novel? It is the literary form in which the seeker of justice pursues the perpetrator of injustice. Dürrenmatt's only problem is to exalt the form, to make us realize that justice does not lie solely in the hands of the ingenious Scotland Yard man or the private eye. (p. 71)
The dramatic technique of which Dürrenmatt is a master pervades [Der Richter]. The prose style has a clarity and simplicity which one does not expect in a...
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Paradox and grotesquerie are more than stylistic devices for Dürrenmatt: they are his reaction to our world, a world which, in contrast to earlier times, has lost all unity, has become chaotic beyond all comprehension, and therefore terrifying. (p. 328)
George Santayana calls the grotesque "… an interesting effect produced by such a transformation of an ideal type as exaggerates one of its elements or combines it with other types." Through this transformation the artist regains his freedom, and, with it, subject material which can no longer be found but must be invented, for parody and grotesque presuppose invention. This deliberate distortion of history and this sovereign willfulness in treating historical figures is illustrated in Es steht geschrieben (It stands written), in the figure of Nebukadnezar in Ein Engel Kommt nach Babylon (An Angel Comes to Babylon) and in practically all characters and events in Romulus der Grosse.
Why, then, asks Dürrenmatt, do we always and only use the Greek tragedians as models from which to derive dramatic principles? Why not for once, try to learn something from Aristophanes, the great master of comedy? The tragedians present to us events of a distant, mythical past as if these events were contemporary, they try to overcome distance in order to move us. Aristophanes walks in the opposite direction: his comedies take place in the present, but we are...
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Dürrenmatt's assertions frequently cause a reader to stop precisely at a point where serious analysis of basic assumptions should begin. His statements on the absurdity and chaotic quality of the world, for example, might seem to indicate that Dürrenmatt has resigned himself to the necessity of regarding the world as "chaos" and given up the job of trying to order or formulate his basic ontology in a coherent fashion…. [However there is] an overwhelming mass of evidence to indicate that the roots of Dürrenmatt's writings are firmly planted in an orderly personal theology that he uses to measure and judge the perplexing problems of our times. (p. 28)
In one of Dürrenmatt's short stories, Der Tunnel, some specific questions are asked about the significance of human existence and its relationship to God. Dürrenmatt paints a terrifying picture, showing the impotency and the complete lack of direction of modern man and the absurdity of his smug and limited undertakings. (p. 29)
Now why should Dürrenmatt, a product of the twentieth century, not assume that man has the power or capacity to improve on the world, or even aid in his own redemption, for that matter? Simply because to do so would assume that man has powers of salvation that could rob God of His power and His glory.
Thus, the great theological question which presses upon Dürrenmatt is: How shall God be glorified in an age which...
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"I describe human beings," Friedrich Dürrenmatt writes, "not marionettes; an action and not an allegory. I have presented a world, not pointed a moral." In this composite dramatic world of complex ironic situations, the authentic man of genuinely heroic stature, ultimately, is the self-conscious fool who is so dominated by fortune that even his tragic nobility becomes a source of somersaulting absurdity. Dürrenmatt's is a formless world, anonymous and abstract, but is personalized concretely in individual protagonists, so that the plays avoid the abstract irony of Pirandello or Sartre, for instance, or the deliberate alienation of Brecht. The characteristic perspective for Dürrenmatt's world is distance, a vantage point from which to recognize personal form and social chaos. This distance, the characteristic of comedy, reflects, as Dürrenmatt acknowledges, an attitude toward the universe beyond the stage, as well….
Adopting a surreal landscape from the Expressionism of the early twentieth-century theater, dialogue from the Naturalism of post-Romantic European movements, and mythic themes from ancient drama, Dürrenmatt evolves a dramatic style in which form works ironically against content. With generally "comic" techniques—conceit, double reversals, the clown-figure—Dürrenmatt works to tragic conclusions. The result is layered irony; gay, innocent tragedies and somber comedies combine in a hybrid form which seems to...
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G. F. Benham
On the face of it Dürrenmatt's first essay into [the detective story], Der Richter und sein Henker, contains sufficient traditional elements to explain its abiding popularity…. Written as it was in installments it enjoys all the sculptured, architechonic advantages of the Roman Feuilleton. (p. 147)
On first reading Dürrenmatt's Der Richter und sein Henker one is struck by the strangeness, the disconcerting oddity of the overall impression which this novel leaves. Where, one asks, is that feeling of delight, that essentially cathartic, reassuring feeling that things have turned out right? In its place one experiences a disconcerting je ne sais quoi, a nagging, worrying feeling that the equation has worked itself out unsatisfactorily. Initially one is inclined to dismiss this reaction, perhaps attributing it to Dürrenmatt's failure to cope with what was, for him at the time, a new form. But this too is unsatisfactory. The reader is left with no alternative but to re-read—and read more closely, paying particular attention to Dürrenmatt's departures from the "classic" tradition.
The figure of Kommissär Bärlach dominates this novel from the earliest stages until the close; small wonder, then, that it is here that we find the causes for the reader's unusual reaction to this novel as a whole. (p. 148)
[The] unreflecting acceptance so characteristic of the usual response...
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