Friedrich Dürrenmatt Critical Essays

Friedrich Dürrenmatt Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The world in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s plays is an enigma, peopled by executioners and victims, tyrants and the oppressed, and persecutors and the persecuted. It defies all rational attempts to change it and is dominated by accident and chance. Dürrenmatt believed that the world is indeed ruled by chance—a chance short circuit could launch the nuclear weapons that would destroy the world. The individual feels helpless: Those individuals in Dürrenmatt’s works who do try to change the world are doomed to failure. Dürrenmatt was preoccupied with the question of justice (hence his fascination with the detective novel), but justice in his works is an unattainable, distant ideal.

Dürrenmatt believed that comedy is the only form of drama that can express adequately the situation of modern humanity; it alone can reproduce the formless contemporary world. Like his model, Aristophanes, Dürrenmatt was attracted to the social criticism inherent in the comic form. (Satire, he believed, is the only weapon that those in power fear.) In the essay Theaterprobleme (1955; Problems of the Theater, 1958), he writes that tragedy is no longer possible because it needs a fixed, moral order that does not exist today. In the modern world, tragedy is produced, in Dürrenmatt’s view, by universal butchers and acted out by mincing machines. Tragedy presupposes acceptance of responsibility for guilt; without personal responsibility there can be no tragedy. Today, he said, people are no longer individually guilty; rather, they are collectively guilty. Dürrenmatt wrote, however, that the tragic is still possible within comedy; a comic plot for him was concluded only when it has taken the worst possible turn.

Through his comedies, Dürrenmatt lures the audience into confronting reality. He did not provide answers to the problems he depicted in the plays. Instead, he likened his role to that of a midwife—that is, he helps people find their own answers. In his comedies, Dürrenmatt emphasized Einfälle (ingenious plots). His plays are not intended to be faithful representations of reality. In all his plays, even when they are set in the past, the focus is on modern-day problems. Dürrenmatt believed that comedy creates the distance that enables people to view the present objectively. An essential part of his comedies is the grotesque. Dürrenmatt said that the logical contradiction of the grotesque makes the spectator laugh, while its ethical contradiction outrages him. He used the grotesque to portray the monstrous, the abyss concealed beneath the veneer of civilization.

Despite his gloomy view of the world, Dürrenmatt always stressed the importance of humor. His plays abound in grotesque and absurd situations, puns, slapstick, gags, verbal ingenuity, and parodies, all of which reflect his vital comic imagination. Humor, according to the playwright, does not mean to approve of the world, but rather to accept it for what it is, as something dubious, and not to despair; it means to accept this dubiousness and carry on.

In “Dramaturgische Überlegungen zu den Wiedertäufern” (1967; “Dramaturgical Considerations to The Anabaptists”), Dürrenmatt gives possible models of how the English antarctic explorer Robert Scott could be portrayed, and these models aptly summarize his theories of the drama. William Shakespeare, he said, would have shown Scott’s downfall to be caused by a tragic flaw in his character. Ambition would have made him blind to the dangers of the region, and jealousy and betrayal by the other members of the expedition would have done the rest to bring about the catastrophe. Bertolt Brecht would have shown the expedition failing because of economic reasons and class thinking. An English education would have prevented Scott from making use of huskies, and in a style befitting his social class, he would have used ponies. Because of the higher cost of the ponies, he would have had to save on the rest of the equipment, which would have caused his downfall. Samuel Beckett would have concentrated only on the end. Changed into a block of ice, Scott would be sitting opposite other blocks of ice, talking without getting an answer from his comrades, not even sure whether he could be heard. Another possibility, which Dürrenmatt would prefer, would be to show Scott buying provisions for the expedition. While putting the provisions into the cold storage chamber, he would be locked in accidentally, where he would freeze to death. Scott dying far from all help among the glaciers of the Antarctic is a tragic figure; Scott locked into a cold storage chamber through mishap and dying in the middle of a city only a few yards from a busy street is transformed into a comic figure. Dürrenmatt concluded that the worst possible turn that a story can take is the turn to comedy.

Although Dürrenmatt’s comedies depict a world ruled by chance in which the individual is powerless, they are not utterly despairing. There are still courageous individuals such as Romulus and Graf Bodo von Übelohe-Zabernsee who try to change the world, even though they ultimately fail. As Dürrenmatt writes in Problems of the Theater, one has to accept the world for what it is and keep on living, refusing to give up. His vital comic imagination, evident in all his plays, alleviated his otherwise gloomy view of the world. In an interview with Horst Bienek in 1961, Dürrenmatt stressed the importance of humor in his plays; he said that he can be understood only from the point of view of humor taken seriously.

Common to most of Dürrenmatt’s essays on dramatic theory is an emphasis on the practical problems of the theater. He was rarely satisfied with his plays, as the various versions of the plays demonstrate. Each time one of his plays was produced, he said, he saw new possibilities. Many of the problems he encountered in writing his plays could be solved only when he saw his play on the stage. Dürrenmatt protested against dramatic rules formulated by critics; such rules, he said, are of no use to the artist. He wanted his plays to be judged by their theatrical quality, not by how well they fit into some theory of drama.

Romulus the Great

Dürrenmatt’s belief that the individual is powerless to change events is shown clearly in Romulus the Great, his first Swiss success, which had its premiere on April 25, 1949, in the Stadttheater in Basel. There are five versions of the play. The major change occurs in the second version and is kept in the remaining versions. In the first version, Romulus is portrayed as a cunning, successful politician who realizes his goals. In the subsequent versions, he is no longer victor but victim, a failed and tragic figure who sees that his life has been senseless.

The play depicts the destruction of the Roman Empire by the Germans. The time is the Ides of March, 476 c.e. (another change from the first version), by which Dürrenmatt parodies Shakespeare ’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600) and mocks heroic ideals. The action takes place on Romulus’s chicken farm, a grotesque incongruity, because the spectator has entirely different expectations of what the Roman court should be like. Dürrenmatt employs the classical dramatic unities as an ironic contrast to the chaotic world of hens on the stage. The play is called an “unhistorical-historical comedy.” The real Romulus was sixteen when he became emperor and was seventeen when he was forced to abdicate. Dürrenmatt’s Romulus is an older man. The many anachronisms in the play—the capitalist Cäsar Rupf, for example, who manufactures trousers—show that Dürrenmatt is using the fall of the Roman Empire to analyze modern problems.

Initially, Romulus appears to be lazy and disagreeable. Instead of trying to defend his empire, he sits comfortably eating and drinking. His only concern appears to be the fate of his beloved chickens, whom he has named after different Roman emperors. Yet there are indications that he is not as foolish and despicable as he appears. When Cäsar Rupf demands his daughter Rea’s hand as the price for saving Rome, Romulus is the only one who refuses to sell off his daughter in this way. Romulus is also fully aware of the hopelessness of the situation. He deduces that the Germans will conquer Rome because the chicken named after the German leader Odoaker lays a lot of eggs. Only in the third act does Romulus appear as a wise man who is passionately concerned with justice and humaneness. He has become Emperor of Rome only to liquidate his empire. His role, as he sees it, is to judge Rome: Rome has been tyrannical and brutal, and Romulus intends to punish it for its crimes by destroying it. His plan to punish Rome and thereby make the world more humane rests on a delusion: He assumes that the Germans are more humane than the Romans, yet the future ruler Theoderich is just as brutal as the Romans, if not more so. Odoaker, Theoderich’s uncle (a man who, like Romulus, is a passionate chicken-raiser), did not come to conquer Rome but to surrender to Romulus in order to save the world from his nephew. Despite their well-intentioned plans, Romulus and Odoaker are helpless; they cannot prevent the rise of another brutal empire under Theoderich.

Most of the other characters are comic figures. They swear that they will fight to the last drop of blood, but they actually flee in haste once the Germans approach. The empress Julia speaks of heroism and sacrifice, but when she flees she is concerned only with saving the imperial dinner service. Her marriage to Romulus has been loveless, since they only married each other for political reasons, to become emperor and empress. Their daughter Rea draws her notions of heroism from the tragic roles she rehearses under the guidance of the actor Phylax, notions that are far removed from the real world. The cynical art dealer Apollyon has no respect for art; for him it only means money. Cäsar Rupf parodies the political and economic power of the capitalist in the modern world (ironically, the capitalist, not the emperor, is called Caesar, an indication that the capitalist is the real power in the state). Zeno, the Byzantine emperor, is a would-be Machiavelli who has even intrigued against his own family. He is the only one who does not drown during the flight from the Germans: types such as Zeno, Dürrenmatt believed, are indestructible. Only Ämilian, Rea’s fiancé, is not a comic figure. Ämilian is captured by the Germans and suffers from their brutality; Romulus sympathizes with...

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