Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 15)
Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–
A Swiss-German dramatist, novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist, Dürrenmatt views the modern world as chaos and believes that individuals are no longer in control of their own lives. Because of this, pure tragedy is no longer possible: a gallows comedy is for Dürrenmatt the theatrical genre 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. In Theaterprobleme, his collection of brilliant essays, Dürrenmatt 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
[The early narrative pieces collected in Die Stadt (The City)] were the first tortuous steps of an author who was still feeling his way. No one knew that better than Dürrenmatt himself, who wrote in the epilogue to Die Stadt: "This work is not an attempt to establish values or to tell some stories; rather, it is a necessary attempt to fight out something with myself…."…
[The] stories in Die Stadt form the nucleus out of which the subsequent works grew. They illustrate Dürrenmatt's intellectual and emotional state at the beginning of his career. (p. 5)
"Weihnacht" is a parable about the despair of a man who becomes conscious of life's truths, who recognizes his own helplessness and weakness, and who blames God for not acting more justly toward mankind and for not giving it a better chance. This man can no longer love and trust God….
["Der Folterknecht"] too, transmits the despairing cry of a man who holds God responsible—since he is all-powerful—for the grim condition of humanity in general and of the individual in particular. (p. 7)
In the remaining tales in Die Stadt, the language is different. Dürrenmatt abandons short sentences in favor of a more realistic style, which includes long descriptive statements. "Der Hund" [The Dog] seems to be a dream vision in which a rich industrialist comes to understand the truth about the tragic situation...
(The entire section is 3537 words.)
Peter J. Graves
The writings of Friedrich Dürrenmatt are liberally scattered with disclaimers, warning all who would approach his works that they are dealing here with a creative writer, not a theoretician; with a theatrical experimenter, not a philosopher…. [However, in his essay 'Vom Sinn der Dichtung in unserer Zeit,' Dürrenmatt reveals that for him art is] a means of helping the ordinary individual, trapped and powerless in a depersonalized society, to comprehend his world, or, perhaps more realistically, at least to come to terms with its incomprehensibility. (p. 133)
Of course it would be a fundamental error to claim that Dürrenmatt's purpose is primarily didactic. He himself … has been at pains to emphasize that their theatrical quality should be the criterion by which his plays are judged…. Yet one cannot ignore the extreme and … paradoxical position into which Dürrenmatt is led by his evident horror of being regarded as a philosopher or moralist disguised as a playwright. This is seen at its most striking when he discusses the reaction of the spectator to his plays and seeks to arrogate to himself a complete detachment. (p. 134)
In his thoughts on Die Wiedertäufer (1967) he … places the responsibility for any reaction to his plays firmly on the individual spectator, disclaiming any for himself…. Such a complete personal withdrawal, however, is notably at variance with Dürrenmatt's conception of the...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)
Kenneth S. Whitton
Although Dürrenmatt himself has repeatedly repudiated any suggestion of an early Brecht influence, one would acknowledge, of course, that Dürrenmatt—least of all modern writers—should not be taken at his word. Paradoxical, diametrically opposed statements abound in the vast literature which has grown up around him in the last twenty years or so, but we believe that Dürrenmatt only "used" Brecht, as he has "used" Aristophanes, Sophocles, Strindberg and Wedekind, as irregular sounding-boards from which his own ideas give back new resonances. (p. 65)
The crucial difference between Dürrenmatt and Brecht is this: Where Dürrenmatt wages theatrical war against "the rulers of the world" ("Die Mächtigen") wherever they may be found, in east or west, the objects of Brecht's satirical attacks tend to be found on one side only, among the capitalists, that group whom he had observed so closely in Weimarian Germany and during his exile in the USA from 1941 to 1947. Brecht's characters, Puntila, Shui Ta, Barberini and the rest are pre-War sketches of more or less brutal capitalists. The people whom Dürrenmatt attacks, the pretentious, the pompous, the mindless, can be found in all classes of people and society and in all countries. The citizens of bourgeois Güllen are as "guilty" as royal Nebukadnezar, the conservative military men of Romulus' court, or the time-serving Communist adventurer, Saint-Claude, in Die Ehe des...
(The entire section is 1384 words.)
EDW ARD R. McDONALD
[It is Dürrenmatt's] conviction that tragedy cannot justifiably be mirrored in the dealings of a lone protagonist, since the latter's individuality has been effaced by the collective concerns of a highly organized society. Tragedy implies a sense of individual choice, and it is precisely this autonomous moral responsibility which Dürrenmatt finds to be lacking in the contemporary world.
In his most important theoretical contribution entitled 'Problems of the Theater', Dürrenmatt states that although one no longer can justifiably present personal tragedy on stage, nevertheless, the tragic in life can still be illuminated, and, he writes, this sense of the tragic can best be accentuated by means of comic elements, through the incongruous, the bizarre, the grotesque, et al. The tragic is often seen as a catastrophic reversal of the social order, as an abyss that opens suddenly to engulf all that are being pushed toward it. It is precisely this terrifying moment, the frightfully sudden opening of the abyss which will swallow up society, that Dürrenmatt so skillfully dramatises in 'The Visit'. He shows us how swiftly the tragic can envelope society when humane values come into conflict with greed, a vice which hides its identity under the mask of "the goodlife" and/or of economic necessity. (pp. 130-31)
[In] a play which is primarily comic in tone, the playwright also manages to successfully portray the tragic struggle...
(The entire section is 1556 words.)
Sister Corona Sharp
The Dance of Death and the Triumph of Death are themes that appeared across late medieval and Renaissance Europe in the visual arts, poetry and drama. Death snatching people away became a favourite subject of didacticism. In Germany, France and Switzerland, particularly, the lasting impressions made by extant murals, verses and plays have continued into our time…. In modern drama, there are two distinct manifestations of the influence of the Dance of Death: first, the imitative Dance of Death plays …; and second, the more original adaptations of the theme such as … Dürrenmatt's The Meteor…. (p. 107)
In Dürrenmatt we find a playwright wholly obsessed with death. It is a peculiar aspect of his dramatic art that he places death in a grotesquely comic universe…. The Meteor represents "grotesque theatre," a type of play based on the philosophical proposition that man's fate is grotesque but logical and therefore not absurd, when his careful planning is thwarted and reversed through chance, and he is thus reduced to the worst possible end. In The Meteor, Dürrenmatt has transposed the elements of the Dance of Death into an unexpected pattern: death prevails through the paradoxical and comic agency of Schwitter, the man who desperately desires death, dies several times, but keeps on resurrecting. He is the meteor that destroys the representatives of modern society. (p. 109)
(The entire section is 753 words.)