Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3092
Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–
Dürrenmatt is a Swiss dramatist, novelist, and painter. His powerful, sometimes shocking, plays examine the plight of men forced to contend with a hostile society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
When The Visit opened on Broadway on May 5, 1958, it was an instant success, and the name of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, known throughout Europe for some years, was suddenly brought to the attention of the American theater world. So profound an impression did this one play make that Dürrenmatt has shot up in the estimation of American theater people to a place on a level with Jean Anouilh as one of Europe's foremost current dramatic authors.
Dürrenmatt's plays can be characterized as fantasies from which lessons may be learned…. Philosophy, Dürrenmatt insists, cannot be transmitted through drama. He feels that the theater exists solely as a medium for the creation of a special world—that the audience, in other words, comes to peep in at a new, wonderful, and strange world, a contrived set of circumstances in which fantastic things can happen quite as matter-of-factly as the spectators wistfully wish they might in real life. Beyond this Dürrenmatt refuses to go. He maintains that he does not care what lesson may be drawn from his plays, if any. Like T. S. Eliot, he is often enlightened as to the inner meaning of his works by reading the critics. His own attitude is simply that each person will choose from these created worlds whatever appears desirable or useful to him.
All of Dürrenmatt's created worlds seem to fasten upon and revolve (in a manner sometimes savage and bitter, sometimes impersonal and amused, sometimes ferociously jocular—but always detached and bitingly sardonic) around death. In Dürrenmatt's works death seems to be almost personified—a vague, grey shape leaning mockingly over the shoulders of his leading characters and edging them slyly on…. Death is the culmination of life, but it is an anticlimactic and basically insignificant culmination. A process that culminates in an anticlimax can only be treated as a ridiculous joke. Hence the mordantly sardonic, lacerating note in Dürrenmatt's plays—"Man is ridiculous because he must die." Dürrenmatt's world is like a Punch and Judy show in which audience and puppeteer are part of the ridiculous antics….
Throughout his works Dürrenmatt has a viewpoint that can best be described as sardonic. Dürrenmatt is a disillusioned analyst of the human character. Even the plays with political themes are ultimately about the human beings rather than the issues. Like Ionesco, like Beckett, like all the writers of the dramatic avant-garde in fact, Dürrenmatt feels deep down in himself that the problems of humanity are insoluble. And so he takes refuge from this knowledge in a mordantly sardonic portrayal of life. He himself remains detached….
Although Dürrenmatt derives his technique more from Thornton Wilder than from Antonin Artaud and the surrealists, he does resemble the authors of the current dramatic avant-garde in that his plays are dominated by the two qualities of protest and paradox. Dürrenmatt's two main themes are based on (i) the paradox that the power to do good corrupts the doer so that the goodness is negated and the power becomes purely evil; and (ii) the paradox that the omnipresence of death renders human acts trivial. What distinguishes Dürrenmatt from Beckett, who also feels that the events of life are basically meaningless, is that Beckett feels this to the point where he asserts that all events are flattened out and equally insignificant, whereas Dürrenmatt does recognize that events may have an immediate significance to those affected…. Nothing is inevitable and determined in Dürrenmatt. The fact that things are insignificant from a cosmic viewpoint does not alter the fact that they are significant in the immediate present: it merely argues that they are finally insoluble and will always repeat themselves.
George Wellwarth, "Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Sardonic View," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 134-61.
Dürrenmatt's writing owes much to the German tradition of grotesque fantasy: Kafka, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Büchner, and Wedekind are among his literary forebears. But there is an Anglo-Saxon streak in Dürrenmatt as well; he owes much to the English detective novel which also takes murder for granted in the most well-ordered of middle-class societies; and his vein of anachronistically ironic treatments of historical or mythological subjects is clearly based on Shaw.
An affluent, highly mechanized society, teeming as it may be with violence, cannot, in Dürrenmatt's view, give rise to tragedy because it is so mechanized that violence happens by remote control. There is no responsibility in an ant heap, and there can be no tragedy without responsibility: "In the muddle of our century," Dürrenmatt has said, "there are no longer guilty or responsible human beings. Everybody claims that he is not to blame, that he did not want it to happen. And indeed, things would have happened without anyone in particular doing anything about making them happen. We are far too collectively guilty, far too collectively embedded in the sins of our fathers and of their fathers. We are merely the children of their children.
That's our bad luck, not our guilt. Guilt presupposes personal action, a religious act. Only comedy can deal with us. Our world has led us into the realm of the grotesque, as it has led us to the atom bomb; just as the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are also merely grotesque."…
And so Dürrenmatt confronts his audiences with a world that may be horrifying and grotesque but that, he hopes, they will face with courage and a sense of humor.
Martin Esslin, "The Neurosis of the Neutrals: II. Friedrich Dürrenmatt," in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 107-14.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt has been celebrated for the ingenuity of his plots…. Equally ingenious is the catalogue of names, principally for the dramatis personae, which he has devised for his plays. Dürrenmatt's names run the gamut in inventiveness…. The variety manifest in "Dürrenmatt's delight in evocative names" points, it would seem, to his basic concept of the function of the theater and the characters in a play. Although he has protested that he means to put living beings on the stage …, he concerns himself in his plays primarily with ideas…. Basically, the label Dürrenmatt has chosen for his plays—tragicomedy—makes clear his intent to paint the complexity of the individual only in broad, satiric strokes (as the artist Dürrenmatt's pictures indicate, too).
That some of his dramatis personae are only types Dürrenmatt makes clear by identifying them no further than as to their function or relationship…. The tendency to abstract and to limit characterization so as to regard only relationships germane to the situation in the play predominates in the work of the expressionists, Dürrenmatt's immediate predecessors in creative writing for the stage and his models, among others….
While unnamed characters occur in many plays, they never preponderate. As a salient feature, there are the fanciful names, based on word-play, intended as a pun or an elaborate joke….
The names which allude to historical personages, although not intended to evoke the characters themselves, indicate yet another direction in which Dürrenmatt's fascination with names has led. Occasionally the characters have been christened by their author with a view to the literary associations they may call up….
Occurring somewhat more frequently but also involving subtlety (at least generally) is Dürrenmatt's practice of choosing names with symbolic values which underscore the thematic content of the play….
Dürrenmatt, whose concern it has been to make the drama a vehicle for ideas—sometimes bizarre, but always challenging—has exploited the entire range of types of names for his characters, from the colorless to the clever, from the allusive to the metaphoric. By his ingenuity he has integrated the names of his dramatis personae and the play, making them a part of the wide-ranging humor which animates his "tragicomedy."
Kurt J. Fickert, "Wit and Wisdom in Dürrenmatt's Names," in Contemporary Literature (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. II, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 382-88.
After the premiere of a new play by Dürrenmatt the reviews almost always contend that the work lacks formal and internal unity. Even when Dürrenmatt constantly uses the general term comedy as a designation for works of a highly different nature, he cannot conceal the fact that it applies only to one basic element in his plays, often just a surprise effect. The critics argue that Dürrenmatt's productions are in need of central themes and ideas to hold them together. Thus far, his works have shown themselves to be rather spotty attempts to dramatize a comical idea. Sometimes they stretch a mere paradoxical statement into a play and sometimes into a prose narrative, as in the novel Grieche sucht Griechin (Once a Greek) and in Die Panne, the short-story version of the radio play Traps.
In actuality all Dürrenmatt's works can be clearly arranged and classified. The transition from one literary genre to another does not have to be forced but develops from a new intellectual situation and from structural necessity. Even the detective novels of his earlier period are anything but the embarrassing products of a writer who had to scrape money together to support his family, and hence, it would be best not to talk about them. In fact, they are authentic Dürrenmatt and belong to the volume of his early prose works which he himself edited under the title Die Stadt (The City)….
Dürrenmatt is far from sacrificing the actual structure of his work to ingenious ideas. It is the other way around: Dürrenmatt is a master at transforming all structure into a new formation of themes and investigations. This is a skill that he has had ever since his debut in the literary limelight, and he has stubbornly held onto this skill and has constantly modified it….
Basically, Dürrenmatt works with a theology without God in his plays. The original situation of man is paradoxical; yet God does not take on a meaning or explain things—even if he may have meant something in the past….
The strands in the dramatic works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt are held together by this outlook. God is there, but he is useless in human relations. Man must learn to master these relations himself, even the dramatist, who works with fictional figures created in man's image. For Dürrenmatt, the son of a pastor, transcendence is always present but mainly as the opposite position and a threat. When Dürrenmatt calls for the preservation of the "human point of view," he does not do so because he is considering a move toward "existentialism" and the "integral atheism" of Sartre….
Dürrenmatt himself has no desire to be a star slugger along Sartre's lines. In his work, death dies. Meaningless death. Corpses pile up on the stage. Farcical death is experienced, and one is disconcerted about not being able to understand and explain the deaths…. Religion is inhumane. It is only capable of disturbing because it makes a farce out of serious humane things….
His main concern is to portray the condition of a world that must manage itself without God. This is why it is anything but a joyous exultation when Dürrenmatt replies to his critics in the note to one of his recent plays, Die Wiedertäufer, that he who sees only nihilism in the comedy merely reflects his own.
It is from this theme that Dürrenmatt has derived all his dramaturgical theory and practice….
[The] dramatist Dürrenmatt has moved closer and closer to the playwright Brecht. After The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, which had been a great success and simultaneously had led up a dead end, it was apparent that Dürrenmatt began more and more to employ Brechtian motifs…. For Brecht, even gangsters are good citizens. For Dürrenmatt, the good citizens are actually gangsters….
Dürrenmatt does not seem to acknowledge the dialectical relationship between theory and practice in the Brechtian sense. Evidently he would never think of founding a new art of writing plays in the manner of Brecht, nor of initiating a new "art of participation" for the audience….
Es steht geschrieben was typical of his entire early work, which constantly propounded the primacy of sacrifice over any type of action. The sufferer stood morally and metaphysically higher than the man of action. Here the young Dürrenmatt proved himself to be a conscious disciple of Frank Wedekind and the expressionist dramatists. The ideal situation for all of Dürrenmatt's early plays was set by Wedekind's comedy Der Marquis von Keith….
At the end of Die Wiedertäufer there is a real-life torture and murder. However, the actor Bockelson returns to the stage after his monumental flight onto the world stage. This is a new Dürrenmatt. He has gone beyond Wedekind and beyond Brecht. Just as in the beginning of his literary career, the life substance seems to be penetrating his work more and more strongly—the relation between the man and his work. Along with this, we can see that a new qualitative change has become possible: from the worst possible turn of events to comedy, there is now a turn to a realm which allows for tragic situations. A new form of tragedy as the highest form of comedy thought to its finish. One will have to wait to see how it turns out.
Hans Mayer, "Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Worst Possible Turn of Events," in his Steppenwolf and Everyman, translated and with an introduction by Jack D. Zipes (copyright © 1971 by Hans Mayer; reprinted with permission of Thomas Y. Crowell Co., Inc.), Crowell, 1971, pp. 163-80.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt is well-known for his legerdemain. In The Pledge, not only the parody of the "thriller" format, but the language play, the toying with points of view, the hints that lead nowhere, the comic deus ex machina, the fairy-tale in the environment of realistic detail—these elements are all characteristic of Dürrenmatt's other detective stories of this period. The Judge and his Hangman, Suspicion, The Pledge, and The Quarry are all murder mysteries with a waggish surface….
[The Pledge] is a mystery story—not in the tradition of the Kriminalroman, for that is attacked in the story and mocked by it, but in the sense of real mystery, the ultimate lack of knowledge. Faith in mystery is not parodied; the commitment to puzzle-solving is. And since The Pledge remains full of mystery, the novella itself is the meaning.
Roger Ramsey, "Parody and Mystery in Dürrenmatt's 'The Pledge'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1971, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1971–72, pp. 525-32.
Dürrenmatt writes in German, and has obviously been much influenced by Expressionism. His work is relentlessly moralistic, and every social point is driven home with the insistent irony of an Emil Jannings film. The most important of his short novels is Der Richter und Sein Henker (1952), translated as The Judge and his Hangman (1954), a book masterly in its control of the crime-story medium for the author's symbolic and moral purposes…. In this book, Dürrenmatt uses much of the apparatus of the detective story. Why did young Lieutenant Schmied wear evening dress on days which he marked with a "G" in his diary? What happened to the body of the dog killed by Barlach's assistant Chanz when the dog attacked the Inspector? The apparatus is used as part of a fantastic game which Barlach is playing with the other characters, and which Dürrenmatt is playing with the reader. The revelation of the murderer comes as a surprise, but it is subservient to the points the author is making about the nature of justice and the need to extirpate evil by violence.
Dürrenmatt's other crime stories do not fuse the investigatory and symbolic elements quite so successfully, but they are all remarkable for their originality. Der Verdacht (1953), translated as The Quarry (1962), finds Barlach in hospital, slowly recovering from what had been thought a fatal illness. The doctor treating him thinks he identifies in an old picture from Life a German concentration-camp doctor who took pleasure in operating on inmates without anesthetics. Has this man committed suicide, or is he in fact still alive and the head of a clinic which takes in only wealthy patients? There follows a struggle of wits and wills between Barlach and this man, which is also a struggle between freedom and nihilism….
Das Versprechen, translated as The Pledge (1958), is about the transformation of Inspector Matthäi from an emotionless machine into a man with a passion for justice, intent to discover the murderer of three young girls. In pursuit of the man, Matthäi becomes for years a petrol station attendant, and with the utmost ruthlessness uses another young girl as bait for the killer. The bait is not accepted; the girl becomes a sluttish prostitute; the defeated Matthäi sinks into a sodden wreck. At the end of the story, it is revealed that he was "a genius, more so than any of your fictional detectives," and that all of his deductions were correct. Again, what might have been a mere clatter of ironies is kept finely under control.
Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 195-96.
Like Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch, Switzerland's Friedrich Duerrenmatt is one of those didactic dramatists who regard the theater as a classroom, the stage as a blackboard, the pen as a pointer and the playgoers as barely educable dolts. These playwrights take a dim view of man, dividing the species into two arbitrary categories: predators and prey, the fleecers and the fleeced. No one would deny that such characters are abundantly present in life, but to see the entire pattern of human behavior in these terms is one-eyed vision.
T. E. Kalem, "Salome's Revenge," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time, Inc.), December 10, 1973, pp. 86, 88.
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