Friedrich Dürrenmatt 1921–1990
Swiss dramatist, novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, essayist, and critic.
The following entry provides an overview of Dürrenmatt's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 8, 11, 15, and 43.
Along with Bertolt Brecht, Dürrenmatt is considered one of the most important German-language dramatists of the 20th century. His plays are largely tragicomedies for, according to Dürrenmatt, true tragedy is impossible to write, but "we can achieve the tragic out of comedy." Paradoxes and irony are predominant in Dürrenmatt's fiction where he uses clever reversals to illustrate the cruelty of the world.
Dürrenmatt was born in Switzerland in 1921, and grew up in an intellectual family—his father was a minister and his grandfather had been a member of parliament. Many of the biblical and mythological allusions that appear in his work came from his parents' retelling of mythological and biblical tales. Later he studied theology, philosophy, literature, and science at the Universities of Bern and Zurich. He left school without completing a degree in order to pursue writing. In 1943 he wrote his first play, Komödie, which, though unproduced, set his style. Three years later he saw his first two plays produced—Es steht geschrieben (1947; It Is Written) and Der Blinde (1948; The Blind Man). Dürrenmatt used historical and religious events and people out of context to create these morality plays. It Is Written was ill-received by audiences (deemed an overly large and complicated production in both plot and staging), but critics nonetheless recognized Dürrenmatt's talent. With Romulus der Grosse (1949; Romulus the Great), his self-proclaimed "un-historical historical comedy," Dürrenmatt achieved acceptance by both audiences and critics alike. International recognition came with the production of Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi (The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi) in 1952. This play, about an upper class man and woman committing murders, was followed by a religious parable of selfless love in a material world—Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon: Eine Fragmentarische Komödie in drei Akten (1954; An Angel Comes to Babylon).
With international success, Dürrenmatt had perfected his tragicomic style of writing. Most of his work utilized anachronistic settings or unusual reversals. This trend continued with his two most popular works: Des Besuch der alten Dame (1956; The Visit) and Die Physiker (1962; The Physicists). The Visit concerns a rich woman returning to the village where she grew up. Upon her return, she offers the citizens millions of dollars to kill her old suitor. The play centers on the moral struggle the impoverished citizens must go through—deciding between financial freedom and the morality of becoming hired killers. The Physicists centers around three physicists in an insane asylum. The three pretend to be mad and "believe" that they are Einstein, Newton, and Moebius. In order to keep secret their knowledge of how to destroy the world, they each commit murder. Dürrenmatt was also regarded as a successful fiction writer. As early as 1950, with his detective story Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and His Hangman), he had applied his plot-twisting style to novels. Der Verdacht (1953; The Quarry), a sequel to The Judge and His Hangman, and Das Versprechen (1958; The Pledge) are also considered to be among his more important works.
Although some critics recognized Dürrenmatt's talent when he wrote It Is Written, it wasn't until Romulus the Great that he developed widespread critical acclaim. His most praised works continue to be The Visit, for which he won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and The Physicists. Through the years critical reception of his work has varied, though critics have tended to favor him despite often lukewarm receptions from audiences. With his adaptation of August Strindberg's Dance of Death, he attained favorable reception for Play Strindberg (1969) as well as some critical acceptance for Koenig Johann (1968; King John) and Titus Andronicus (1970)—adaptations of Shakespeare's works. During the 1960s, Dürrenmatt became more and more disillusioned with the direction in which the theater was headed and turned toward fiction. Der Aufiraug (1986; The Assignment) was one of his last works to receive critical praise. Striving to maintain his style of the unusual, Dürrenmatt tells the story of The Assignment in twenty-four chapters, each one sentence long. The rest of the narrative runs through twists and turns as the characters are all simultaneously observing and being observed by others in the novel. As Jennifer Michaels notes, "Dürrenmatt creates a powerful image of the alienation and the dehumanization that … people experience in the modern world." Throughout his career Dürrenmatt highlighted a world which he saw in chaos and which was, in his own words, something "monstrous, a riddle of misfortunes."