The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As Romulus the Great opens, Spurius Titus Mamma arrives totally exhausted and wounded at the emperor’s villa, which seems deserted except for a flock of chickens. He brings news that the Roman Empire is collapsing, but the chamberlains refuse to let him see the emperor without an appointment, which is impossible to arrange with any speed. As the cavalry officer runs out in frustration, Emperor Romulus appears onstage to discover that the minister of finance has fled with the empty imperial cashbox; the empire is bankrupt, but the imperturbable Romulus directs his full attention to his breakfast, whose centerpiece is an egg freshly laid by one of his chickens, each of which is named for a historical leader.

The minister of state enters, extremely agitated about the cavalry officer’s news, but Romulus suggests that the officer rest from his long ride before reporting any news to him. At the breakfast table, Romulus’s wife, Julia, and daughter Rea become more and more upset as it becomes clear that the Germans (Teutons) have conquered Pavia. Emperor Zeno enters, pleading for sanctuary. As bad news continues to arrive, Romulus makes wry jokes, indicating his detached attitude.

Caesar Rupf, a wealthy manufacturer of trousers, enters and offers to pay the invading Teutonic chief to evacuate Italy, on condition that trousers become obligatory dress and that the emperor’s daughter become his wife. Julia is in favor of the marriage, but Romulus refuses. At the end of the act, the cavalry officer tries to deliver his message but is turned away by Romulus, who tells him that he is sacrificing himself needlessly since the country is already doomed. “Emperor, you’re a disgrace to Rome!” cries the officer.

Act 2, which takes place that afternoon, finds everything in disarray. The minister of state is having the archives burned so they...

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Romulus the Great Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play is carefully constructed so that each act works up to a final moment. The character of Romulus is to be revealed slowly, as Friedrich Dürrenmatt himself indicated, so that he appears to be a disgrace to Rome at the end of act 1 and so that Emilian’s demand that he be removed is understandable at the end of act 2. Only in act 3 does the audience clearly perceive Romulus’s purpose in sitting in judgment over the Roman Empire. At this moment the fool gains a type of dignity, and the farce becomes more serious. At this moment, too, his firmness of purpose, totally lacking in consideration of others, becomes apparent. A man who seemed to be a cynical joker, witty in the face of danger, is revealed to be dangerous in his determined and blind focus on one purpose. Act 4 shows history’s punishment of him. Ignoring his hopes and wishes, fate refuses Romulus a sacrificial death and imposes instead the comedy of retirement.

Romulus the Great combines tragic and comic elements in a form that has come to be called tragicomedy. Clearly, the tone of the play includes farcical elements, among them a cast of secondary characters with humorous names. The central character’s chicken breeding makes him seem an utter fool, as he worries about which hen has laid an egg that morning while the Empire is falling to invaders. In keeping with this tone, it is the chicken Odoaker who lays eggs, and Romulus, the Julians, and Orestes, his commander-in-chief,...

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Romulus the Great Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Crockett, Roger A. Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Daviau, Donald G. “Romulus der Grosse: A Traitor for Our Time?” Germanic Review 104 (1979): 104-109.

Diller, Edward. “Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Theological Concept of History.” German Quarterly 40 (1967): 363-371.

Jenny, Urs. Dürrenmatt: A Study of His Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.

Peppard, Murray B. Friedrich Dürrenmatt. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Tiusanen, Timo. Dürrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Whitten, Kenneth. Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect. Indianapolis: Berg, 1990.