Friedrich Dürrenmatt Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 8) - Essay

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–

Dürrenmatt is a Swiss dramatist, novelist, short story writer, painter, and essayist. Next to Max Frisch, he is conceded to be the most celebrated dramatist writing in the German language. Dürrenmatt's grotesque tragicomedies have been compared to the phantasmagorical art of Hieronymous Bosch, as well as painters associated with German expressionism. Dürrenmatt also writes excellent detective fiction. (See also CLC, Vols, 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, by far the most significant playwright [writing in German] after Brecht, has written several high caliber detective novels, successful movie scripts, and a whole series of noteworthy radio plays. The author's main interest centers on the stage, however. His plays break away from the theater of illusion and often display characteristics of the literary cabaret for which Dürrenmatt wrote many texts at an earlier stage of his career. His dialogue is often farcical, his protagonists are exaggerated prototypes, and his scenes may exhibit burlesque elements. Yet Dürrenmatt is not an innovator of forms. Rather, he uses forms of the theater introduced by Brecht and Thornton Wilder, both of whom had great impact on German dramatists after the war. Wilder's technique of destroying theatrical illusion by letting actors frequently step out of their roles and his ability to blend farce and metaphysical symbolism made their mark on Dürrenmatt's plays as did the parable character of Brecht's later plays.

In 1955, the Swiss author formulated his dramatic credo in an essay entitled "Problems of the Theater." He declares the traditional laws of drama unacceptable for the modern author, for the modern times are void of tragic heroes. The recent catastrophic events of history appear to him as monstrous disasters caused by madmen. Hitler or Mussolini cannot be seen as tragic heroes like Wallenstein. Dürrenmatt claims tragedy is impossible in our modern world of bureaucracy and overadministration in which the individual has become invisible and "Creon's secretaries handle the case of Antigone." Only in comedy does Dürrenmatt see a chance to depict the complex problems of modern man.

Dürrenmatt's first plays after the war, Es steht geschrieben (It Is Written, 1947) and Der Blinde (The Blind Man, written in 1947), concern the theme of religious belief in revolutionary times and do not fully reveal the author's dramatic potential. The protagonist of his first comedy, the Roman emperor Romulus the Great (1950), takes a greater interest in chicken farming than in ruling the empire. He confesses to "love people more than the idea of a fatherland" and feels quite relieved to turn Rome over to the barbarian conquerors without bloodshed. The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (also translated as: Fools Are Passing By, 1952) scored the first international success for Dürrenmatt. He puts four main characters on the stage, each of whom, in the manner of a morality play, personifies an abstraction…. The stage becomes the battlefield of different world views. (pp. 399-400)

The historical comedy An Angel Comes to Babylon (1954) is a parable showing how greed for power corrupts people. The tragicomedy The Visit (1956) ranks among the best plays of the century….

The Physicists (1962) are inmates of an insane asylum who believe themselves to be Einstein and Newton…. Together with Brecht's Galileo, Frisch's Chinese Wall, and Kipphardt's Oppenheimer, The Physicists reflects the moral conflict of the modern scientist whose discoveries can either ease or terminate human existence.

Dürrenmatt's love for the grotesque culminates in his last comedy, The Meteor (1966). The protagonist, the Nobel laureate Schwitters, dies and experiences an immediate resurrection. In biting scenes Dürrenmatt displays the reactions of the "survivors."

Dürrenmatt's comedies do not echo the bitter laughter of a despairing and disillusioned author. They often show the perversion of man through power, greed, and money, and mirror the wretched situation of the world. But Dürrenmatt also presents heroes who, often masked as fools, encounter this world with courage and firmness. His comedies are an attempt to regard the world from a critical distance. "Seeing the senselessness, the hopelessness of this world, one might despair," says Dürrenmatt, "yet despair is not the result of this world. It is an answer one gives to this world. A different answer might be: not to despair, but to decide to accept the world in which we often live like Gulliver among the giants. But he who wants to evaluate his opponent, who prepares himself to fight or to escape his enemy, has to step back a little in order to create distance. It is still possible to present the courageous man." (pp. 400-01)

Diether H. Haenicke, "Literature since 1933," in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press); Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 350-404.

There is in [Dürrenmatt's humor] a touch of the Pirandellian "umorismo," with its emphasis on the accidental character of all the so-called "great" events which determine the life of man and the course of his history; with its fierce dedication to the task of tearing masks off faces and façades off ideologies; and its acceptance of the relativity of all concepts and values. Like Pirandello, Dürrenmatt would present to us the emperor in his nightgown, rather than wearing imperial purple—and the result is both ludricous and pathetic. His strong point is the grotesque, applied to social satire. The use of grotesque techniques in no wise represents a purely negative attitude. On the contrary. Like all great writers of comedy, Dürrenmatt considers himself a moralist—an admission which in itself constitutes no small act of courage in the twentieth century…. (pp. 28-9)

Dürrenmatt's little-known radio plays are definitely superior to most of his serious drama; and as for producing a "serious" novel, he has never even tried, preferring to restrict himself to the minor genres in his fiction. It is tantalizing to speculate upon the reasons for Dürrenmatt's obvious preference for these minor genres—"Trivialgattungen," as they are called, even more derogatorily, in German. Aside from the very realistic fact that these works represent for the artist valuable "Brotarbeit," that is, a source of income, I think they could be interpreted as a threefold escape: escape from the critics; escape from the pressures of the avant-garde; and escape from nihilism and the philosophy of the absurd. He could, then, be defined as an artist who escapes into escape Literature. (p. 29)

It is also safe to assume that Dürrenmatt has gone underground into the minor genres, which still allow at least outwardly, for a conventional approach because of a deep distrust of the extreme avant-garde. His one venture into a technically contemporary, what might be called a Beckett-type work, Play Strindberg (… 1969) represents, in my opinion, a dismal failure (although it does bring out quite successfully the monstrous marriage theme). Dürrenmatt is too much of a humorist and too much of an individualist to fall into a pattern of any sort. Rather than join an avant-garde, he prefers to retain conventional trappings, reserving to himself the privilege of revealing their absurdity through grotesque alienation.

Finally, and most important, I suggest that Dürrenmatt's light novels represent an escape from the nihilism and the philosophy of the absurd which permeate all "serious" contemporary literature. In spite of his Calvinistic background and a youthful bout with nihilism, Dürrenmatt essentially remains an optimist…. This in no wise invalidates the writer's serious concern with, and full awareness of, the metaphysical anguish of modern man; it means only that he refuses to give himself up to total despair…. The heroism which Dürrenmatt advocates (he himself prefers the term "courage") resembles that advocated by Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, a heroic resignation and acceptance of life in spite of its absurdity. In fact, Dürrenmatt was at one time considered another "romancier de l'absurde" in France. He himself, however, quickly disclaimed any such categorization. Beyond the realization of the absurd, he wishes to show the paradox in human life, and the quixotic quality to which our age has reduced any attempt at heroism.

In his early works, he alternates between Promethean rebellion and the facile consolations of religion. A despairing nihilism breathes in the expressionistic fragments of his early prose, such as Weihnacht (Christmas), Der Folterknecht (The Torturer) or Die Falle (The Trap)—the latter originally entitled Der Nihilist. In the epilogue to the collection, written several years after the stories themselves, Dürrenmatt mentions that these fragments represent an attempt: "To fight a battle which can be meaningful only if it is lost." He did not remain a nihilist long. His involvement with the Christian religion was a more deep-seated one, and for a time brought him peace and respite from despair…. [The] religious themes of his early plays and his general preoccupation with the problems of evil and guilt have led to the mistaken assumption that Dürrenmatt is essentially a religious writer. The bulk of his mature work, as well as his own pronouncements, speak against such a view. Neither absurdist, nor religious writer, nor engagé in any way, Dürrenmatt remains entirely sui generis, a paradox among contemporary authors, an artist capable of turning the most tragic truths into grotesque farces…. Rather than feeling totally hemmed in, Dürrenmatt believes that a limited number of artistic modes of expression remain open to the artist in the twentieth century, foremost among them the possibility of dealing with serious facts in a flippant manner. Courage remains a possible quality in the world of Dürrenmatt because he tempers it with a tinge of the ridiculous…. (pp. 29-31)

Dürrenmatt sees the injustice of any social order as inherent in the paradox of social organization as such…. There is no way out of the dilemma: Man craves both justice and freedom, but the two terms are mutually exclusive. Any social order, whether it be the capitalistic "wolf game" or the socialist "sheep game" represents a compromise solution which must remain unsatisfactory. This does not mean a total rejection of either system on Dürrenmatt's part, but rather a cautious detachment and, above all, categorical refusal to posit absolute ideologies…. His ideas on how to effect the proposed improvements, however, remain vague, although he includes a strong warning against the emotional force of ideologies, "the cosmetics of power politics." He suggests that in politics, as in literature, it may be beneficial to look at reality with critical imagination, rather than ideologically…. Like Böll, he sees an unchecked continuation of current trends leading to the disaster of a fully automatic machine age, an age where computers and other complex hardware would turn the world back from civilization into a barbaric jungle, with an elite of technicians and scientists functioning as the medicine men of the spage-age savages. It is this threat of imminent barbarism which most concerns him in his fiction; already, he sees us living in a state where a technological accident can set off a cosmic cataclysm and where man has lost all of his grandeur and most of his dignity. His laughable, pathetic and grotesque heroes are the last upholders of a civilization on the decline, his escape into a "still possible" humanism.

Such a "hero" is Arnolphe Archilochos, hot-milk-and-Perrier-sipping central character of the satirical little novel Grieche Sucht Griechin (once a Greek). Under the guise of light entertainment literature, Dürrenmatt here presents us with a scathing satire on political, social and moral orders, bringing out their paradoxical quality. At the same time, he uses grotesque alienation techniques in a brilliantly successful attempt to turn the True-Romance-type love story into a caricature of itself. (pp. 32-3)

[The] novel brings out the interchangeability of social and moral value systems. At the outset of the book, the line of distinction is clearly drawn; the social and moral establishment is represented by the eight pillars of society, who together form Archilochos' "ethical universe," while the anti-establishment invades the story in the form of brother Bibi and his clan. As the book proceeds, the towering personages of Archilochos' ethical universe begin to totter, revealing all the weaknesses of ordinary mortals. Meanwhile, brother Bibi and his good-for-nothing family have become converted into hardworking, law-abiding, church-going citizens…. Archilochos cannot escape the uncomfortable feeling that somehow things have cancelled each other out, that nothing much was accomplished after all. And this realization fills him with melancholy—a melancholy which can be cured only, as the author points out in an ironic digression into Hollywood Kitsch, by the ever-present power of "Love."

However, the main interest of the book rests with Archilochos himself and the monstrous story of his venture into matrimony. There are traits of both Candide and Parzifal in Dürrenmatt's hero. Candide in reverse, he is catapulted from misery into what appears to be the best of all possible worlds; but his strokes of good luck turn out to be as disastrous for him as the original Candide's bouts with misfortune…. Archilochos strikes one as a latter-day Parzival: a middle-aged, slightly overweight Parzival, to be sure, forever cleaning his thick-lensed glasses, a grotesque travesty of the original, but a Parzival figure, none the less, in his absolute purity and innocence. Archilochos, indeed, is the "pure fool" of the legend, like Parzival too shy to ask the necessary questions when he encounters mysteries beyond his ken. True to his calling, he emerges a conqueror—though in keeping with the cynicism of our age, he wins the town courtesan, rather than the Holy Grail, an achievement which, as Dürrenmatt would be quick to point out, has the advantage of remaining in the range of what is "still possible."

But the use of the grotesque goes far beyond the characterization of Archilochos himself. Dürrenmatt achieves some outstanding effects by clever plot manipulation, which involves alienation in two directions: an originally harmless event is alienated into a finale of horror, and, in contrast, a monstrous happening is turned into the most innocuous affair. The result in both cases is grotesque and tinged with ambiguous humor…. In spite of the fairytale quality of much of the book, Dürrenmatt's grotesque developments are sufficiently rooted in reality, both psychological and social, to make it impossible for the reader to achieve a safe distance and with it, emotional detachment. (pp. 35-6)

Rather than selecting one victim for ridicule, the author throws a benignly satirical light on all the participants…. The author emerges as a man who is able to smile at the absurdities of the world he depicts.

Another element in the book serves to temper its pessimism: the author's occasional digressions into Hollywood-style fantasies. These are particularly apparent in some of the descriptions, descriptions which clearly reveal the fact that their author has worked on film scenarios more than once. These excursions into the never-never lands of Kitsch and soap opera stand in stark contrast to the feeling of futility expressed at the end of the book, and take away much of its impact—an escape into escape literature. Perhaps the most interesting example of this type of description occurs on the occasion of Archilochos' first visit to his bride's home. Dürrenmatt, who normally uses great restraint when it comes to erotic fantasies (food fantasies are more along his line) here indulges himself in a full flight of fancy. The result is the kind of sequence typical of the movies of the 40s and 50s, where sex is discreetly hinted at by luxurious settings and carefully selected props…. The Bower of Bliss, rediscovered. A similar concession to the public's love of luxury is made in the description of the upper regions of the Petit-Paysan office tower where Archilochos works. This top floor is a fantasy world of space, warmth and light, with baskets of flowers everywhere, soft music replacing the clatter of office machines, and delicate period furniture, lending a cultured air to the premises. It is a tongue-in-cheek description of the executive suite, to be sure. The incongruity reaches its peak, as Petit-Paysan, himself, emerges from his office, a volume of Hölderlin's esoteric poems in his hand. Nevertheless, descriptions of this sort represent temporary escapes from the ultimate conclusion of the novel, which is anything but gay.

The detective novels represent another form of Dürrenmatt's escape into escape literature. They contain less social satire than Once a Greek, and the grotesque element in them leans more heavily towards the monstrous. First and foremost, they testify to the author's love of story-telling. But they all contain the basic features typical of Dürrenmatt's work and Weltanschauung: ambiguous treatment of the hero, ambiguous treatment of the genre, and heavy use of the grotesque. The stories all center around a quixotic hero, a detective sans peur et sans reproche, who brings the full force of his intellectual acumen and moral conviction into an absurd and lonely battle for justice…. A courageous man may still assert himself in the face of a hostile and callous world—in fact, Dürrenmatt posits such assertion as a moral imperative…. (pp. 37-8)

Nevertheless, the ultimate absurdity remains, equally shocking whether it is caused by the transcendent fact of death or simply by one of the unfortunate and accidental combinations of circumstances which determine the life of man. With the help of cleverly constructed mystery plots, however, Dürrenmatt manages to temper the pessimistic impact of his novels.

Although conventional at first glance, Dürrenmatt's detective stories subvert the basic principle of the classical mystery, namely, that events must be developed by the rules of logic, as in a chess game. In so doing, the author again turns the genre into a satire of itself, a dead-end street, as he was well aware when he subtitled The Promise a "requiem to the detective novel." Arbitrary, accidental occurrences, rather than logical developments, become the pivots which determine the development of his plots…. The principle is effectively illustrated in the story line of The Promise. Inspector Matthäi really is a genius whose superb tactics prove fully successful—but a stupid accident prevents him from cashing in on the success of the manoeuver to which he has sacrificed his career. When the truth finally does come out, and Matthäi appears fully vindicated, he is too far gone in absinthe even to register the news. (pp. 38-9)

[The Promise reflects] two of Dürrenmatt's favorite grotesque themes: the monstrous nature of extreme old age, and the monstrous meal…. Not surprising for a diabetic, Dürrenmatt tends to link together surfeit of food and impending judgment and catastrophe. (p. 40)

It is perfectly clear that Dürrenmatt is a writer who thrives on paradox at all levels. A great believer in the power of art, he goes underground into genres which normally escape this classification. A profound pessimist, he makes us laugh; an unalterable optimist, he points out to us the absurdity of our universe. A cynic, he insists on creating images of courageous men; a humanist, he reduces his heroes to caricatures. He, himself, is fully aware of his own paradoxical nature. (pp. 40-1)

Renate Usmiani, "Friedrich Durrenmatt, Escape Artist: A Look at the Novels," in MOSAIC V/3 (copyright © 1972 by The University of Manitoba Press), Spring, 1972, pp. 27-41.

[The] plays of … Friedrich Dürrenmatt … are marked with the grandeur of an almost Jacobean excess. When we enter his fantastic world there can be no doubting that we have come into a realm where the impossible has become probable. Like those writers whom he most admires—Aristophanes, Wycherley, Nestroy, and Thornton Wilder—Dürrenmatt is the master of the dramatic conceit. He invents a bizarre and improbable situation and exploits it for all it is worth, and then some. However, just beneath the apparently absurd lunacy of the surface conceit we discover a stern moral vision which shapes all that he writes. Like Ibsen, only with a somewhat better sense of humor, Dürrenmatt has a Lutheran conscience much like that of a Protestant pastor who has defrocked himself because he has lost his belief in the possibility of a salvation. He is a stern judge of the world, but his harshest judgments are directed against himself. Like a cynical Shaw, we sense he is ever ready to turn the stage into a pulpit from which to preach about the evils of a world turned sour. But until The Physicists he has always stopped short just in time. His troubled agnosticism would reassert itself at the final moment, and with awkward protestations that his sermons would be of little use, he returns to the theatricality with which he began, once more ironic and aloof.

It is this constant struggle between the zealot and the cynic which finally accounts for all the contradictions in Dürrenmatt's theatre. He appears misanthropic, but he cares deeply for human-kind; he claims the world is beyond hope, while he desperately searches for the strategies of salvation; and, in spite of his insistence that art doesn't teach any lessons, he has a tendency to be hopelessly didactic…. His usual dramatic method is to set up a grotesque fantasy world and then step back and watch with the audience as his invented fate works itself out with a ferocious inevitability. But this Olympian detachment is more apparent than real. He is, in fact, a puppeteer-god, and there are times when we sense he wants to change the script or is on the verge of getting involved in the action himself.

Dürrenmatt's chief protection against this tendency for over-involvement is his remarkable grasp of theatrical technique. His dramaturgy, like that of his fellow countryman Max Frisch, can best be described as "Biedermeier." he employs a hodgepodge of theatrical style and will try any device or theatrical convention if he feels it will work on the stage. Such disregard for consistency is not the amateur's lack of discipline, but the result of Dürrenmatt's fervent desire to put the richness and manifold diversity of the world on the stage. It is his strong conviction that the theatre should present "not the potential of a situation, but its rich harvest." The total effect of such an idea of the theatre is not confusion, but a baroque lushness. But he combines this penchant for amplification with the techniques of romantic irony, and as a result he achieves a toughness of tone as well as a richness of style. His use of bizarre and macabre situations, the chatty comments to the reader in the stage directions, the bits of buffoonery and grand guignol, and the constant employment of anachronism and irreverent parody all contribute to the creation of an ironic fairy-tale world which captures our attention, but at the same time keeps us at a distance. (pp. 247-48)

The two major themes in all that Dürrenmatt has written are guilt and helplessness. He is painfully conscious of men's collective sense of guilt for the disasters of global upheaval, but he is perhaps even more aware of the sense of helplessness people feel living under the shadow of imminent atomic destruction in a world that seems too difficult and too complex for even the wisest or wiliest of men to control and govern. Like Kafka, Dürrenmatt describes the human condition as that of victims trapped in a tunnel (one of his most powerful short stories is called "The Tunnel") with no beginning and no end, in which there can be no meaningful action, and from which there can be no escape. (p. 249)

With The Physicists, Dürrenmatt seems to be entering a new stage in his development as a playwright. His fantastic imagination and his unrivaled powers of invention are still very much present, but they seem to be completely under control for the first time. This play has a concentration which all of his earlier plays except The Visit have lacked. In his important essay, Problems of the Theatre, Dürrenmatt bemoans the fact that the modern dramatist is incapable of achieving that tightness of form which characterizes the classical Greek theatre. The Physicists indicates that Dürrenmatt can, and we only hope that his achievement will persuade other playwrights that theatrical richness and a rigorously controlled form need not be considered mutually exclusive or incompatible in the contemporary theatre. (p. 252)

Robert W. Corrigan, "Dürrenmatt's 'The Physicists' and the Grotesque," in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 247-52.