Friedrich Dürrenmatt (DEWR-uhn-maht) was one of the most important German-language playwrights of the twentieth century, the recipient of many international awards. He was born on January 5, 1921, in the Swiss village of Konolfingen near Bern, the son of the Protestant minister Reinhold Dürrenmatt and his wife Hulda, and the grandson of a prominent newspaper editor, satirist, and politician, Ulrich Dürrenmatt. Dürrenmatt completed secondary school in Bern; then, during the “darkest time” of his life, he fitfully studied philosophy, literature, and the natural sciences in Zürich and Bern. He also painted extensively, believing that art would be his career, and began to write, though publishing very little. His initial efforts were the stark short stories and sketches written between 1943 and 1946, then revised until publication in 1952 in a collection called Die Stadt.
These stories, which served as an apprenticeship for his later literary success, provide a glimpse of Dürrenmatt’s own troubled existence, which saw “the horror lurking behind the scenes” of life. Of the various literary influences on Dürrenmatt’s early work—for example, Georg Büchner and Ernst Jünger—the most prominent is Franz Kafka, whose haunting stories present a disoriented protagonist attempting to come to grips with his own shortcomings in an unforgiving world. The Protestant religious foundation of Dürrenmatt’s upbringing was tested as he wrestled with nihilism and despair: “The torture chamber is the world. The world is the torment. The torturer is God. He torments.”
In 1947, Dürrenmatt married the former actress Lotti Geissler and produced his first play, Es steht geschrieben (it is written), which was clearly influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theory of alienation. This play, like the stories and many subsequent works, shows Dürrenmatt’s proclivity for revision: It was reworked twenty years later into Die Wiedertäufer. With Romulus the Great in 1949, Dürrenmatt began a series of dramatic masterpieces that firmly established his reputation. The pessimism of the early works was still present, but it was tempered by the colorful plots and delightful, if often grotesque, humor that best characterize Dürrenmatt’s career. The important though technically flawed The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi appeared in 1952, followed by An Angel Comes to Babylon in 1953 and The Visit in 1956. The Visit, generally considered his finest work, is Dürrenmatt’s most widely performed and translated play and did the most to establish his prominence in world literature. The dominant character in this play is Claire Zachanassian, a vengeful old woman who buys “justice” (a favorite Dürrenmatt theme) by donating a large amount of money to her hometown in exchange for the death of her former lover. A later masterpiece, The Physicists, has also enjoyed enormous popularity and critical acclaim. It is a classically constructed tragicomedy which deals with the explosive mix of dangerous scientific knowledge, love, madness, and the drive for power. The failure of a few plays in this period revealed some inconsistency in Dürrenmatt’s performance but did not detract from the impact of the masterworks.
Even as he was earning his primary reputation as a writer for the stage, Dürrenmatt also created a number of fine radio plays and detective works. Written earlier in his career as important sources of income before his breakthrough on the stage, they have achieved considerable notoriety in their own right. Dürrenmatt’s hero in two of the detective novels, The Judge and His Hangman and The Quarry, is the ailing Inspector Bärlach, who is distinguished by an unswerving devotion to justice and a profound understanding of his adversaries’ motives and character. A third mystery, The Pledge, bears the intriguing subtitle Requiem for the Detective Novel
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Requiem for the Detective Novel, for it illustrates a central theme in Dürrenmatt’s best prose and dramas: the limitations of reason and the role of chance in the course of human affairs. Those who seek to bypass chance, especially as they espouse strict ideologies and idealistic, logical plans of action, are doomed to fail. For Dürrenmatt, there are no absolute answers to the human condition, and no individual can alter the inevitable way of the world “that has to be accepted but before which there can be no capitulation.” The only reasonable response is a calm resignation to one’s fate and a willingness to bear one’s guilt, even if there is none immediately apparent.
Dürrenmatt’s prominence did not wane, but his dramatic career after the controversial success of The Meteor in 1966 failed to create the international acclaim of the masterworks. Dramaturgical discourse and political commentary claimed much of his creative energy, as did adaptations of others’ plays. These adaptations and other new plays such as Portrait of a Planet, The Conformer, Die Frist (the deadline), and Achterloo were not popular with the public, and the fact that one observer, in a view not widely shared, should term Die Frist “Dürrenmatt’s late masterpiece” only highlights the difference between the new and old plays. Nevertheless, Dürrenmatt’s position as a premier dramatist of modern world literature remained unchallenged.