Critical Context

For Friedrich Dürrenmatt, drama was an attempt to represent reality onstage. While specific political ideologies and dramatic theory were not areas of concern to Dürrenmatt insofar as they were purely abstract, his dramas reveal a perspective very much in line with literature written in German since 1950, characterized first of all by a radical pessimism and feelings of disillusion, nihilism, and isolation. Many postwar dramatists believed that the possibility of writing classical tragedy had been destroyed by the historical events they had just witnessed. Dürrenmatt himself wrote that in the twentieth century individuals could no longer be held accountable and there should be no more individual guilt and atonement. In the modern world, power is wielded by anonymous bureaucrats, leaving comedy as the only dramatic form possible.

Romulus the Great was Dürrenmatt’s first dramatic success; although often referred to as a comedy, it has the form of a consistent tragicomedy. In subsequent dramas, such as Der Besuch der alten Dame (pr., pb. 1956; The Visit, 1958) and Die Physiker (pr., pb. 1962; The Physicists, 1963), Dürrenmatt continued the practice of infusing a serious subject with a comic tone, presenting an incomprehensible world in which the individual is carried along by events outside his control.

Romulus the Great, revised several times, is deliberately provocative and shows a style and tone that are associated with all Dürrenmatt’s subsequent work. He used grotesque exaggeration, including parody and farce, and his heroes are determinedly unheroic, making decisions in a world that cannot be understood. The major themes of sacrificial death, the desire for justice, and blind chance, as well as minor elements such as the tendency of his characters to dine well (as Romulus does), reappear in later works. Much of Dürrenmatt’s view of reality was already demonstrated in this work, as was his skill as a practical dramatist. His plays can be read and enjoyed, but the real test is their success onstage. To judge by the number of performances and audience response, Romulus the Great and several of his subsequent dramas have passed the test.