Friedrich Dürrenmatt

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Gabrielle Robinson (essay date March 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6880

SOURCE: "Justice Breeds Murder: Justice in Dürrenmatt as Theme and as Theatrical Material," in Modern Drama, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 73-86.

[In the following essay Robinson examines Dürrenmatt's use of justice. She looks at how justice is depicted as paradox and how the characters "choose to play madmen, clowns or victims in order to achieve their goals."]

In Dürrenmatt's plays "justice is at stake," as Palamedes tells his father in The Blind Man. Dürrenmatt tends to examine every situation and every action from the standpoint of justice, discussing such themes as the possibility of changing the world through justice, the perversion and parody of justice in our world, and man's injustice versus the justice of God. As far as his characters are concerned, they are obsessed with it; it is the idea of justice which makes their existence meaningful. "If there is no justice, one parts easily from it [life]," says the man who is about to die in Nighttime Talk With A Despised Man. Dürrenmatt's characters fight to their last breaths for their visions of justice, however distorted. For no matter how elevated or debased their aims, their conflicts arise from their pursuits of justice: whether hunting down a criminal, sentencing a son, robbing a bank, seeking revenge, destroying or saving an empire, they all believe themselves to be fighting for justice and order. Some of them, like the old lady in The Visit, seek personal justice for wrongs they have suffered, but most of Dürrenmatt's major heroes pursue absolute social and historical justice. The Emperor in Romulus the Great sets himself up as Rome's judge and condemns his corrupt civilization to death in the name of justice. In The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, Mississippi fights to reinstitute iron Mosaic justice in his unjust and chaotic society. The Bastard in King John uses all the power of his reason to work for justice and order in his war-tom country, whereas Titus of Titus Andronicus seeks justice for Rome as well as for his tortured family.

Dürrenmatt's seekers after justice are exceptional men. Most of them hold powerful and outstanding positions; yet they choose to play madmen, clowns or victims in order to achieve their goals. Typically, it is Romulus who focuses on the crucial question: "Do we still have the right to be more than a victim?" In the end-time in which they live, heroism can work only through deliberate self-victimization: Romulus's clowning, Möbius's and Titus's madness, the Bastard's and Bockelson's playacting. But even this reduced form of heroism is ultimately doomed, and the heroes end trapped by their own acts, victims now against their wills, able to prove their greatness only by bearing injustice. In his later plays, Dürrenmatt denies them even this most personal achievement. The monstrous disorder wins. "Nonsense is victor!", "And heroes there are none. Only victims."

Therefore, although both Dürrenmatt and his characters want to light up the world with the "pure ray of justice" (as is said of the four old lawyers in The Puncture), thus bringing meaning and dignity to their lives, what they achieve is "justice reflected in the eyeglass of a drunk …" Not content with showing the hero's victimization, Dürrenmatt demonstrates paradoxical reversal and grotesque parody of justice. Judges turn into executioners, just men into criminals, and justice into farce. "… Justice / Breeds murder and does not create an order." Although this quotation stems from the later and more farcically distorted Titus Andronicus , its message is inherent in all of Dürrenmatt's plays. It is foreshadowed in...

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Sainte-Claude's reply to Mississippi, who has called him a fool because "There is no justice without God."

You are the fool. There is justice only without God…. We both have spilled blood; you killed three hundred and fifty criminals and I never counted my victims. What we do is murder; therefore we have to do it meaningfully.

As we shall see, Dürrenmatt's idealistic heroes are forced to accept this monstrous paradox and with it their defeats, whereas the cynical characters use it, or play with it, to serve their ends.

The Puncture (1956) offers an ironic combination of these possibilities when four jovial old lawyers sentence a chance visitor to death in the name of the highest ideal of justice. "… Only in the act of sentencing … does justice become knighted; there can be nothing higher, nobler, greater than when a human being is sentenced to death." Although this is only a game with which the four amuse themselves on their stag night, it causes the death of their victim. Traps, who executes their sentence by hanging himself. Traps believes that they have lit up his world with the pure ray of justice, and he proudly accepts his fate, since it bestows greatness and meaning on his muddled, mediocre existence. So justice breeds murder but also offers meaning to a senseless life.

The same is true of The Visit (1956). Here another grotesque version of fate—she might as well be called Clotho instead of Claire—offers to buy justice for a billion, demanding in return the death of Alfred III, the lover who had betrayed her many years before. Her idea of justice is squarely based on capitalistic manipulation, which has determined her life from the start. Claire's lover forsook her when she was pregnant so that he could marry a shopkeeper's daughter, and he bought witnesses to conceal his paternity. Forced into exile and disgrace, she recovered her fortune by selling herself in marriage to a series of millionaires; she then used the money to starve prosperous Güllen economically. At the opening of the play, the town is destitute, and although the worthy citizens begin by protesting Claire's demand tor justice and revenge, they go off to buy new yellow shoes—on credit, of course—and end by accepting her bargain. Ill is murdered communally, and the people get their money. Yet they, too, claim to act in the name of justice: to establish a just community, not to tolerate injustice. "It is not a matter of prosperity and good living, nor of luxury; it is a matter of wanting to realize justice…." Like Traps, Ill in the end becomes a willing victim; he accepts his death sentence, which in truth condemns his executioners, and gives content to his empty life.

In order to understand more fully Dürrenmatt's paradoxical view of justice, one has to examine both the nature of his world and his justice-obsessed heroes. Dürrenmatt throws his characters into critical situations and extreme moments; for him it is always A.D. 476, "a ghastly Götterdämmerung of civilization…." His characters have the sense of living in "the last evening of time", when "the end-time has set in."

Therefore, Dürrenmatt's plays focus on moments of crisis. As historical subjects, he has chosen the fall of Rome, the Thirty Years' War, the Anabaptist revolt in Münster; but his nonhistorical plays concentrate no less on critical situations: Claire's fatal visit in The Visit, the collapse of a band in Frank V, Schwitter's ever repeated dying moment in The Meteor, the murder of a political leader in The Fall. Not content with selecting such critical situations, Dürrenmalt further augments the effect by distorting, exaggerating, parodying the action to a point where extremes confront each other and turn into paradoxical reversals. Only in this way, he feels, can he fix reality precisely, make it transparent. He wants to think a situation through to its end, which to him means both creating a paradox and presenting the worst possible turn a story can take. The result is, as he says of King John, "nasty," but it reveals a truth which is confirmed by our time.

Yet for Dürrenmatt, the worst possible case is not a matter of losing one's head in despair. On the contrary, he relishes the opportunity to tell annoying stories and to challenge his audience with extreme contrasts and paradoxes. Furthermore, as we shall see, the worst possible turn a story can take has its vital and liberating implications, since it constitutes for him the essence of theater and of play; and above all, Dürrenmatt is dedicated to playing with theatrical possibilities and models of the world.

Romulus the Great (1949), set in A.D. 476 with the barbarians at the gates of Rome, shows a world at the point of collapse. Traveling through the country, one finds destroyed cities and smoking villages, men massacred, women ravished and children starving. It is, nevertheless, a parodical world; the Emperor of Rome is a fat, middle-aged clown whose one serious concern is the breeding of hens. While Imperial officials make desperate and often hysterical attempts to save "our civilization," the Emperor concerns himself with his menu—the cook is the only official accorded any importance—and the productivity of his hens, which are named after his Imperial predecessors. The clucking of these fowls disturbs the decrepit but peaceful palace, and hen droppings soil every path of the neglected garden and every crumbling wall. The only source of efficiency—itself grotesque—is the mighty Caesar Rupf, a manufacturer of trousers, who is ready to rescue the moribund empire with his millions if he can marry Romulus's daughter. Romulus, however, scorns such a deal, reminding his servant of a more pressing task: "To our duty, Pyramus. Let's have the chicken feed."

Futile heroism and self-sacrifice abound in this hopeless time. Aemilianus, Romulus's prospective son-in-law, who has just returned, mutilated, from a Gothic prison, is ready for any sacrifice to save the fatherland. "Our shame will feed Italy; through our disgrace it will regain its strength." But Romulus checks him, as he does the messenger who has ridden for a hundred hours without rest to bring the news of another defeat: "Go to sleep, prefect, the times have turned your heroism into a pose." Neither heroism nor wisdom nor planning can alter this "disorderly earth", which will forever be engulfed in wars and upheavals spreading suffering and injustice.

An Angel Comes to Babylon (1953) expresses a similar view of an ever-changing yet also never-changing chaos and confusion. Nebuchadnezzar alternates between ruling and being ruled; using his rival Nimrod as footstool, having his ministers spit at him, and then serving as Nimrod's footstool, being spat at in turn by the ministers. His only creation—or is it Nimrod's?—is the idiot son who hops through the palace. The other permanent element is the suffering and persecution of the people, symbolized in the red garb of the hangman. Heroic deeds and sacrifices are senseless. As the wise Akki tells his friends in his last and most bitter Macame, "Bear disgrace, walk any paths, bury, if the times demand it, wild hope, hot love, suffering, grace, and humanity, under a red hangman's grab."

Frank V (1959) is perhaps too blatantly a schematic parody of justice, recounting the fortunes of a dynasty of criminals and their "gangster-bank." (Incidentally, Dürrenmatt draws a parallel between this gangster-bank and the "gangster-monarchy," as he calls it, of Richard III.) At one point, two men invoke the aid of "divine justice" in robbing the bank; after they are discovered, the wife of the bank owner pronounces the verdict: "You are definitely accepted into our bank. The attempted break-in was laudable, even if amateurishly planned; the key was excellent work". When this same lady, after a lifetime of forgery, fornication and murder, confesses all and asks for justice, the president of the country in his turn gives a verdict:

    My old sweetheart, come on, don't take it to heart     What you confessed may be nasty but     If I look more closely it's no big thing….

There can be no justice, for that would jeopardize world order and economics. Instead, the lady is complimented for having saved the bank, which continues on its course.

In his other plays, Dürrenmatt builds similar extreme worlds, alienated from order and meaning, and constructed so that justice is reduced to the absurd. However, his Titus Andronicus, a play which presents a purely parodical accumulation of monstrosities, paints an even starker picture of this "idiotic course of time". During the course of his career, Dürrenmatt intensifies the parody, the grotesque, the simplification, using these devices to reduce everything to theatrical essence. Personal meaning or individual conscience, even if manifested only in the acceptance of victimization, become less and less possible.

This development begins with The Physicists (1962), set in an insane asylum inhabited by three brilliant scientists and run by an insane hunchbacked spinster, a good example of Dürrenmatt's totalized scheme: a mad hero in a mad world. In King John (1968), "the comedy of politics" portrays secular and religious rulers caught in a web of pointless wars and equally pointless reconciliations which lead to further injustice and violence. The city of Münster in The Anabaptists is yet another place of unreason and injustice, where Catholics and Protestants indiscriminately exchange positions, invariably getting hurt in the process. One knight, for example, on being struck by the falling statue of his patron saint, is converted to Protestantism, while at the same moment his colleague becomes a Catholic, so that once again they find themselves in opposite camps. Those in power are cynical, and the Anabaptists are either deluded fanatics or opportunists. The only rational man, a mathematical monk who believes that "my reason can conquer this unreasonable world", is constantly threatened by the gallows, whether Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist.

In Titus Andronicus (1970), Dürrenmatt goes even further in exemplifying "the farce of politics". The opening lines at once reveal this world of pure parody, when Saturninus appeals to the patricians to elect him, not his brother, emperor of Rome:

    Elect me, and if my brother Bassianus     Gets elected, stick this lewd pig immediately.

The play ends with the deaths and mutilations of all the characters, and the senselessness of all endeavors:

    What use is justice, what use revenge?     They are only names for an evil affair     The globe rolls along in the void     And dies as senselessly as we all die….

With this background of chaos, accidents and inhumanity, the "monstrous disorder of things", Dürrenmatt concentrates on the actions of characters who make an effort to change "this world of breakdowns" (Panne, p. II). His heroes, like Romulus, are remarkable men; emperors, generals, millionaires, artists or scientists of genius, men of extraordinary powers who try to control, improve or order the world according to their visions of justice. They will not accept the injustice of the world as immutable, and reason is the chief weapon in their fights. Often their senses of logic and order are offended as much as their senses of tightness. Thus, Newton of The Physicists, finding disorder unbearable, has become a physicist out of love of order: "to reduce the seeming disorder of nature to a higher order"; and Schwitter of The Meteor (1966) flees from the "monstrous disorder of things" into a fantasy of reason and logic which he finds in art, which, as Dürrenmatt describes it, is a world closed in itself, with its own geometry. Most of Dürrenmatt's characters, dreaming of a higher order and a higher justice, aspiring to prove that the spirit is stronger than the matter, man, like to think in terms of computations which leave no remainder; but reality corrects their ideas, as Romulus admits at the end. Romulus's true greatness lies in this insight, rather than in his schemes, for as Dürrenmatt says, the only greatness which man can show in these times is to bear injustice.

Don Quixote, whose name is frequently mentioned in the texts, could be the model for all of Dürrenmatt's heroes. "We should all be Don Quixotes, if only our hearts were a little in the right place and we had a grain of sense under our scalps." Dürrenmatt's characters are indeed engaged in Quixotic struggles, against overwhelming odds, to which they dedicate themselves with single-minded enthusiasm, ready for any sacrifice.

But they are Quixotes also in the sense of being madmen and fools, often dangerous and destructive fools who bring disaster on themselves and those around them. They will not see that in the time of crisis in which they live, it is not enough to be sharp-witted, to reason, to plan and be dedicated. A minor character like Charles V in It Is Written understands this: "Our deeds," he remarks, "only heighten the confusion". He dreams of retiring from the Imperial throne to a cloister where he can circle all day around a statue of justice in quiet contemplation. In fact, the heroes' fanatical adherence to reason does add to the confusion and lead to such absurdities as an emperor playing a clown and a physicist, a madman. Moreover, their idealism causes them to compound the very chaos and injustice which they set out to destroy. Romulus, Mississippi, Claire, the Bastard and Titus (one could add others, such as Möbius, Knipperdollinck, even Baerlach from The Suspicion), are all ready to kill for the sake of their ideals. They are all therefore subjected to paradoxical reversals, when their desires for justice lead to murder and their heroism to victimization. Clearly, for Dürrenmatt it is always a matter of paradox and the worst possible case. Those who sit in judgment over their worlds are themselves judged in the end. As the admittedly opportunistic secretary of justice declares in The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi: "The world is bad, but not hopeless; it becomes hopeless only when it is measured by an absolute standard. Justice is not a chopping machine, but an arrangement". For Dürrenmatt, the tragedy of human justice is embodied in Kleist's character Kohlhaas, whom he interprets as a typical Dürrenmatt hero who "refutes the world, but in so doing is himself refuted by the world…. But Kohlhaas must be absolute, if he wants to be in the right, and thereby his justice becomes a crime" (Theater).

Romulus is the best example of this typical Dürrenmatt character; most later heroes resemble him in their aims, methods and in their final failures. At the beginning, we see Romulus as a clown, occupying his time with his hens while Rome is collapsing. But soon we recognize in him the relentless hero who has dedicated himself to justice. Romulus turns out to be the severe moral judge of his society. He condemns Rome for having transgressed his ideal: "it knew truth, but it chose force; it knew humaneness, but it chose tyranny…. Justice is at stake." In his fervor, he believes that he can execute justice only through execution, sacrificing his family and delivering his entire civilization to the barbarians, and finally dying himself. Like Mississippi and many other Dürrenmatt heroes, he makes himself into the executioner of his world: "Like a God is such an executioner." Romulus believes that in an end-time such as his, the only just solution is deliberately to become the victim. But his plan fails; there is no justice as he had envisaged it, only a "disorderly earth." In historical terms, this means that the world will be caught in an endless succession of wars, and in personal terms, that Romulus is forced to end his days in an ignominious retirement. Far from dying a just and heroic death, Romulus is pensioned off, his dream of justice having turned into the farce of his retirement. Having played the clown deliberately and for a purpose, he is finally compelled to play that part against his will. Whereas in the beginning Romulus sits in judgment over the world, in the end the world sits in judgment over him. Through him, Dürrenmatt shows how man's every effort at justice is overthrown by accident and by an ironic fate which annihilates his plans and forces him into a ridiculous defeat. But at the same time, Romulus is one of those terrible simplifiers who bring calamity because they insist on measuring the world with an absolute standard. Holding this ironic double vision, Dürrenmatt can grant his hero greatness only when Romulus willingly accepts his defeat in the face of reality and plays the bitter comedy to the end.

In The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (1957), each character, dialectically developed out of the others, pursues his own vision of justice; they are all united only in their disregard of human life. Under the banner of Mosaic justice, Mississippi passes a record number of death sentences; this practice is frowned upon by the secretary of justice, for whom justice has to be politically feasible: "At times one has to decapitate in God's name, at times be clement for the devil's sake." To bring about a "triumph of justice", Mississippi is prepared to murder his adulterous wife and marry the woman who murdered her husband, and the communist Sainte-Claude is prepared to start revolutions in the name of human rather than divine justice. They generate murder and unrest, but neither man realizes his ideal and both are accidentally killed. They repeat Romulus's fate in that everything they do becomes senseless, but they do not share his insight. Their justice breeds murder and revolutions which "condense to a single monstrous trumpet blast of death."

Nebuchadnezzar in An Angel Comes to Babylon has the same aims and the same frustrations as Romulus. He wants to create an empire based on reason and justice, "a new order of things." But all he achieves is a string of executions and wars. It is indifferent whether he or Nimrod reigns. The empire "is carted through our times / On the old rails …", to paraphrase a line from King John: the same attempts at reform to combat never-changing grievances, a succession of wars and revolutions, and, above all, executions—in short, the eternal disorder and injustice which no man can change. As the Angel tries to teach Nebuchadnezzar: "ruling worlds befits heaven and begging befits man" (I, 190). Yet, although his impotence is proven by events, he remains defiant in spirit, seeking to oppose "creation out of nothingness with the creation out of the spirit of man and see which is better: My justice or the injustice of God."

At the beginning of King John, the Bastard is confidently "Playing the game I chose …" Like Romulus, he plays the clown with a serious purpose: everything he does serves his plan to regulate politics by reason, to make it just. Under his influence, King John himself becomes an advocate of justice, seeking restriction of the royal power, protection from arbitrary laws, freedom for the people. But invariably the crises and accidents of a chaotic world turn the Bastard's plans upside down:

     I interfered      In the world of the powerful      Tried to steer them to a better course.      Yet stupidity pulled the carriage of fate.      And accident.

The result of his intervention is further chaos and bloodshed. So Dürrenmatt again reaches paradox: the man who plans is most vulnerable to accident and achieves the very opposite of his plans; he who seeks justice is the most destructive. As John tells the Bastard at the end:

     You brought nothing but calamity.      Improving the world you only made it the      More damned.

This accusation also fits Dürrenmatt's other seekers of justice and order who turn out to be the perpetrators of the very evils they are trying to root out. The Bastard ends, not unlike Romulus, by withdrawing from the world and playing the part he once had freely chosen as a guise; he is a bastard and his brother's groom.

Although Titus's fate resembles that of the others, Dürrenmatt has so reduced him to the purely farcical that we cannot respond in the same way to his predicament. Titus lacks the wit and fascination of the other heroes, yet he shares their obsessions. A mixture of Romulus and Mississippi, Titus believes that Rome's greatness lies in its law, which he enforces in a single- but also narrow-minded manner. Dürrenmatt denies him the distinction of playing a part; Titus is simply a bigoted advocate of law and order. In an extended interlude—which, although not strictly linked to the plot, expresses Dürrenmatt's concern—Titus asks heaven and hell for justice, chanting together with his invalided soldiers:

     Justice, justice,      Who sustains you, justice?      Who greased you, justice?      With whom do you whore, justice?

This litany continues for another page when, among other things, they plan to stage the tragedy of the missing justice.

Like Möbius before him, Titus plays the madman when all else fails him.

      The nonsense       Of the world only insanity can still subdue.

He serves a mother her sons for dinner, then stabs her and is finally stabbed himself by the Emperor. So the cycle continues until all the characters are maimed, raped or killed. Justice becomes revenge which demands justice, which again cries out for revenge, and "Thus it goes on in the idiotic course of time." Once m[o]re justice turns to madness and then murder; it does not, finally, subdue the nonsense of the world.

In The Conformist (1973), Dürrenmatt continues the farcical reduction of his characters and plot, while still exploring the same themes; indeed, here he gives them a pure schematic form. The gifted scientist Doc, a latter-day Möbius, has been fired from his job during an economic crisis; now he works for Boss, whose business is murder. Doc lives literally underground, where he dissolves the bodies which Boss provides so plentifully. Doc's son Bill seeks justice by trying to destroy the world which has destroyed his father. Having become the richest man in the country, he squanders his fortune in an attempt to wreck the economy and hastens political collapse by arranging the murder of each incoming president. This mixture of Romulus and Claire is finally killed by Cop.

Justice breeds murder also in the case of Cop. He has dedicated his life to convicting Boss; but when at last he lays his evidence before the authorities, every one of the officials is interested only in sharing Boss's profits. Finally Cop "demands justice" from the highest judge; but laughing at Cop, this man demands the largest share of the profit: "Only drunk writers and divorced females babble of justice." Cop realizes the senselessness of his life's work, what a "gigantic nonsense the whole." In a world in which crime is "the form of our civilization," he is the only guilty one, "since I alone sought justice in a world in which justice can be stolen." He then voices one of Dürrenmatt's paradoxical ideas about justice from the aptly named Monster Lecture about Justice and Law, where Dürrenmatt had written: "No single man changes reality; reality is changed by all. Reality is all of us and we are always only single men." Indeed Cop, like Romulus, believes that a single man can realize justice which is everyone's business. And this misconception leads him to murder. At the end, however, aware of his mistake and of his powerlessness, he is ready to die himself. His death, at least, will be just, "even if it is a pitiful justice, but that already is much today; there is no other." Clearly, Dürrenmatt is doing what Charles V desires, always circling around justice.

In The Anabaptists (1967), the hero, Bockelson, is spared both the confrontation with paradox and the defeat, since the games he plays have no ulterior purpose. He "lets himself be driven / Wherever his game drives him….", not even trying to steer. He creates parodies of "lofty stories, heroic stories," without ever losing the sense that they are just different versions of his game; he plays king or beggar with equal detachment, out of "loose inspiration." He believes in nothing and uses everything. Somewhat like his creator, Bockelson recites "comedian-like a farce / Interspersed with Biblical passages and dreams of a better world…." So for once a hero remains undefeated; he is even promoted to the first rank of the Cardinal's theatrical company. Only he who plays a game as radically as Bockelson can survive. Those who believe in justice or reason come to grief, and those who are resigned to making compromises are condemned "to patch up a foul order …" (III, 126), as the Bishop knows from his own experience. Like the disorderly earth of Romulus the Great, this foul order is characterized by a terrible perversion of justice:

      The blessed strung to the wheel; the seducer pardoned       The seduced butchered, the victors derided by their victory       The judgment defiled by the judges….

The answers to this injustice are as extreme as the situations themselves. One can accept it in faith, trusting to divine grace. Man is nothing without grace, but grace is incompatible with human justice. Thus, the blind faith of the blind duke, who never defends himself and who gives in to his blindness, wins out over all the horror of this life. He would agree with Knipperdollinck's daughter in It Is Written that, "It does not befit man to be just" (III, 141). This is a lesson which the "just" Knipperdollinck learns only after he has sacrificed his wealth and his family in his dedication to justice: "Injustice is your lot, you men, and error. Look at my bloody sword of justice, you Anabaptists. Look at human justice. She cut everything to pieces without knowledge, she beheaded blindly. Be it cursed, human justice" (III, 141). He ends strung to the wheel, praising God: "Lord! Lord! / Look at my broken limbs, crushed by Your justice…."

Another answer, as the ends of both The Physicists and Titus Andronicus illustrate, is to see only meaningless indifference, monstrous accident, dead matter, "an obscene aberration of carbon … and incurable scab." But instead of submission, which is stressed more in the earlier works, and denial, which predominates in the later ones, integrity is an option: man can simply cultivate his own garden, as Augias does in the "garden of his renunciation," surrounded by dung, and the Bishop, amidst wars and slaughter, trying "to remain reasonable amidst unreason." Unable to change the world, these characters are resigned to doing the small things which are within reach. The Jew Gulliver from The Suspicion (1961) also teaches Commissioner Bärlach this lesson. Bärlach is another Quixotic seeker after justice, setting out "to combat evil with the mind." Although ingenious and courageous, he is nevertheless "a fool of a detective," who causes the death of an accomplice, and who might have lost his own life, had not Gulliver rescued him at the last minute, with the advice: "As single men we cannot save the world. Therefore we should seek not to save the world but to endure it, the only true adventure which is still left us at this late date." Yet, this awareness of an all-pervasive injustice, which cannot be altered, which can only be borne, does tend to keep these characters from taking any action at all.

Dürrenmatt's plays are built of dialectical reversals, antithetic contrasts, and the grotesque parallels and distortions which constitute his vision. As we have seen, he uses paradox and parody extensively. Seeing everything as its own parody presupposes an attitude of play, but it also implies the collapse of order and meaning, and man's lack of control. Thus, in The Physicists, Möbius, playing mad, acts out a parody of Solomon. Once "a prince of peace and justice," Solomon becomes the inspiration for madness and murder, for Möbius invokes this ruler when he turns to insanity and when he kills the nurse whom he loves. Ultimately, however, this parodied "poor king Solomon" is a symbol of our world and man's state. Like parody, paradox confronts man with the limits of his power and understanding, and exposes his impotence in the most striking manner. Both parody and paradox work through ironic reversals, antithetic constellations and developments. This process is crucial for Dürrenmatt, who believes that "the playwright needs a gradient, a contrast."

So it seems that parody, paradox, as well as the worst possible turn, the dialectics, the reversals, often so perfectly symmetrical, and the grotesque contrasts, all are ultimately in the service of Dürrenmatt's theatrical conception. "The more paradoxically it can be presented, the better reality is suited as theatrical material." "Justice breeds murder," therefore, can be read as a theatrical rather than a conceptual statement. And, indeed, Dürrenmatt's ideas of justice, however thought-provoking, are perhaps a little simple and absolutist, and do not add up to a philosophy. But they are always highly theatrical: heroes fighting to the last for justice and humanity, and turning justice into crime; both human inadequacy and monstrous disorder turning idealism destructive. "The disgrace of the times which makes statesmen out of murderers and judges out of executioners, forces the just to die like criminals." Moreover, these ideas are expressed, of course, by Dürrenmatt's grotesque parodical view.

So perhaps what is crucial for Dürrenmatt in the end is not even justice itself, but playing with the theatrical possibilities of this theme, exploiting the material, creating models, possible worlds. In a sense, that is the basic process of writing, but for Dürrenmatt, playing—with ideas and forms, with situations, with a role, with words—is especially important. He is always sharpening his ideas and situations into paradoxical and parodistical formulations, and challenging us with his constructions. This generalization applies to his expository prose as well as to his art; it describes his way of thinking. In the Monster Lecture about Justice and Law, for example, Dürrenmatt concludes that: "The world, through our injustice, is with justice unjust." In the same lecture, he says: "I think the world through by playing it through"; he compares the procedure to a game of chess in which it does not matter who wins: "the game alone counts, the theme of the opening, the drama of the endgame." "Every play," Dürrenmatt once said, "almost forces a counterplay. It is an inner dialectical process"; and, "The theater as a world of its own contains as its themes fictional men; it develops contra-puntally. A theme has a countertheme…."

As a result of these views, Dürrenmatt often devises contrasting endings for his stories, as in Greek Man Seeks Greek Maiden, or even reworks them completely. In The Pledge, subtitled "Requiem of a Mystery Novel," we get a direct glimpse of Dürrenmatt's way of playing with his material. The story concerns Matthäi, a brilliant criminologist, who is convinced of the innocence of a convicted murderer. "Inexorable, obstinate, passionate," like all of Dürrenmatt's heroes, he tracks down the real criminal. Yet he is foiled at the last minute by an accident, literally, a car accident, which prevents the murderer from being caught in Matthäi's trap. Now, says the old police inspector who tells the story, the writer has certain alternatives. He can let Matthäi win after all, thereby establishing the higher idea of justice, the victory of faith, hope and reason. (That is essentially what Dürrenmatt does in the television version of the story, called "It Happened in Broad Daylight.") Or, he can make the story even more cruel—"The worst also happens occasionally"—by letting Matthäi believe in the innocence of a guilty man and seek a murderer who does not exist; then all the protagonist's actions and plans, however clever, are absurd. Yet even here man has a choice: he can accept his inadequacy in all humility, aware that accounts do not square in reality, or he can deny reality and end in madness. After suggesting these possible models for his story, Dürrenmatt settles for a compromise: Matthäi, unable to accept the workings of accident and absurdity which have destroyed his life's work, goes mad; but at least the inspector discovers years later that Matthäi was right after all.

Despite the evidence, however, one must guard against making this distinction between concept and theater too neat. Perhaps Dürrenmatt, like so many contemporary writers, sees it the other way round: it is justice that is essentially theatrical and therefore parodical. Hence, he does not simplify and totalize—reality does; he is not theatrical—reality is.

In any case, like their creator, the characters are players in the widest sense; references to playing a game occur in almost every work. Palamedes plays "a lonely game, as it flourishes among ruins on the last evening of time," helping his father maintain his illusion. Da Ponte plays the opposite game, using the whores and derelicts of his army as actors to destroy the blind man's peace. Of course, Romulus, Möbius, Bockelson, the Bastard are all master players. But, as we have seen, their games—and Dürrenmatt likes to use a chess metaphor—end in a checkmate. Yet, though forms of play are always present in Dürrenmatt's art, there is the same change of emphasis and orientation which we have noted before. This tendency becomes apparent, for example, in a comparison of the two Bockelsons. In It Is Written (1947), Bockelson says that he plays "with men as with light balls" (II, 23); in The Anabaptists, he plays "comedian-like a farce / Interspersed with Biblical passages and dreams of a better world…." In the earlier plays, the characters are more immediately playful, experiencing the wonder and joy of their games: hence, Romulus's fun with his hens, and Bockelson's relish of food: "Blessed and full of grace be what I have just savored! / Russian salad with tuna!" Dürrenmatt stresses the wit and wisdom as well as the courage of these game-playing characters who, like Romulus, have the greatness to accept their defeat. In his later plays, he accentuates the limitations of their games and the futility. The idealist and rebel can survive only as the consummate actor who turns his dreams of a better world into a farce; believing in nothing, he reduces everything to a mere game. Playing now makes reality absurd and alienates man.

A crucial scene alteration in the two Anabaptist plays illustrates Dürrenmatt's development. At the end of It Is Written, Bockelson and Knipperdollinck dance on the rooftops under a giant moon and an infinite sky; theirs is a poetically exalted meeting which shows Dürrenmatt to be heavily influenced by the expressionists. In The Anabaptists, this scene is moved to a stage on which Bockelson appears, stripped to the waist, carrying paintbrushes and a pail, and wearing an enormous red train and a crown. Dürrenmatt, having forsaken deeper meaning and poetry, shows the world as a stage of grotesque theatricality. A similar reduction is apparent in the endings of Romulus the Great and The Physicists. At his abdication, Romulus bids farewell to the world, seeing it as a colored ball with rich provinces, a blue sea with dancing dolphins, yet also a ball dissolving into nothingness. This is a world monstrous at once in its abundance and in its emptiness. The defeated Möbius, on the other hand, sees the universe as a blue shimmering desert, "and somewhere around a small, yellow, nameless star circles senselessly, evermore, the radioactive earth." If formerly the monstrosity of the world stimulated wonder, fear and joy, now its effect is desolate, forsaken, alienated.

In his later plays, Dürrenmatt is working more and more towards reduction and a theatrical essence: "Dramaturgically I try to show things always more simply, to become more and more economical, to leave out more and more, only to hint." In Play Strindberg and, even more, in The Conformist, characters, dialogue and action begin to resemble the comic strip, and the entire conception, thus reduced, does not yield much stimulation or insight. And yet, however reduced and absurd it may be, playing is itself a liberating force; it creates distance, energy and freedom. The player observes "the doings of men a little detached from earthly encumbrances, in a light … in which lines appear more distinctly … and shapes stand out clearly against their background." Again, playing is defined as a way of making reality transparent, being precise about it. It not only expresses but also subdues and controls the "nonsense of the world." And it always precludes the sentimentality inherent in a perception of reality which reduces men to victims. In the same ways, seeing and shaping reality through parody and paradox create not only a grotesque perception, but also distance and freedom: clarity of vision—"The grotesque is one of the great possibilities of being precise"—as well as a form which enables one to cope with whatever desperate message it contains. For Dürrenmatt insists that his portrayal does not of necessity lead to despair: "He who despairs loses his head; he who writes comedies, uses it" (Theater). In the end, the effect is tragicomedy, although Dürrenmatt prefers to call it comedy. It is comedy for our time, comedy about tragedy, which is the only comedy we can put up with. This concept gives meaning to Romulus's statement, "Someone on his last legs like us can understand only comedies." The writer of comedy, says Dürrenmatt, transforms "a world which is no laughing matter into a stage world about which he laughs …" (Theater).


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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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Peter Spycher (essay date Autumn 1981)

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SOURCE: "Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Story 'Das Sterben der Pythia': Farewell to Theatre and a Return to Fiction and Essays?", in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 614-18.

[In the following essay, Spycher examines Dürrenmatt's use of chance and coincidence, specifically in "Das Sterben der Pythia," in place of fate.]

For decades after World War II the two Swiss writers Max Frisch (b. 1911;…) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (b. 1921) were regarded as two leading playwrights of the German-language theater. But after his play Biografie (1967) Frisch did not write another for some ten years. This new play, Triptychon, was published in book form in 1978. Will there be a next one? It is an open question. Dürrenmatt, on the other hand, has kept writing for the theatre at a fairly steady pace. His last success, however, was Play Strindberg (1969). His subsequent "comedies" have all been failures with the public: Porträt eines Planeten (1970/71), Der Mitmacher (The Accomplice; 1972), Die Frist (The Deadline; 1977), Die Panne (The Breakdown; 1979); also his adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1969/70), as well as his subjective productions of Goethe's Urfaust (1969/70), Büchner's Woyzeck (1971/72) and Lessing's Emilia Galotti (1974/75). He decided not to attend the premiere of Die Frist, and he reserved Die Panne for a restricted theatrical occasion.

André Müller reports: "Dürrenmatt knows his worth. He is confident that his time, the time of world theatre, will come, after his death at the latest." Rolf R. Bigler seconds: "In recent years [Dürrenmatt] was no longer timely. With his plays he was too far out in the future. He let the spokesmen of the age [Zeitgeistliche] do their preaching. Now he is becoming timely again. Not because he has slowed down his pace, but because today's reality shamelessly copies him." But Gerd Jäger voices a different opinion: "Porträt eines Planeten (at the very least) … shows that Dürrenmatt's theatre world is not the result of a transformation of the real world into theatre but that of his dramaturgic (i.e., increasingly cliché-ridden) conception of the world into theatre." Timo Tiusanen, in his discussion of Der Mitmacher, bluntly states what he thinks is wrong with Dürrenmatt's more recent dramatic work: "[Der Mitmacher] is a play demonstrating one of Dürrenmatt's basic difficulties. Where and how to find a context for the results of his macabre creative imagination? The grotesque, Dürrenmatt's forte, presupposes some kind of balancing factor, a minimum amount of everyday probability, to be effective." Maybe there is a discrepancy between Dürrenmatt's aspiration to the creation of a theatrum mundi and the often lowbrow cabaretistic media and means he employs to this end.

Dürrenmatt has announced his intention of increasingly writing for "an imaginary stage," for "the theatre of [his] imagination"; but as in the case of Frisch, it would be prudent to refrain from making firm predictions. And it is a fact that both Frisch and Dürrenmatt have continued being successfully productive as writers of fiction and of essays, Dürrenmatt moreover as a graphic artist. In an article on Dürrenmatt's book Der Mitmacher: Ein Komplex (1976) the Swiss literary critic Anton Krättli writes: "The games [Dürrenmatt] has played in this … book as an aftermath to the comedy 'Der Mitmacher' are not only richer and more stimulating, they are also more profound, they are games relevant to reality, a relevance that seems to be almost completely missing from the comedy. And in vivid contrast to the compressions and abbreviations which prevented the play from really coming alive, his dramaturgic conclusions and above all his stories ['Smithy' and 'Das Sterben der Pythia'] in his exuberant Postscript to 'Der Mitmacher' may well constitute one of his major works." Krättli praises the "novella" "Smithy" (especially its protagonist, a "courageous human being") and calls the "parodistic story" "Das Sterben der Pythia" ("The Death of the Pythia") "perhaps the highlight of the book,… a small masterpiece." I would like to adopt Krättli's judgment and illustrate it by an analysis of one of the stories, "Das Sterben der Pythia."

In "Das Sterben der Pythia" Dürrenmatt deals with a myth, that of Oedipus. In an interview with Heinz Ludwig Arnold he once said that a writer may "suddenly have an idea as to how to choose a myth and reuse it." He did this for and in his Herkules und der Stall des Augias and specifically in his "Dramaturgic des Labyrinths," in which the story of the Minotaur is told. In "Das Sterben der Pythia" he has conducted something like an experiment with a remarkably flexible myth which had been adapted innumerable times before: he wished to illustrate and demonstrate a concept that had always been close to his heart. "Having told the story of Smithy," he states, "to find out how I come across a subject matter, I told the story of Oedipus to satisfy my curiosity as to what excites me about a subject matter." What is it that excites him? Dürrenmatt: "The plot of Oedipus's story seems to be inseparably connected with the idea of fate." Dürrenmatt wants to replace fate by chance or coincidence or accident (Zufall); this is what he calls a "flight" from an action that is controlled by gods and their oracles into the human agents of an action that is continually subjected to coincidences. If there is a fate, then man is simultaneously threatened and guided, and it is at one with him; in a world of coincidences, however, man is exclusively threatened, is exclusively a victim. In Die Panne retired Judge Wucht probably speaks in the author's name when he says: "In a world of guiltless-guilty men, fate has exited from the stage, and chance or accident has taken its place. The age of necessities has yielded to the age of catastrophes."

The (hitherto very few) critics have characterized "Das Sterben der Pythia" as the author himself has done so. Anton Krättli, for example, writes: "Since Dürrenmatt no longer believes in the possibility of tragedy, he sets out to offer an altered interpretation of the myth: it was not fate but chance that guided Oedipus along his ghastly paths." Jan Knopf, intriguingly enough, formulates a Dürrenmattian "theory of chance" (in a discussion of König Johann); "The theory of chance carries itself to an absurd extreme in that chance appears in accordance with a plan whenever a plan made by a human being is to be thwarted. Now the law is the following: the more planning, the more interfering by chance…. Chance assumes the meaningful function of creating madness.

What may the story of the Pythia conceivably have to do with the comedy Der Mitmacher? One link may be this statement by Dürrenmatt: "In contrast to the dramaturgic tactic of treating chance with care so that chance would remain what it is, chance, in Der Mitmacher chance happens again and again" (my emphasis). Is this perhaps conscious or unconscious self-criticism with regard to the comedy? The fact is that in the comedy chance plays too massive a part, whereas in the story chance is parodistically thematized, on the one hand, and unmistakably kept within limits on the other—so much so that the figures here are plausible characters, indeed are apt to arouse a psychological interest. Krättli notes too that there may be something other than just the question of fate or chance involved; he says: "[Dürrenmatt] does not directly aim to refute the thesis that it was the curse of the gods that drove the son of the king of Thebes into a trap. But he harbors doubts and thinks it is possible that a quite different authority, one behind the gods or even farther out in a mysterious realm, is responsible for what happens. Again, he pleads for the existence of a mystery."

In the story an intimate familiarity of the reader with the classical Oedipus matter is obviously presupposed; otherwise the story could not be a parodistic tragicomedy. As far as I am concerned, I have to presuppose the reader's familiarity with Dürrenmatt's parody, which fairly bursts with witty themes and motifs and ingenious variations and metamorphoses; any attempt at a summary would probably fall far short of its purpose and would be too clumsy.

Dürrenmatt's contention that, in his story, "It is no longer the oracle that counts but the person who proclaims it, the priestess of Apollo, the Pythia," and that one could posit, as a point of departure, "that Oedipus might, for instance, fall prey to a Pythia who happens to be in a bad mood" is not altogether correct. What matters is who formulates an oracle, in what spirit, with what intent—and also who hears it and how he reacts to it, as, say, in Der Meteor, where the miracle of the divinely ordained resurrections of Schwitter is assessed in very diverse ways by Schwitter himself and the other characters in the comedy. In "Das Sterben der Pythia" (as in "Smithy") Dürrenmatt abundantly employs the device of the interior monologue (erlebte Rede); seldom does the narrator speak in his own name. It is important for the reader to recognize the different narrative perspectives and to avoid confusing the opinions of individual figures with the fictional facts of the story. The story as a whole, it should be borne in mind, consists of real or imagined conversations held, in retrospect, between actual or potential shades of the characters involved in the history of the kingdom of Thebes with a disillusioned Pythia, Pannychis XI, who is weary of life and looks forward to her death.

The "de-mythologizing," "de-heroicizing," "de-bunking" narrative style naturally recalls that of Herkules und der Stall des Augias or Der Froze um des Esels Schatten or Grieche sucht Griechin but is, by and large, more casual, more mellow, wiser, more cognizant of the "moral frailty of the world." It closely resembles that of "Dramaturgic des Labyrinths." The very beginning of the story sets the tone for it as a whole.

The Delphic priestess, Pannychis XI, tall and haggard like most of her predecessors, being annoyed by the monkey business of her oracles and by the credulity of the Greeks, had listened to the youth Oedipus; ah, again someone who inquired whether or not his parents were his parents, as if that could so easily be ascertained in aristocratic circles, really, after all, there were wives who pretended to have had sexual intercourse with Zeus, and husbands who were even willing to believe this…. Today she was positively disgusted with everything,… and thus, be it because she wanted to cure him of his superstition with regard to the art of proclaiming oracles, be it because it simply occurred to her, as a byproduct of her momentarily ugly mood, to annoy the blasé prince from Corinth, she prophesied for him something supremely nonsensical and improbable which, she was sure, would never materialize, for, so she thought, who on earth would be able to murder his own father and sleep with his own mother—she considered those incest-laden stories about gods and demigods to be fairy tales anyhow.

We cannot assert that what the oracle Pannychis communicated to Oedipus was a chance oracle. First, Pannychis "wanted to use her oracles to mock those who believed them"; thus she herself does not believe in gods, or certainly not in their faculty of inspiring oracles; but from her longtime experience, she should know that her cocky oracles only tend to make "devout people even more devout" and thereby decisively contribute to Delphi's economic boom with all its gaudily opulent features. Also, those paid-for oracles that seers like Tiresias formulate for or against prominent persons and that the Pythia thereupon has to recite, have nothing to do with chance: "They were meant for a certain purpose; there was corruption behind it all, maybe even politics." We will learn what the political angles of the oracles of Tiresias are. And second, Oedipus, the devout believer in gods and oracles, has strong motives of his own to see the oracle which Pannychis has just communicated to him come true: much later, he confides to her, "I hated my real parents more than anything else; they wanted to cast me before wild beasts, I did not know who they were, but Apollo's oracle solved the problem for me." His parents, "according to the oracle,… were bound to be those upon whom the oracle would be executed," and "I wanted to become king of Thebes, and so did the gods, and I triumphantly slept with my mother…. The gods had made this monstrous decision, and therefore it was to be implemented." In this sense, Tiresias fittingly says about Oedipus: "It was he himself who chose his fate." (From the point of view of the Pythia, however, who does not believe in gods, let alone in oracles, the fulfillment of her oracle is "a grotesque fluke hit.") Even the trial Oedipus eventually conducted against himself and his subsequent self-punishment were a triumph for him, because from that time on he could give free rein to his hatred for his parents, his ancestors and the gods. As a blind beggar, accompanied by his daughter Antigone, he now wanders around in Greece, "not in order to exalt the power of the gods, but to scoff at them." Hatred and rebellion against his progenitors, this is Oedipus's case, a kind of triumphantly exploding Oedipus complex.

Each one of the figures has psychologically plausible motives and intentions and suffers whatever consequences may derive from them; Menoikeus, who deems himself socially superior to Laios, nourishes "the hope that he or at least his son Creon would accede to the throne." The oracle bought by him for a high price from Tiresias—"If a son is born to [Laios], he will murder [his father]"—is supposed to work for him as a "deterring oracle." His final self-sacrifice, dictated to him through an oracle that has been arranged for by Laios, suits him well because he has irremediably gone bankrupt. Assuming that Tiresias's oracle has been directed against him, Laios nonetheless wants to maintain his autocratic regime for himself and perpetuate it for posterity, but he makes mistakes or has bad luck: his wife Jocasta bears him a son who has been fathered either by him or by the commanding officer of his royal guard, and somewhat irresolutely he has the infant cast out rather than killed; and on an earlier occasion, perhaps it was he who begat the Sphinx with Hippodameia, the wife of Pelops, who thereupon took his revenge by castrating him; he, Laios, forced his carriage driver Polyphontes to rape the Sphinx in order to produce a grandchild that might become his heir and successor, and through all those actions he drew the deadly hatred of the members of his family upon himself. In her first night of love with Oedipus, Jocasta recognizes him as her son but is more than willing to buy his lies about his "parents," Polybos and Merope, in Corinth, and makes no attempt at enlightening him. Why this behavior? She tells Pannychis: "I fainted with sexual delight; never was it more intense than when I gave myself to [Oedipus]." Was this incestuous perversion? Maybe. But certainly also and above all it was satisfaction of her feelings of revenge toward Laios, who once had had her son cast out. Having taken her revenge, she gladly allows herself to be hanged from the beam of her bedroom door by one of her jealous guard officers. In her encounter with the Pythia Pannychis she proudly claims or pretends always to have acted in accordance with the gods' decrees—which, to be sure, always corresponded to her very own wishes.

The episode about the Sphinx is quite a special matter. One could raise the question whether Dürrenmatt here did not indulge himself too much in spinning his yarn, but it seems to be preferable to suppose that he has both lit up a fireworks of fantasy and intentionally carried the complications of the story to an absurd extreme. Be that as it may, to present a summary of the Sphinx's biography would be tantamount to extinguishing fireworks with water. Suffice it to note that the Sphinx insists her own son is the genuine Oedipus and that she lived with her son, except that she, the Sphinx, and her son Oedipus remained unaware of their mutual identities. Thus we are offered a choice between two Oedipuses. But we are thrown into further confusion: "Perhaps there is a third Oedipus," says Tiresias to Pannychis. "We do not know whether or not the Corinthian shepherd handed over to Queen Merope his own son rather than the son of the Sphinx—if he was the son of the Sphinx—after having pierced [his own son's] ankles too, and having cast the genuine Oedipus, who, after all, was not the genuine one either, out to the wild beasts; [and we do not know] whether or not Merope threw the third Oedipus into the sea in order to present her own son, to whom she had secretly given birth—his father possibly having been an officer of the guard too—as a fourth Oedipus to her guileless husband Polybos." Under such circumstances it is probably best to leave alone "what actually was different and will be different again and again the more we investigate."

Where does this uncertainty, mutually experienced among the various figures and also by the reader, come from? Well, all the figures tell either lies or "only the approximate truth," in part on purpose, in part unconsciously, in part out of ignorance. Besides, the author of course enjoys turning the order he has created into disorder so as to have his "labyrinthine reality" and to baffle the reader. In spite of all the psychological plausibilities, which I have deliberately dwelled on, the fact remains that, from a viewpoint negating the existence of gods, the story abounds with chances and coincidences. (One of the more comical ones is the fact that Oedipus happens to kill all his conceivable fathers: Laios, Polyphontes and Mnesippos.) Nevertheless, of the three main oracles pertaining to the Theban monarchy—1) if a son is born to Laios, the son will murder his father; 2) Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother; 3) the plague in Thebes will go away if Laios's murderer or murderers are found and punished—only the second, the one improvised by Pannychis, is due to chance. Interestingly enough, its effect on Oedipus is not, as in the classical myth, a tragic one but, instead, a deeply satisfying one (Oedipus as the husband of Jocasta satisfies his feelings of revenge against his parents) or an enchanting one (Oedipus as the lover of the Sphinx experiences idyllic happiness with her). Dürrenmatl thinks that he could not penetrate to the center of his own personality by employing psychoanalytical methods, but admits that he could not, of course, prevent other people from psychoanalyzing him. I, for one, suspect that a psychoanalytical interpretation of "Das Sterben der Pythia" would yield valuable insights.

But back to the oracles! The first and the third oracle were conceived by Tiresias for a political purpose. Tiresias, like Pannychis and indeed much more than she, is "a rational human being"; "I too do not believe in the gods," he says, "but I believe in reason, and because I believe in reason, I am convinced that irrational faith in the gods has to be used in a rational way." According to his own confession, Tiresias is a "democrat." He takes sides, not so much for Laios, a corrupt but nonideological tyrant, as against Creon, who would, if he were to become king (Menoikeus's hope!), establish a totalitarian state modeled on Sparta. Tiresias's first oracle was intended to advise the castrated and homosexual Laios to adopt a son—for instance, the decent General Amphitryon. Laios, we recall, fails to understand this advice. Tiresias's other oracle (our third one) is based on an error: he mistakenly believes that it was Creon, not Oedipus, who murdered Laios (Jocasta had concealed the truth from the seer). Tiresias would like to use his second oracle to focus the people's attention on Creon as the suspected assassin in order to prevent him from overthrowing Oedipus (the real assassin of his father and husband of his mother!) and replacing him as king of Thebes (262 f.). Unfortunately. Tiresias's oracle has the opposite effect: Oedipus abdicates, and Creon becomes king.

Pannychis and Tiresias, not Oedipus, are the actual protagonists of the story. At the end Tiresias says to Pannychis: "Both of us faced the same monstrous reality, which is as opaque as man, who creates it." If the gods existed (but they do not), they would probably have "a certain, if superficial, general overview." How have Tiresias and Pannychis reacted to this monstrous, opaque reality? Pannychis "with imagination, with whimsicality, with high spirits, even with a virtually irreverent insolence, in short: with blasphemous jocularity"; Tiresias "with cool reflection …, with incorruptible logic, again in short: with reason." Paradoxically, Pannychis's "improbable" oracle turn out to be failures. Tiresias has acted as a rationalist, as a "utopian," who perceives the world as "a monster." This, at any rate, is what Dürrenmatt has Tiresias proclaim. Yet Tiresias, in contrast to a rationalistic would-be reformer of society like Bertolt Brecht, recognizes the problematic nature of his philosophy and the desirability of its being supplemented by imagination. At the end of the story Tiresias explicitly raises the question of Oedipus's fate: is it determined by the gods, or through Oedipus's "breach" of "certain principles that lend support to the society of his times" or through some chance triggered by Pannychis?

It seems to me that what is discussed in "Das Sterhen der Pythia" is not so much Oedipus's fate (which brings him satisfaction and fulfillment) as the question of the effect of the whimsical imagination of the irreligious Delphic priestess Pannychis XI in a chaotic world; above all, however, is the fact that the irreligious seer Tiresias, a rationalist working for the establishment of a rational and preferably democratic order (under Oedipus's guidance), makes a bad miscalculation, causing the establishment of a tyrannical order under Creon), and thus checkmates himself—not unlike, e.g., the Bastard in König Johann, "Exzellenz" in Die Frist, the private court and Traps in the comedy Die Panne and the dramatis personae in Der Mitmacher, To quote Anton Krättli once more, "Here it is again, the theme of Mitmachen: to commit or not to commit oneself in the affairs of the world, that is the question." But as I have observed already, "Das Sterben der Pythia" has an advantage over Der Mitmacher: the story is told with imagination, wit, urbanity, suspense, elegance and—"with humor!"

Principal Works

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Es steht geschrieben [It Is Written] (play) 1947Der Blinde [The Blind Man] (play) 1948Romulus der Grosse [Romulus the Great] (play) 1949Der Richter und sein Henker [The Judge and His Hangman] (novel) 1950Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi [The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi] (play) 1952Der Verdacht [The Quarry] (novel) 1953Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon [An Angel Comes to Babylon] (play) 1953 ∗Herkules und der Stall des Augias (radio play) 1954Der Besuch der alien Dame [The Visit] (play) 1956Das Versprechen [The Pledge] (novel) 1958Frank der Fuenfte [with Paul Burkhard] (play) 1960Die Physiker [The Physicists] (play) 1962Der Meteor [The Meteor] (play) 1966Koenig Johann [King John] (adaptation) 1968Play Strindberg (adaptation) 1969Titus Andronicus (adaptation) 1970Der Mitmacher, ein Komplex (play) 1976Achterloo (play) 1983Der Auftraug [The Assignment] (novel) 1986Midas (novel) 1990

Herkules und der Stall des Augias was expanded and produced as a play in 1962.

A. M. Wright (essay date October 1981)

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SOURCE: "Scientific Method and Rationality in Dürrenmatu" in German Life and Letters, Vol. 35, No. 1, October, 1981, pp. 64-72.

[In the following essay, Wright shows how Dürrenmatt explores what is real by juxtaposing scientific method and speculation in his detective novels.]

Dürrenmatt's work so often presents us with an incalcuable world thwarting man's attempts to shape it, that the world's rationality seems questioned and thus the whole scientific enterprise to understand it. Nowhere does this seem more evident than in the detective novels, where scientific procedures are apparently mocked. In lectures of recent years Dürrenmatt has dealt directly with such philosophical issues, comparing in particular the views of Spinoza and Einstein, and acknowledging the importance that the thought of Karl Popper has come to have for him. An analysis of the detective novels will show just how much of what he now makes explicit was contained in his earlier work, suggesting that underlying his work is a coherent philosophical position that has changed little. While his work constitutes a critique of the Cartesian strand of rationalism, of which Spinoza is an extreme representative, his position remains firmly rationalist.

The novels contain an exploration of scientific method, presenting competing views of it that reflect the battles in physics fought out in Germany between the wars. The contrast that we are shown in Der Richter und sein Henker is ostensibly that between the brilliant but unsystematic Bärlach, proceeding by hunch not scientific method, and his superior Lutz, the champion of modern scientific criminology, employing inductive logic and a methodical discovery procedure. It is precisely these rational procedures that the novel seems to mock and Lutz himself, bewildered by the denouement, is made to admit the inadequacy of his science: "… wenn es nach der Wissenschaft gegangen wäre, schnüffelten wir jetzt bei fremden Diplomaten herum." Bärlach accepts the role he is cast for, playing teasingly with the accusations of unscientific procedure: "… mein Verdacht ist nicht ein kriminalistisch wissenschaftlicher Verdacht. Ich habe keine Gründe, die ihn rechtfertigen." Justification will prove to be a key notion.

Lutz's view of science is the Baconian one of a procedure that starts from firmly established facts and builds on this sure foundation a structure of verified knowledge, discovery being achieved by applying a rigorous method. This view is suspicious above all of hypotheses. It finds bold expression in Newton's "Hypotheses non fingo", which Dürrenmatt put into the mouth of his own Newton in Die Physiker and which was a slogan of Philipp Lenard's "Aryan Physics". Above all it is necessary to restrain the imagination, to avoid obscuring the truth of nature with the mind's fantasies. Nature must be viewed without preconceptions and the mind firmly anchored in the "real" world. Nature is thus an open book, revealing itself to any mind unclouded by the fictions produced by the all too fertile imagination. The idea is fostered that the scientist is the man of cold reason who points to a reality we all could see, if we would open unprejudiced eyes and look. With such a method, Bacon even suggested, great intellect was no longer essential: "Not much is left to acuteness and strength of talent." With a pair of compasses, he remarks, anyone can draw a circle. Any of Dürrenmatt's dull policemen, Lutz, Tschanz or Henzi, will suffice; the undisciplined brilliance of a Bärlach is superfluous. The empiricist Bacon was at one with the rationalist Spinoza on this point at least, that truth manifests itself.

Opposed to this is the view argued above all by Popper that science can yield no more than theories that may take us ever closer to the truth but can never be verified or "justified"; they are falsified by one counter-example, but no amount of "confirmatory" evidence can establish their truth, for the very next instance may contradict. Progress is only by the negative way of subjecting theories to the severest tests, in order to reveal inadequacies and suggest better theories. A theory is only as good as the tests it has survived; a good one will not only be consistent with available data but lead to new discoveries. The scientist should not try to prove his theory but to falsify it. On this view it is not only the dramatist but the scientist too who must pursue "die schlimmst mögliche Wendung", which for him means refutation of his theory. In this process of conjectures and refutations hypotheses are essential. It matters little how fantastic the hypothesis, if it yields testable statements; the only hypothesis useless to science is one that cannot be falsified. Reality is not an open book; in Heraclitus' words, Nature loves to hide, and must be tricked into revealing her secrets. Einstein called his world "a world of some objective reality which I try to catch in a wildly speculative way." Dürrenmatt's detective novels bring these two conceptions of science into confrontation.

In Das Versprechen the hawker von Gunten, with a previous conviction for indecency involving a fourteen year old girl, is the obvious and only available suspect for the murder of the young child Gritli Moser. Henzi, in charge of the case, jumps at the plausible solution, fitting all the confirmatory evidence to the pattern: the previous conviction; the failure of von Gunten to report tripping over the body he claims he found, until confronted with the bloodstains detected on his trousers; his unwillingness to mention razors in the list of his wares etc. The pattern is impressive, but is it there in the real world or being forced onto it? All the evidence can be fitted into another coherent pattern, that of the hawker's own explanation. Some test is required to show the explanatory power of Henzi's theory. Henzi does not look for such a test; he prefers to squeeze von Gunten till he cracks and confesses. It does not trouble Henzi that not even the confession yields testable information, such as the whereabouts of the murder weapon. His hypothesis has risked nothing and survived no tests. It triumphs only because the alternative is silenced: von Gunten commits suicide.

Yet any serious attempt to refute the hypothesis would have aroused immediate doubts. Matthäi's keener mind had spotted the irrelevance of the previous conviction to a case involving no sexual assault. Dissatisfied, he seeks further evidence and finds it in Gritli's drawing of a man, made shortly before her death. The psychiatrist Locher, to whom he submits it for comment, dismisses it as worthless evidence, because children's drawings are a mixture of fantasy and reality, but coaxed into going along with Matthäi's "fiction" and informed that three girls have been murdered in the same way, he obliges with a hypothesis. When Matthäi proceeds to take it seriously, however, he reacts with horror: "Alles, was er ihm gesagt habe, sei nur eine Spekulation, ein blosses Gedankenspiel ohne wissenschaftlichen Wert." It is a mere fiction, one possibility in a thousand: "Mit der gleichen Methode könate man beweisen, dass jeder beliebige der Mörder sein könnte." The sober scientist pleads with Matthäi to leave his fantasy world: "… nun solle Matthäi auch Manns genug sein, die Realität ohne Hypothesen zu schen."

Locher has however overlooked a vital point: his "wild" speculation has the great merit of being falsifiable, because it has yielded one testable statement, the prediction that the girls will resemble each other. "Prüfen Sie es nach, die Opfer werden sich alle gleichen." The hypothesis leads to the discovery of a significant fact, for Locher is right and the fact had not previously been noticed. Unlike Henzi's plausible hypothesis, Locher's speculative one ran the risk of being refuted; it has probed the world, instead of filling known facts into a preconceived pattern. Matthäi's next step is equally conjectural. Following painstaking experimental work with children, he suggests that a horned figure in the drawing depicts the ibex motif on a Graubünden car number plate. This conjecture focuses attention on another detail that nobody had noticed: all three murder locations were on the Graubüden—Zurich road, and von Gunten had no car. Further successful predictions finally convince everyone. Matthäi's fiction exposes reality so well that the police chief Dr. H. calls the detective a genius. Locher had pleaded with Matthäi to face reality without hypotheses; Matthäi shows that only with hypotheses can reality be faced.

Locher and Dr. H. had urged Matthäi to be reasonable and accept what was probable. Too often the reasonable and probable are merely what seem plausible to an unimaginative mind. Poor Lutz in Der Richter und sein Henker never questions the plausible: at first the master criminal Gastmann is "above all suspicion" and at the end his guilt is "proven". The truth he never suspects. That reality might be surprising never enters his mind. All the scientific paraphernalia in the world is useless, when the thinking is as shoddy and unimaginative as his.

In the Bärlach novels it is Bärlach himself, not Lutz, who displays scientific method. In Der Richter und sein Henker this is obscured by the fact of Bärlach's previous knowledge of Gastmann. In Der Verdacht, however, Dürrenmatt gives us two examples of scientific reasoning made so explicit that it reads like a textbook. Bärlach characterizes the detective's art for his surgeon friend Hungertobel as follows: "Unsere Kunst setzt sich aus etwas Mathematik zusammen und aus sehr viel Phantasie." This resembles the account given by Einstein and Popper of the scientist's "art". Expounding Einstein, Dürrenmatt has written:

Damit sind wir auf das wichtigste Dogma der Einsteinschen Erkenntnistheorie gestossen, auf den Glauben, dass sich die Sinnen-Erlebnisse nur intuitiv, nicht logisch auf ein in sich logisches, aber an sich logisch willkürliches Begriffssystem beziehen lassen.

Bärlach's intuitive processes are stimulated by Hungertobel's astonishment at the close resemblance between a picture of the concentration camp doctor Nehle and a student colleague, Emmenberger, now running a prosperous local sanatorium. To Bärlach's speculative identification of the two Hungertobel reacts with the same horrified protest with which Locher greets Matthäi. He objects to the unrestrained imagination: "Deiner Phantasie sind offenbar nicht die geringsten Grenzen gesetzt." Like Locher and Lutz he prefers to draw the least disturbing conclusion, the one easiest to fit into routine modes of thinking: "Jeder von uns kann einem Mörder gleichen." Bärlach is suspicious of the obvious. He has to seek the solution that is most "wahrscheinlich", for verisimilitude is, as Popper asserts, the most that science can attain, but "Wahrscheinlichkeit", understood as plausibility, is too often the refuge of the lazy mind. With rigorous logic the detective forces the doctor to defend his common-sense theory against alternative hypotheses. Hungertobel greets the suggestion that Emmenberger was in the camp and Nehle in Chile under Emmenberger's name with cries of "Unsinn", "ein unwahrscheinlicher Schluss." This manner of dealing with reality is primitive; it is, he implies, arbitrary and thus unscientific, because it would put everything in doubt, leaving no firm ground on which to stand. Bärlach agrees about the doubt: "Wir müssen in diesem Punkt durchaus wie die Philosophen vorgehen, von denen es heisst, dass sie erst einmal alles bezweifeln."

The detective now proceeds to show that what saves his approach from arbitrariness is the testing of the hypothesis. This is where "Phantasie" gives way to "Mathematik". Close investigation shows the similarity between the two men to be remarkable: both have a scar on the forehead as a result of a far from common operation and in both cases part of the eyebrow is missing, because the operation has not been managed with the usual skill. This is a highly improbable coincidence or a contrived one. The "probable" hypothesis now rests on a highly improbable occurrence, but here "improbability" has a precise meaning: it is not mere implausibility; it can be given a numerical, if approximate, value. Dürrenmatt pursues the demonstration at length, showing the hypothesis leading, like Matthäi's, to the discovery of relevant and quite unpredictable facts. Like Matthäi Bärlach then proves his confidence in his theory by acting upon it. Here, however, we have one of Dürrenmatt's characteristic twists: by sticking his neck out a scientist usually runs the risk of being wrong, but in entering Emmenberger's sanatorium Bärlach only runs a risk if he is right.

This lesson in scientific thinking from Part I of the novel is then balanced and reinforced in Part II by its mirror image, with roles of doctor and detective neatly reversed. Emmenberger, having discovered Bärlach's identity, needs to know whether Hungertobel is involved and needs to be disposed of. The detective now finds himself desperately trying to make his denial of Hungertobel's involvement convincing. Emmenberger subjects Bärlach's arguments to the same rigorous scrutiny to which Bärlach had subjected Hungertobel's. The detective's objections echo his friend's: "Unsinn … das sei eine unberechtigte Idee, eine leere Spekulation." Emmenberger carefully tests the opposing hypotheses for their "Wahrscheinlichkeit", attempting to argue the negation of his hypothesis that Hungertobel knows all: "Gehen wir vorher zu andern möglichen Indizien über, die gegen mich vorliegen, versuchen wir ihn reinzuwaschen." The attempted refutation is not convincing: on Bärlach's "hypothesis" the facts simply cannot be made to cohere, but on his own they cohere perfectly. It is not thereby established or justified, but it is the one that has best survived criticism and to act according to the best tested theory is the rational course. It is the only rational strategy in a world without certainty. Doctor and detective show the same capacity for critical thought. With some justice Emmenberger tells Bärlach: "Wir sind beide Wissenschaftler."

Now that Einstein is one of the undisputed "greats", it is easy to forget the bitter struggle his theories provoked. His most virulent opponent was Philipp Lenard (Nobel Prizewinner for Physics, as chance would have it, in 1905, the year in which Einstein made the discovery for which he won the prize in 1921), who championed what he saw as the empiricist view of science, distinguishing between "mere hypothesis" and well founded theory derived from observation and experiment. Relativity theory, he insisted, did not deserve the name theory, because it came not from careful observation of the great judge and teacher Nature, but from the relativists' own fantastic imaginations. We meet here what, in the context of Dürrenmatt's work, is the familiar accusation of distorting reality through the unrestrained and grotesque imagination. For Lenard, Einstein's theories were procreations alien to nature and he scorned the idea that knowledge of the exterior world could come from the notions of human heads. "Makers of hypotheses" was an insult hurled at the "new" physicists. In the Aryan Physics that Lenard attempted to construct, discovery was to be firmly rooted in Nature, with which the nordic researcher was engaged in close dialogue, whereas the Jew was involved in abstractions from his own head, abstruse mathematical constructs deriving from the imagination, supported by "Gedankenexperimente".

Einstein's answer to Lenard at the Bad Nauheim conference on relativity in 1920 had been the now familiar notion that we cannot rely on the intuitively obvious, because what is intuitively obvious changes with time. It is uncomfortable to have our familiar images questioned and the questioner is resented. Einstein disturbed Lenard, as Bärlach disturbed Hungertobel, and Matthäi disturbed Locher and Dr. H. The world of Dürrenmatt's detective fiction is one in which there is no simple contrast between the imaginative artist and the "rational" or "logical" scientist. In this world writer, detective and scientist are alike dependent on imagination. More recently Dürrenmatt has made the point explicit: "Dagegen ist die Logik der Wissenschaft jene des schöpferischen Menschen." The imagination is essential for the rational exploration of reality, and not for its exploration only: its rational ordering requires the imagination just as urgently. To Lutz, in Der Verdacht, Bärlach grumbles: "Die Phantasie, das sei es eben, die Phantasie!… Die Welt sei aus Nachlässigkeit schlecht, und daran, aus Nachlässigkeit zum Teufel zu gehen." In a novel concerned with the devils of the concentration camps it is a striking suggestion that the greatest threat to a humane world is unimaginative and slipshod thinking.

Yet despite brilliant thinking, both imaginative and logical, Matthäi fails disastrously, evoking the nightmare thought that we are not in a rational world. It is tempting to ascribe the failure to "the element of unreason in the world", but it is misleading. Matthäi fails because he is ignorant of one fact that he could not possibly have known: the man he seeks is already dead. Writing of the problems of prediction in the social sciences, F.A. von Hayek, whose work has pertinent things to say on Dürrenmatt's perennial theme of "Zufall", states:

The difficulties which we encounter … are not, as one might at first suspect, difficulties about formulating theories for the explanation of the observed events … The real difficulty, to the solution of which science has little to contribute, and which is sometimes indeed insoluble, consists in the ascertainment of the particular facts.

To ascribe to a lack of reason in the world man's inability to know all, is a manifestation of human pride, which in Dürrenmatt's work is always punished. Matthäi's failure has disastrous consequences, not despite his rationality, but because he is not rational enough to realize that no theory, however fruitful, can be relied on as true. He presumes to know and acts with absolute faith in his theory.

The rationalism that Das Versprechen mocks is the Cartesian rationalism that believes that an absolutely sure foundation can be given to the structure of human knowledge. Descartes wrote: "It seems to me that I can establish as a general rule that all things which I perceive very clearly and distinctly are true." Matthäi too perceives clearly and distinctly: having calmed a lynch mob by daringly offering to hand over the hawker if they insist, he is asked by the horrified Staatsanwalt what he would have done, had the villagers insisted; he replies: "Ich wusste, dass dies nicht der Fall sein würde." The arrogant tone of absolute self-confidence is that of Spinoza's remark (which shows the gulf between him and Einstein, for all the similarities that Dürrenmatt adduces): "I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, I know that I understand the true philosophy."

The representative of a worthier and more Einsteinian rationalism is Bärlach who, having quite demolished Hungertobel's objections to his hypothesis, concludes his lesson in scientific thinking by emphasizing that it remains a hypothesis:

Ich habe dir nur die Wahrscheinlichkeit meiner Thesen bewiesen. Aber das Wahrscheinliche ist noch nicht das Wirkliche … In dieser Welt ist der Gedanke mit der Wahrheit nicht identisch … Zwischen dem Gedanken und der Wirklichkeit steht immer noch das Abenteuer des Daseins.

The scientific enterprise is "ein grandioses Abenteuer des Geistes", requiring both boldness and humility, both the recognition of ultimate ignorance and the refusal despairingly to ascribe to irrationality one's failure to make sense. In comparing Einstein's search for understanding to a chess game played between the scientist and God (or Nature), Dürrenmatt says:

… er nimmt die Partie in der Überzeugung auf, dass auch jene Spielzüge Gottes, die Sinnen-Eindrücke, die den Spielregeln zu widersprechen scheinen, sich auf dem Schachbrett nachspielen lassen; und er beginnt die Partie im Vertrauen, einer fairen Auseinandersetzung entgegenzugehen.

It is assumed that God keeps the rules and any apparent breaking of them is due to "eine fehlerhafte Interpretation des göttlichen Spiels". He quotes Einstein himself: "Die Natur verbirgt ihr Geheimnis durch die Erhabenheit ihres Wesens, nicht durch List." Many years before, in Das Versprechen, he had made Dr. H. urge his interlocutor not to draw irrationalist conclusions from the story of Matthäi:

Unser Verstand erhellt die Welt nur notdürftig. In der Zwielichtzone seiner Grenze siedelt sich alles Paradoxe an. Hüten wir uns davor, diese Gespenster "an sich" zu nehmen, als ob sie ausserhalb des menschlichen Geistes angesiedelt wären.

In Dürrenmatt's works reality mocks those who presume to know her and act arrogantly on the basis of their mistaken epistemology, either with the cruel punishment experienced by Romulus, Matthäi and Möbius, or merely with ignorance. Dürrenmatt ends Das Versprechen with a coda that subtly restates a main theme. The grotesque old lady, Frau Schrott, has an unshakable view of the world. She is obsessed by the conviction of her sister's malice towards her and she keeps secret the murders committed by her mentally sub-normal husband Albert precisely to deny her sister the opportunity to gloat. This malice, she asserts, has been lifelong, but has never shown outwardly. All the sister's actions are fitted into the pattern. She had, it is true, made no comment on the marriage with Albertchen, but:

wenn ihre Schwester auch nichts dazu bemerkt habe, ja sogar zur Hochzeit nach Chur gekommen sei, geärgert habe sie sich über diese Heirat, das wisse sie bestimmt, wenn die Schwester auch wieder, um sie eben zu ärgern, nichts habe merken lassen.

Of the flowers decorating her hospital room she says: "All diese Blumen … schicke ihre Schwester nur, um sie zu ärgern." The circle is closed. Even the absence of positive evidence is regarded as corroboration. Here is a theory like Henzi's, sealed off from any danger of refutation. (Lenard apparently countered the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment with the irrefutable theory that each bit of matter carries with it its own ether.) Such theories and such minds run no risk of being proved wrong, nor of probing the world.

Dürrenmatt has frequently shown the importance of the epistemological issue. He sums up one consequence for action of Spinoza's philosophy as follows: "gut ist der Wissende, schlecht der Unwissende, böses Handeln ist falsches, gutes Handeln ist richtiges Handeln." Many of Dürrenmatt's characters presume to know, and act accordingly, pragmatically rejecting traditional moral constraints in pursuit of their visions, Möbius murdering his nurse and Romulus sacrificing his people. Romulus at least recognizes his error, but disillusionment too can have dangerous consequences. Marlok, having discovered that the knowledge of which Spinoza speaks is impossible, draws the conclusion that good action is no longer possible, leaving her a "Mitmacher", the tool of Emmenberger's evil:

das Gute und das Böse sind zu sehr ineinander verschlungen … umje wieder voneinander getrennt zu werden, um zu sagen: Dies ist wohlgetan und jenes vom Übel, dies führt zum Guten und jenes zum Schlechten. Zu spät! Wir können nicht mehr wissen, was wir tun, welche Handlung unser Gehorsam oder unsere Auflehnung nach sich zieht.

She rejects with scorn Bärlach's desire to uphold the law, failing to see that in rejecting "Gesetze" she rejects precisely those strategies that mankind has unconsciously developed for coping with chance and our ignorance of the consequences of our actions. They are of course as unjustifiable as the scientists' hypotheses; they are just as much in need of constant revision. Bärlach's banal-sounding "das Gesetz ist das Gesetz" is not as intellectually lame as first it seems. Rules prove themselves by their fruitfulness and to reject them because they are "unjustifiable" is as irrational as rejecting a theory for the same reason. Swiss society, Bärlach admits to the iconoclast Fortschig, in Der Verdacht, is pretty shabby, but it is not rational to want to destroy it: "gleich das ganze Haus abreissen ist sinnlos und nicht gescheit; denn es ist schwer, in dieser armen lädierten Welt ein neues Haus zu bauen." Neither our systems of theory nor our systems of rules can be perfected. In a world of ignorance the rational course is to accept provisionally a well tested system and to use the imagination to construct theories that mesh better with reality, and institutions that shape it to accord more nearly with our values. Dürrenmatt's early novels suggest a view of the links between science, politics and art that he has made explicit in the following words:

Ich weiss, wir frösteln, wenn wir von Institutionen hören. Wenn aber die Wissenschaft ein grandioses Abenteuer des Geistes ist, das nicht auf die Entdeckung absolut sicherer Theorien ausgeht, sondern auf die Erfindung immer besserer Theorien, die immer strengeren Prüfungen unterworfen werden können, wie Karl Popper meint, so sollten wir dieses Abenteuer auch für unsere Institutionen entdecken und es auf sie anwenden, indem wir sie imrner gerechter und vernünftiger machen, indem wir in ihnen nicht Zwangssysteme sehen, sondern Kunstwerke, die für den Menschen da sind, nicht der Mensch für sie.

Dennis Mueller (essay date Summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Review of Achterloo in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer 1984, p. 409.

[In the following review, Mueller praises Dürrenmatt, but is disappointed by Achterloo.]

How I greeted the opportunity to review a new Dürrenmatt play when I first unpacked Achterloo. As a long-time friend of his story Der Richter und sein Henker (which I have taught so often I know entire passages by heart) and the plays Der Besuch der alten Dame and Die Physiker, I was delighted to receive the playwright's latest work and to have a chance to proclaim its worth. After reading the play, I realize that it is not only I who has aged in teaching German literature; it appears that the creators of contemporary German classics have also aged. Dürrenmatt, it seems, is not what he used to be. This potpourri of characters from and allusions to history and the playwright's own earlier plays does not achieve the coherence of before.

Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and Dürrenmatt's own Physiker seem to have provided the inspiration to write this play, for in the closing lines we discover that the events have occurred in an insane asylum and that the actors were inmates of the asylum. In Achterloo Dürrenmatt continues the demythologizing and deheroicizing of important historical personages that he began in "Das Sterben der Pythia." Here Napoleon, Richelieu, Benjamin Franklin, Jan Hus and Karl Marx appear at various points in the play and speak of contemporary phenomena such as nuclear war, the confrontation between East and West and capitalism and communism. In his last major play, Der Mitmacher, Dürrenmatt felt compelled to write a "Nachwort" that is longer than the play itself, in at attempt to justify his play and to rationalize its failure. Would that he had written an afterword for this play also, so that we might have some idea of his intent. The setting gives us a clue to one aspect of that intent: "Achterloo in Achterloo somewhere near Waterloo." Dürrenmatt is manipulating historical reality to show us that this is a completely imaginary locale with completely imaginary characters. Interwoven into the dialogue are real and imaginary speeches by historical and fictional characters: for example, Robespierre's famous address to the French Assembly which sent Louis XVI to the guillotine is quoted, and lines from Büchner's Woyzeck appear in Woyzeck's conversation with Napoleon.

Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage; Dürrenmatt seems to be saying the stage is all the world. He arbitrarily brings historical personages onto his stage to show us a microcosm of today's world. In the end, Marion, Woyzeck's daughter, emerges as the heroine when she murders Napoleon with her father's razor. Yet it was Napoleon's stated aim to keep the world off-balance by not attacking or starting an international conflict that might widen to a world war. Does this mean that the whore of the world—Marion has slept with all the major figures in the world's history—is dooming us to self-destruction? Would that Dürrenmatt had given us an answer.

Further Reading

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Cory, Mark E. "Shakespeare and Dürrenmatt: From Tragedy to Tragicomedy." Comparative Literature 32, No.3 (Summer 1980): 253-73.

Examines Dürrenmatt's adaptations and how they reveal his political motivations as well as his mastery of tragicomedy.

Geldrich-Leffman, Hanna. "Vision and Blindness in Dürrenmatt, Buero Vallejo and Lenz." MLN 97, No. 3 (April 1982): 671-93.

Explores the use of blindness and its two-sided nature of impairment and link to subconscious, creative powers.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. "Behind the Law: Staging of Guilt in Kafka via Dürrenmatt." Journal of the American Academy of Religion LX, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 35-55.

Masuzawa looks at Dürrenmatt, especially his earlier works, as creating variations of Kafkan themes.

Reid, J. H. "Dürrenmatt in the GDR: The Dramatist's Reception up to 1980." The Modern Language Review 79, Part 2 (April 1984): 356-371.

Provides an historical review of Dürrenmatt's reception in the former East Germany.

Robinson, Gabrielle. "Nothing Left but Parody: Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Tom Stoppard." Theatre Journal 32, No. 1 (March 1980): 85-94.

Compares Dürrenmatt's and Tom Stoppard's adaptations of Shakespeare's works. Robinson notes the common use of parody by both writers in dealing with Shakespeare's plays.

Steer, Alun. "Delusion and Reality in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Romulus the Great." Journal of European Studies 18, Part 4, No. 72 (December 1988): 233-51.

Establishes the connection between the comedy of the first three acts with Romulus's error and the tragedy of the end.

Susan Smith Wolfe (essay date November 1984)

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SOURCE: "Lovers, Labours, and Cliff Top Meals: The Architectonics of Dürrenmatt's two Herkules Dramas," in Seminar, Vol. XX, No. 4, November, 1984, pp. 279-89.

[In the following review, Wolfe compares the love scenes in the 1954 radio drama to the 1963 stage version of Dürrenmatt's Herkules. She contends that the love scenes were awkward in the radio drama, but are a more important subplot in the stage play.]

No other radio play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt has elicited such criticism, no other theater piece such impassioned denials as Herkules und der Stall des Augias. Deeply offended by the lampoon of their heroic tradition, and resentful of what appeared as a dark attack on the democratic process itself, Swiss audiences and reviewers alike rejected the two Hercules dramas. This was the emotional, public reaction to Dürrenmatt's playful handling of hallowed institutions; scholarly attention, however, turned inward, to a structural irregularity which seemed to force a "feeble lesson, a comfortable reconciliation of opposites." The love sequences of both the 1954 radio and 1963 stage versions have been unanimously regarded as subordinate and external to the central theme of courageous commitment to evolutionary change, a theme which had found its culmination in the final, garden scene. The critic Renate Usmiani, in considering that final scene in the radio version, voiced the discomfort of her colleagues: "Es ist nicht zu leugnen, da der ernste Ton, mit dem das Stück endet, schwer mit dem spöttisch-frivolen Lustspielcharakter der vorhergehenden Szenen in Einklang zu bringen ist und daher künstlerisch zumindest fragwürdig erscheint." That the same censures were then applied to the stage play reflects a failure—often in production—to detect the modifications in the love story which set the 1963 version on an entirely different course.

The chief obstacle to a successful re-writing was the crucial Augias/"garden" scene, which in the radio play had seemed to surface without dramatic foundation. The love story—a mere subplot in the radio version—had been too deeply rooted in the comic plane to successfully announce the pensive finale. A resolution of the structural dilemma would have to include anchoring the philosophical question firmly in dramatic incident. By exploiting the compressed space of the two campfire dinners atop the rapidly sinking Elian cliffs, as well as the inherent temporal limitations of the meal itself, the 1963 version "forces" the lovers Dejaneira and Herkules into dialogue and an eventual understanding of their relationship to one another. Although a skeleton of the love scenes to be considered is already contained in the radio drama (45% and 62% of their spoken lines respectively), it is the addition of the meal with its highly charged confinement which adds the emotional urgency essential for an intense, and credible, sounding of the lovers' inner motives. What then emerges through the love conversations becomes an eloquent foreshadowing of the final garden scene, for it becomes evident that Dejaneira and the Elian president Augias share the same vision: the Earth, as wasteland, transformed through human endeavour. It is the challenge and failure of that vision—already contained in the two major love scenes—"Auf den Felsen" and "Wieder auf den Felsen"—which successfully anchors the pivotal garden scene in the love conflict.

In Augias' charge to his son to "cultivate a private garden," Christian Jauslin thought he detected the first solution ever dramatically expressed by Dürrenmatt. Yet in the radio drama, that solution surfaced without motivation; its only connection to the love story lay in Herkules' and Dejaneira's role as "that chance of a lifetime which comes and goes," for which the Elians were as yet unprepared. Dejaneira, particularly, personified the lost opportunity: "AUGIAS: Du hast eine Frau geliebt und verloren. Sie war nicht für uns geschaffen. Zu finster ist es noch." When, nine years later, Dürrenmatt chose to excise that oft-quoted line, he accomplished a major shift in tone: no longer would Dejaneira personify "promise"; it would instead become her failure to grasp the same message—"cultivate a garden here"—which would tie the love triangle firmly to the Augias scene.

Herkules and Dejaneira share three scenes; it is in the second and third that Dürrenmatt chooses the vehicle of the meal (quite simply a soup pot warmed over an open fire) to force the lovers into speech and toward a recognition of their inner motives. Both Herkules—for whom self-expression is a flexing of muscle—and Dejaneira—most at home when verbally mothering him—are forced to express and define a love which is nearly ineffable.

As scene ten opens, Dejaneira has just spoken to the young Phyleus of the manifold possibilities awaiting mankind, should it elect to create from the surrounding chaos rather than capitulate; for, much like Elias, her beloved Thebes had once lain a wasteland:

DEJANEIRA: Dazu ist uns die Erde gegeben: Da wir das Feuer bändigen, die Gewalt des Windes und des Meeres nutzen, da wir das Gestein zerbrechen und aus seinen Trümmern Tempel und Häuser bauen. Und du sollst einmal Theben sehen, meine Heimat, die Stadt mit den sieben Toren und der goldenen Burg Kadmeia.

PHYLEUS (zögernd): Du liebst deine Heimat?

DEJANEIRA: Ich liebe sie, weil sie vom Menschen erschaffen ist. Ohne ihn wäre sie eine Steinwüste geblieben, denn die Erde ist blind und grausam ohne den Menschen.

This is the continuing vision to which Dejaneira repeatedly refers, and therefore the standard by which we must judge her; it will be the forthcoming campfire scenes which test her commitment to the ideal.

It becomes increasingly apparent, as Phyleus runs off and Herkules approaches, that Herkules and Dejaneira are least verbal in one another's presence. The problems of the day, certainly, surface at mealtime in typical domestic fashion: Herkules' difficulties at work, the lack of meat on the table, and Dejaneira's manner of dress. Yet, the real issue flickering through the domestic exchanges is their relationship to one another, and it emerges only through gesture, or through the meal ritual. For the duration of their scene together, the lovers will remain huddled around the soup pot, the length of their conversation determined by the temporal restrictions of the meal, and their remarks punctuated by the rigid formality of Dürrenmatt's particular table etiquette.

Beneath the typical interchanges of this scene lie verbal minefields, heavily charged with what remains unvoiced. The question of Dejaneira's naive state of undress—given a forest full of Elian "voyeurs"—can't be pursued, because it broaches the subject of their own relationship:

DEJANEIRA: Oh! (Sie bedeckt sich.)

DEJANEIRA: Mahlzeit.

HERKULES: Mahlzeit. (Sie beginnen zu essen.)

The domestic dialogue deteriorates further as it brushes the cause of their financial difficulties—Herkules' inability to support them:

DEJANEIRA: Das elische Nationalgericht.

HERKULES: Auch wie seit Monaten.

DEJANEIRA: Sonst gab es doch noch Speck dazu.

HERKULES: Speck können wir uns nicht mehr leisten. Die Reisespesen sind aufgebraucht.

DEJANEIRA: Könnten wir nicht einen gewissen Vorschuss-

HERKULES: Das Finanzamt ist dagegen.

DEJANEIRA: Essen wir weiter.

HERKULES: Essen wir weiter. (Sie essen weiter.)

In the background of this conversation lurks the shadow of an earlier disagreement in Thebes, an argument which had resulted in Dejaneira's threatened return to the more lucrative field of prostitution; only the spectre of that very private loss had persuaded Herkules to accept the Elian offer.

The silences which fall between Dejaneira and Herkules in this scene—meticulously punctuated by the mechanics of eating—are heavy with shared emotion. Each of the lovers feels compelled to speak, yet the verbal communication never matches their silent rapport. In their embarrassment and their bewilderment, they are curiously reminiscent of Kleist's Achilles and Penthesilea. Gerhard Bauer considers this phenomenon in his analysis of the love dialogue: "Es fällt allerdings auf—schon Goethe und Tieck haben darauf hingewiesen—da die Liebenden in der deutschen Dichtung nur dann beredt werden, wenn sie Differenzen auszutragen haben, also doch einen Zweck verfolgen, während sie ihre Übereinstimmung mehr durch Wortlosigkeit als durch spielerischen Austausch demonstrieren.

Again Dejaneira attempts to introduce the subject which neither has been able to articulate:

DEJANEIRA: Herkules.

HERKULES: Dejaneira?

DEJANEIRA: Eigentlich sind wir jetzt noch ruinierter als in Theben.

HERKULES: Eigentlich.

Only the circus director Tanlalos' abrupt appearance prevents the anticipated refrain ("DEJANEIRA: Essen wir weiter. / HERKULES: Essen wir weiter."), and the almost certain lapse into silence. In a reference to Brecht's Kaukasischer Kreidekreis, Bauer has termed such retreats into formality "das Übergewicht des Zeremoniells." The ceremonial circumlocutions-forming what we might term an increasingly "charged field"—build in intensity toward a central question.

A source of tension in the unfolding scene has been the contrastive compulsion of the two lovers to speak and their preference for silence. Now, as they burst into speech, the silent communion is lost and the lovers begin to speak past one another:

HERKULES: Hast du gehört, Dejaneira, was dieser unverschämte Kerl vorschlug?


HERKULES: Ich hätte ihn den Felsen hinunterschmettern sollen.

DEJANEIRA (leise): Unser schönes Haus in Theben.

HERKULES: Ich lehne das Angebot selbstverständlich ab.

While Herkules is incensed at the offer to feature him in the circus and thus resolve their financial difficulties, Dejaneira broods over the beautiful home in Thebes now lost through a foreclosure. Her reaction to Tantalus' report of the news from Thebes—"(entsetzt): Unser Haus in der Kadmosstrasse?"—sounds the first notes of a building theme: "Haus in der Kadmosstrasse" / "goldene Burg Kadmeia" / "Garten."

Having again failed to reach one another through conversation, the lovers take the now familiar retreat into silence: "DEJANEIRA (seufzend): Essen wir weiter. / HERKULES: Essen wir weiter. / (Sie essen weiter.)" (403). This time it is Herkules who ventures into uncertain territory: "HERKULES: Dejaneira. / DEJANEIRA: Herkules?" Like Brecht's Simon, he has arrived at the real question by a circuitous route: "Willst du mich eigentlich noch heiraten?" None of the foregoing passages, so weighted with unexpressed emotion, were included in the radio version, where the love story had been of secondary importance.

It is at this point that the physically oriented Herkules attempts to express the unspeakable—typically, through gesture; for, in the course of his conversation his love for Dejaneira finds expression through a heightened appetite. His extra helpings revealingly occur at particularly painful points in the emotional exchange:

HERKULES: Willst du mich eigentlich noch heiraten? (Er schöpft sich einen neuen Teller voll.)

HERKULES: Nun, ich fürchte mich etwas davor. Ich bin doch vielleicht nicht sonderlich ein Mann für dich—mein Beruf … (Er schöpft sich einen neuen Teller voll.)

HERKULES: Liebst du ihn denn nicht, den Phyleus? (Er nimmt sich einen neuen Teller voll.)

The fact that Herkules can only express his love for Dejaneira through the meal was evident in an earlier discussion of Phyleus's hasty retreat:

HERKULES: Was hat der Junge? Er scheint verwirrt.

DEJANEIRA: Es gibt Momente im Leben eines jeden Mannes, wo ihm Bohnen und Rindfleisch trivial vorkommen.

HERKULES: Verstehe ich nicht. Als ich dich zum ersten Male sah, a ich nachher vor Begeisterung einen ganzen Ochsen auf.

In their vehicular capacity, the gestures of the meal must often communicate alone, without further elucidation. Bauer, referring to gesture in what he terms the "ungebundener Dialog," concludes: "was sie bedeuten, also dem Dialogpartner mitteilen, ist komplex und lasst sich in keinem anderen Medium vollständig ausdrücken."

Gradually and painfully, Herkules and Dejaneira touch on the possibility that genuine love may be beyond the reach of two such "embodied ideals":

DEJANEIRA: Ich zögereja auch ein wenig. Du bist ein Held, und ich liebe dich. Doch ich frage mich, ob ich für dich nicht ein Ideal bin, so wie du für mich ein Ideal bist.

HERKULES: Zwischen uns steht dein Geist, deine Schönheit und meine Taten und mein Ruhm, das willst du sagen, nicht wahr, Dejaneira?

DEJANEIRA: Ja, Herkules.

HERKULES: Siehst du, darum solltest du diesen reizenden Jungen heiraten, diesen Phyleus. Er liebt dich, er hat dich nötig und ihn kannst du lieben nicht als ein Ideal, sondern als einen unkomplizierten jungen Mann, der eine Frau wie dich braucht.

In the radio drama, Herkules' painful proposal had been motivated by his sympathy for the young Phyleus; in the stage play, he is driven by his failures, particularly his inability to rescue Dejaneira's beautiful home from the creditors, but also by his understanding of the nature of their relationship.

The lost paradise of Thebes weighs heavily on them both:


(Dejaneira isst nicht weiter.)

DEJANEIRA (ängstlich): Ich soll hier in Elis bleiben?

HERKULES: Liebst du ihn denn nicht, den Phyleus? (Er nimmt sich einen Teller voll.)

DEJANEIRA: Doch. Ich liebe ihn.

HERKULES: Es ist deine Bestimmung, zu bleiben und die meine, zu gehen.

DEJANEIRA: Dieses Land ist so schrecklich.

HERKULES: Ich miste aus.


DEJANEIRA: Ich sehe nie mehr Theben, nie mehr die Gärten, die goldene Burg Kadmeia, bleibe ich hier.

It is the sacrifice that a love for Phyleus requires—the permanent loss of Thebes—which now begins to obsess Dejaneira.

In the radio piece, Dejaneira's love of homeland had been treated satirically. There had been her tendency to "rave" about the fatherland, "war sie in der Fremde und besonders jetzt natürlich in Elis," while Herkules seemed more inclined to recall the predatory bankers and shopowners who "nested" on the cliffs of her "beloved Kadmeia." In the stage play, Dejaneira's grief over the lost paradise is handled on two levels simultaneously, the satirical and the pathetic:

O siebentoriges Theben, o meine goldene Burg Kadmeia, wie konnte ich euch verlassen! Eine barbarische und düstere Welt umgibt mich. Ich bin ratios und verzweifelt. Meine Seele ist voll schrecklicher Bilder … (389)

It is Herkules who—as Augias will later caution Phyleus—warns Dejaneira against dwelling in the past, and who reminds her of the "vision" of Thebes: "La fahren, was verloren ist. Errichte hier dein Theben, deine goldene Burg Kadmeia." Herkules' admonition is, in fact, a mirror speech of Augias' advice to his disheartened son: "Wage jetzt zu leben und hier zu leben, mitten in diesem gestaltlosen, wüsten Land…." If Dejaneira is true to her vision ("Dazu ist uns die Erde gegeben …, dass wir das Gestein zerbrechen und aus seinen Trümmern Tempel und Häuser bauen", she will remain behind to fulfill her awakening love for Phyleus and help him build anew from the wasteland that is Elis.

Momentarily suspended above the rapidly rising dung plains, on what Elisabeth Brock-Sulzer has termed an "oasis on the cliffs," the lovers have been forced into dialogue through the meal's intense compression of time and space. The fearful probing of the nature of their love has included their most intimate moments: "DEJANEIRA: Ich danke dir, mein Freund. / HERKULES: Ich werde dich nie vergessen." In the freedom of her decision, Dejaneira thinks to have found the resolve to pour out Nesso's blood, thus delivering her love for Herkules from the fetters of jealousy.

The challenge of scene ten has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a call to Dejaneira to descend from the heights of lofty idealism, toward the troubled, yet fertile plains of human endeavour. Her ultimate failure, to which she now bears witness in the thirteenth scene, is a failure to bridge the gulf between aesthetics and life, to anchor her dreams in the Herculean struggle of the everyday.

The degeneration of the meal in the second campfire, from a hearty Elian stew to a pitiful water soup, parallels both the material and emotional decline of the love pair. As Dejaneira crouches beside Herkules to warm her hands at the soup kettle, still in her wedding dress, their conversation takes up the threads of the earlier dinner; the structural character of the dialogue continues as well, each fragmented utterance now the painful attempt to give voice to defeat:

HERKULES: Dejaneira.

DEJANEIRA: Mein Freund?

HERKULES: Phyleus?

DEJANEIRA: Ich konnte ihn nicht heiraten. Ich habe ihn vor dem Hausaltar verlassen.


HERKULES: Du weizsst, wie es um mich steht.

DEJANEIRA: Ich weiss.

HERKULES: Entscheide nun du.

DEJANEIRA: Wir gehen nach Stymphalien.

HERKULES: Dieses Land ist noch schmutziger als Elis.

DEJANEIRA: Ich werde bei dir sein.

HERKULES: Nun müssen wir beieinander bleiben.

Yet, the real grounds for Dejaneira's return defy articulation. She reasons finally: "Wir gehören auch zusammen." Dejaneira's inability to love freely and simply implies a capitulation to Fate, for as Polybios begins to push the pair toward Stymphalus his mistress turns back for the bowl of Nesso's blood: "Fast hätte ich sie vergessen." Herkules and Dejaneira are physically reunited, yet spiritually separated by the bowl.

Perhaps with some justification Timo Tuisanen has assumed: "Whatever Dürrenmatt may be, he is not a great poet of love"; yet in the 1963 Hercules drama, Dürrenmatt has accomplished some of the tenderest love scenes of his career. Such intimate moments would nevertheless be troublingly inadequate had they continued outside the greater philosophical conflict. In contrast to the earlier, radio version, Dürrenmatt plants the motivation for his pivotal dialogue of decision in the cliff-top meals, where the pressures of limited time and space can credibly exert their influence on the nearly mute participants. Thus in the later version, the final garden scene is given firm footing in the crisis of the two lovers; their mutual inability to persevere in a more gradual, evolutionary struggle anticipates the later response by the young Phyleus. As Augias had insisted to Herkules, "Du bist unser aller Prüfstein geworden."

Elyakim Yaron (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Space, Scenery and Action in Dürrenmatt's Plays," in Assaph, Vol. C, No. 3, 1986, pp. 191-206.

[In the following essay Yaron discusses how Dürrenmatt's use of specific and detailed stage directions yields an allegorical background for his plays.]

When I undertake the writing of a play, the first step which I make clear to myself is where this play is to take place.

                                  —F. Dürrenmatt

The Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, attaches great significance to the place of action (Handlungsort) in his plays. He deals with this subject in great detail in his essay "Theater Problems", where he also underlines his predilection toward variegated scenery. Indeed, in his stage directions regarding the scenery, Dürrenmatt's love for the colorful setting is distinctly expressed. One manifestation of variegation is the sense of "overflowing", which is shown, for instance, in his detailed demands concerning the scenery of Ein Engel Kommt Nach Babylon. In the opening stage directions to the second act we read:

The second act is to be played beneath one of the Euphrates bridges, in the very heart of Babylon. The sky is shut out by towering skyscrapers and palaces. The orchestra pit again represents the river, and the bridge makes a great vault forwards from the back of the stage, so that it appears in cross-section and from below. High overhead the traffic of the giant city makes itself heard. (…) Akki's dwelling is a wild hotch-potch of various objects of every period: sacrophagi, heathen idols, an ancient royal throne, Babylonian bicycles and car tyres and so forth, all covered with the dirt of ages, mouldy, heaped with dust. Above all this mess (…) there is a relief of the head of Gilgamish. Beside it, torn copies of the notices about begging with strips pasted across them (…) Outside on the right, clear of the bridge, a kitchen range and a kettle. The ground is red sand, littered with jam tins and poetic manuscripts. Everywhere hang parchments and clay tablets closely written with poetry; in short the characters seem to be moving about on an enormous rubbish dump. (…)

Dürrenmatt is not contented with merely economical and suggestive stage directions. On the contrary, his descriptions, in which a visible picture of location is portrayed, are particularly lengthy and detailed. The picture as a whole is dominated by a vast number of objects, each of which retains its distinctiveness, but which, at the same time, also contributes to the unmistakable effect of accumulated confusion. However, within all this excess, or overflowing, a characteristic Dürrenmattian trait can be distinguished: this vast mixture of period and places loses its definite historical-geographical nature. The great effort invested in the detailed stage directions, in order to represent a location according to the realistic tradition, actually achieves an inverted result. Precisely because of the huge accumulation, so concrete and realistic, the abstraction is actually indicated. That is precisely because what at first appears to be realistic, allows the emergence of the allegorical, or universal dimension. Dürrenmatt's Babel, for example, is a spacious modern metropolis, but, at the same time, anachronistic, as if a huge pile of urbanistic civilizations has been accumulated. Establishing the scene within a vague time and place allows Dürrenmatt a great deal of liberty in the use of anachronisms. This blurring of the distinctive by way of accumulating real materials is what lends Dürrenmatt's work an allegorical dimension. In spite of the broad use made of particular historical and geographical data, this is no historic or geographic Babel. This strict, realistic-like representation of place has turned extempore to the representation of nowhere, or, perhaps, of everywhere. But this is no single phenomenon in Dürrenmatt's colorful scenic representations.

In spite of the obvious attempt to depict a vivid picture overloaded with details, Dürrenmatt never loses control of his stage-space. Alongside the different details, some of the stage directions deal with the division of space. The different directions of the stage are sharply marked: the foreground (including, by extension, the orchestra) against the background, left and right. The bold drawing of the bridge that crosses the stage from the orchestra toward the rear also makes its decisive contribution to the defining of the space, and even adds to it the dimension of height: above the bridge (traffic noise) and under it (Akki's dwelling). The space is thus not only a scene of unique atmosphere, but the piled-up objects also shape a well-defined space. The sense of confusion that is marked by this overflow of objects, which do not "agree" with each other, works here as some grotesque parody upon the very tradition of the dramatic place (i.e., the realistic school), and this without losing its clear trait as space. The characteristic of creating atmosphere by use of colorful and overloaded objects marks most of Dürrenmatt's stage descriptions. A comparison, for example, between Romulus der Grosse, Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi and Die Physiker shows a growth in the number of stage directions. Indeed, the concept of scenery in Die Ehe occupies a conspicuous place in Durrenmalt's oeuvre.

Dürrenmatt's Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi has been published in two versions, and the main differences between them do indeed concern stage design. The play uses one set, a room, which not only forms the scenic background to the actions, but occupies a substantial role in it. During the action it goes through considerable changes; eventually it is destroyed, except for one piece of furniture, the round Biedermeier coffee table, which Dürrenmatt refers to as the play's protagonist. The process of the destruction of the room parallels the action: indeed, the conflict between the ideational powers, which constitutes the main part of the action, destroys the room.

After the publication of the first version, Dürrenmatt came out in favor of a certain degree of licence for the director and admitted to the possibility of more than one theatrical interpretation of the play. In the second version however, the author seems to have made a special effort to prevent such freedom and to reduce its likelihood as far as possible. The whole matter is completely manifested in the opening stage directions. In the first version the room is described in terms that specifically allow the stage designer complete artistic freedom:

Let us imagine in the background (of this room) perhaps two huge windows which are wider at the top than at the bottom like everything in this room, in which the spatial relationships increase with height. The impression is one of profuse insanity as if one were at the bottom of a hellish funnel (Höllentrichter), as if the room had been built for giants at the top and for dwarfs at the bottom—the same principle should be applied to the furniture: However, in spite of the fantasy, the middle-class quality of the room must not be lost. (…) In the same manner the landscape (seen through the windows at the rear of the room) is confusing. (…)

This version even contains some surrealistic and fantastic suggestions that explicitly aim at the evocation of an atmosphere that does not belong to this world ("profuse insanity"; a "hellish funnel"; a room that has been built for giants at the top and for dwarfs at the bottom; distorted perspective). This atmosphere has completely disappeared from the second version (except for the varied landscapes as seen through the windows). Now the room is expected to be as realistic as possible, for only in this way, says Dürrenmatt, can its visual breaking down be materialized:

A room whose late-bourgeois magnificance and splendour will not be altogether easy to describe. (…) The room stinks to high heaven. In the background are two windows. The view from them is bewildering. To the right the branches of an apple tree, and behind it some northern city with a Gothic cathedral; to the left a cypress, the remains of a classical temple, a bay, a harbour. (…) Between the two windows, but no higher than they are, a grandfather clock. Also Gothic in style. Let us turn to the right-hand wall. Here there are two doors. The door at the back of the stage leads through the veranda into a second room (…); the door front stage right leads to an entrance hall and the front door; the kitchen is also situated there, perhaps round the corner to the right of the entrance hall. Let us not bother about the possible lay-out of the house, we will assume that it is a rambling mansion to which many alterations and additions have been made. Between the doors on the right stands a small sideboard; this time I should like to suggest Louis Quinze. On it is a Venus. Of plaster. Naturally. In the left-hand wall there is only one door. It opens between fin-de-siècle mirrors. The door leads into a boudoir (…) Front stage left the Louis Seize frame of a second mirror dangles in mid-air, of course without a glass, so anyone looking in it will see the audience. Front stage right there might hang a small, oval, blank picture. In the centre stands a round Biedermeier coffee table; this is really the main character in the play, upon which all the action centers (…) it is flanked by two Louis Quatorze chairs. A bit of Empire furniture can undoubtedly be introduced somewhere say, left front stage a small sofa and left back stage a folding screen. (…) On the little table stands a Japanese vase containing red roses (…) The table is laid for three people. One suggests it is Dresden China. (…)

The world of fantasy has disappeared. The special place that the table occupies is also established only in the second version. Dürrenmatt's claim that the fantastic and the unreal would remain in the text only and not intrude into the realm of scenery is thus a decisive warning against any attempt at abstraction.

We are thus faced with a "miniature of the common European cultural heritage," a small-scale museum of European taste. Southern (classical temple) and northern (Gothic cathedral) landscapes are viewed from the windows, and even within the room there is a complexity of styles: Louis Quatorze chairs beside a Gothic grandfather clock, a Louis Quinze sideboard by a Biedermeier coffee table, and so on. Once more we meet the Dürrenmattian overflowing, with the amazing profusion of realistic details that contradict each other stylistically and lend a measure of allegory to the whole scene. Once more there occurs a realistic-like representation, whose main effort is aimed at suspending any appearance of realism: a Dürrenmattian parody on the tradition of drama that usually unfolds within a respectable bourgeois room.

It is possible to accept without difficulty Dürrenmatt's remark that the Biedermeier coffee table is indeed the play's main character. This table is of enormous significance to the characters, but at the same time it also functions as a kind of altar that all seek to grasp by way of the ritualistic ceremonies of coffee drinking. At this table the couple would even drink their poison, while all the characters try to find in it some kind of support for their deeds. But what is most important, while everything breaks into pieces—ideas, people, houses, furniture—only this coffee table survives in its proud wholeness. This, perhaps, has some relation to the play's form, as it is, after all, called a comedy. The table is accorded a very detailed position in the stage directions and some of its attributes become conspicuous: (1) that it stands in the center of the room; (2) that it is the only piece of furniture that remains on stage intact: some kind of visual evidence that it is indeed possible to destroy very much, but never everything; and (3) its definite style—Biedermeier—is a possible suggestion of an outward respectable bourgeois appearance, which entails social conventions that seem calm and peaceful (i.e., the coffee ritual) and thus contributes to the creation of a place that contrasts visually with what actually happens around it.

In Der Besuch der Alten Dame the author demands many changes from the stage representations. In this instance the overflowing that characterizes most of his plays is somewhat difficult to discern. The epic technique that Dürrenmatt employs here relates not only to Der Besuch der Alten Dame, but also to Herkules und der Stall des Augias and in a certain way to Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi. Some critics have expressed themselves regarding the relationship Dürrenmatt's drama bears to the epic tradition in the theater and particularly to Brecht. Indeed, the use Dürrenmatt makes of scenery in Der Besuch der Alten Dame points to his links with the theater of Brecht and Thornton Wilder.

The first scene takes place in the railway station in the town of Güllen; the second scene occurs in front of the hotel of the Golden Apostle. The transition between the scenes is outlined with great precision and is probably of substantial significance:

Open scene-change: facade of station and adjacent little building soar into flies. Interior of the Golden Apostle: an hotel-sign might well be let down from above, an imposing gilded Apostle, as emblem, and left to hang in mid-air.

The disappearance of parts of the scenery, which constitute the first scene, as well as the apparance of others that are intended as the visual background to the second scene, are thus made in front of the audience. Theater takes over the sheer realism and the scenery acts upon the audience as scenery. Every touch of illusionism is abolished. Moreover, "reality" is only hinted at and a sign or an image suffice to represent it. Another example perhaps illustrates this point more strongly, as the changes in the scenery lake place with the help of the actors:

Scene-change (…) Man Three enters, carries off shop-till and shifts counter into position as desk. Mayor enters. Puts revolver on table (…) A construction-plan is affixed to wall.

This technique is employed many times with or without the assistance of the actors. But all the changes take place in front of the audience and the scene is always formed by way of hint alone, mostly by means of an inscription, or minimal props. Contrary to Brecht, who harnesses the action to the didactic aspect, Dürrenmatt strives first and foremost toward "indirect theatrical impact." The abolition of naturalistic illusionism and the inclusion of the "realism" of the theater in its stead is thus made evident (1) in the open changes of the scenery; (2) in the transformation that takes place in the scene by means of a sign or inscription; (3) in the simultaneous scene in which Ill's shop is represented against the background of the balcony from which the Old Lady observes everything; and (4) in the charming "forest" scene, in which the actors represent trees and even the voices of animals. In the humorous stage directions the hotel scene vanishes the same way as it appears, and at the end of the "forest" scene "the trees have metamorphosed back into citizens and moved away upstage."

The epic technique attains by Dürrenmatt a more pungent expression in those plays in which the actor appears in the place of the epic story teller. The actor who appears in the prologue of Herkulos und der Stall des Augias addresses himself directly to the audience. He relates to the stage machinery and to other technical resources, to the props and to various instruments by means of which the stage is going to be invested with its poetic reality. Dürrenmatt applies a similar technique in other plays, as in Es Steht Geschrieben and in Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi. In all these a distinguished dramaturgical effect determines the function of space, which is made evident to the spectator in a double aspect: the shape of reality and the reality of the stage-world. This double function of the character, first as one who takes an active part in the action and then as an epic story teller probably parallels the double existence of the reality of the stage. Here, certain lines uttered by the epic story teller are, in a way, an extension of the conventional stage directions:

Well, then, it is May, the windows are slightly open (the windows open slightly), on the table stand red roses, above the grandfather clock hangs the portrait of the first man who had the good fortune to be married to Anastasia, the picture of a beet-sugar manufacturer (…) (The picture floats down), and the Moid brings in my old friend Mississippi (the Maid and Mississippi enter right).

These words, spoken by Saint-claude at the opneing of Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi, represent the stage reality the audience watches. Sometimes he relates to matters that are already known from the opening stage directions (e.g., the red roses). On another occasion it is as if he creates this reality by the power of his words (the windows that open as if by themselves; the picture that suddenly appears; Mississippi's entrance.) This duality of the spoken word and the description of the stage directions creates, expectedly, an outstanding humorous effect, so characteristic of Dürrenmatt.

Through his ingenious employment of all available resources of the stage, Dürrenmatt shows a deep awareness of the possibilities the stage offers him. As evidence of Dürrenmatt's consciousness of the stage, his many stage directions delineate its appearance. Very rarely does he use the spoken word to depict a scene, to which he attaches great significance, as can be understood from his lengthy and detailed depictions. In many cases the logic of the play cannot be separated from its scene: thus, the town of Güllen, with all the changes that transform its outward appearance (Der Besuch der Alten Dame); so in the drama of insanity that cannot be enacted out of the walls of the sanatorium (Die Physiker); so when the room and all the furniture in it become a decisive factor in the action (Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi); so when the theme of the play is the polarity between heaven and earth (Ein Engel Kommt nach Babylon); and so in the visual collapsing of an empire (Romulus der Grosse). In none of these plays is there a reference to the visual background, which is so integral a part of the events, without the stage directions that delineate it so clearly and so explicitly.

Space and Action

This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

                                           —A. Camus

In a short note at the end of Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi, Dürrenmatt complains that many productions have distorted the play's meaning by employing scenery that tended toward too much abstraction. By doing this, Dürrenmatt claims, they were probably misled by the text itself. Dürrenmatt concludes:

(…) the room in which everything takes place must at the beginning be as real as possible. Only so will it be able to disintegrate. The unreal and fantastic may safely be left to the text, to the author.

Apart from the logical argument that demands that scenery be realistic at the beginning in order to disintegrate later on, these words also point to the existence of some tension between the space (real) and what happens in it (unreal, fantastic). Moreover, precisely this measure of fantasy that characterizes the action is, so Dürrenmatt claims, what has misled directors and stage designers. Dürrenmatt thus wants this tension to be sustained.

It is also possible, as Murray B. Peppard does, to combine this tension with the well-known grotesque character of Dürrenmatt's drama. But even without drawing upon a conspicuous characteristic in his drama, we can clearly argue that this tension between the space and events, between realistic scenery and fantastic text, cannot exist at all without the extensive significance that the playwright attaches to his stage directions. That this is no trifle with Dürrenmatt we can learn from the fact that he returns to it even in the "Postcript" he published for Der Besuch der Alten Dame.

Critics have already noted that in the middle of the play there is a discrepancy between subjective thought and reality. The drama, in this case is conceived as a transformation of values in the world of the people of Güllen—a transformation that should be "transmitted" to the audience without the characters being aware of it. The play's problem is thus in the presentation of a certain rationale by means of the discrepancy between what is said and done by the actors and what is actually conceived by the audience. But what critics seem to have failed to notice is that the presentation of a discrepancy of this kind necessitates a certain amount of autonomy of the theatrical means (i.e., to extend the stage directions) and invest them with a new significance.

In the foreground the people of Güllen are struggling, or at least they pretend they are, to maintain a degree of moral integrity. But reality negates their verbal declarations. This reality, however, is nothing but the reality of the theater. The space—the background that Dürrenmatt refers to—contradicts what happens in the "foreground." The fact that the scenery is part of the play's significance has two essential visual aspects. The first is linked with the scene in which the old Lady acts. This scene has already been explictly fixed in the opening stage directions of the second act:

The little town. (Only in outline.) In background, the Golden Apostle Hotel, exterior view. (…) Balcony. Right, a sign, "Alfred Ill: General Store", above a grimy shop-counter backed by shelves displaying old stock.

From now on the action unfolds as if on two levels. On the first level there is the wretchedness of the people of Güllen who buy at Ill's shop on credit. On the second level there is the "balcony scene," in which the Old Lady makes her ironic comments and shows off her wealth. What the Gülleners say and do cannot be understood if separated from this background. It lends to the events the note of a play-within-play, or rather some theater of marionettes with the Old Lady pulling the strings from above. Only by means of explicit stage directions is it possible for Dürrenmatt to create this visual aspect of the play.

But the collapsing of the world of values of the Gülleners attains a more poignant expression in the second visual aspect. Here is not meant only the direct materialistic manifestations that had control over them: the yellow shoes that the Gülleners have suddenly begun to wear, the new typewriter the mayor buys, the new clock for the church, the new clothes, as well as other signs of prosperity—all these are certainly clear attributes of the materialism that gradually gains control over the Gülleners. But it is the change that the scenery itself undergoes that conveys the transformation that takes place in the values of the Gülleners. At times this change finds its expression in a direct and unequivocal manner: as against the wretched railway station that was presented at the beginning, the appearance of this very station later on is remarkable. The multilated timetable has been changed into a new one and in contrast to the previous wretched appearance there are now touristic posters, while in the background even a few cranes can be observed, as a sign of building activity that is in progress all over the town. Even Ill's shop, so poverty-stricken in the past (a grim shop counter, old stock), reappears according to the prosperity of the times: a new sign, a new shop counter, a new till, and more expensive merchandise. The same applies to the ragged Gülleners themselves (see their depiction at the opening scene), whose last gathering turns into a scene of dazzling evening gowns and dress-suits. This process reaches its climax in the lengthy stage directions that Dürrenmatt delineates toward the end, and in which he actually sums up this transformation of boasting wealth, which has gradually dominated the play as a whole:

As the clothing, that outward visible form of a mounting standard of living, improves by degrees discreet and unobtrusive yet less and less to be ignored, and as the stage grows more inviting, while rung by rung it scales the social ladder and metamorphoses into wealth, like a gradual change of house from a slum to a well-to-do neighbourhood, so the epitome of that ascent occurs in the concluding tableau. The erstwhile grey and dreary world has been transformed; it has grown rich and dazzling new, a flashy incarnation of up-to-the-minute technics, as if the world and all were ending happily. Flags and streamers, posters, neonlights now surround the renovated railway station, and the men and women of Güllen clad in evening gowns and dress-suits (…)

Perhaps this representation exceeds the bounds of ordinary stage directions. However, one cannot doubt Dürrenmatt's attempt to present this visual process of transformation from shabby wretchedness into dazzling splendour, as an essential factor in his drama. The scenery has not only turned into an active part, but the change that has taken place in it is, in a sense, the play's true theme. Dürrenmatt is thus bound to a new concept of stage directions in order to depict the discrepancy between background and action, between scenery and behavior—a process during which the theatrical reality contradicts the remarks the Gülleners (the actors) incessantly make.

To illustrate this we have to return to the railway station. A big poster reads: "Travel South." Another poster invites the traveller: "Visit the Passion Plays in Oberammergau." Trains are rushing through, the Station Master salutes. Then

Ill emerges from background, one hand clutching little, old suitcase, and looks around. As if by chance, citizens of Güllen come gradually closing in on him from all sides.

The visual scene depicts how the belt tightens around Ill. The real power of the scene is in its visual vigor, in the movements of the people who gradually close in on Ill, as if on a cornered animal. The Gülleners their "hands in pockets"—against the solitary Ill, who is clutching a little suitcase. But the scene is incomplete without the posters Dürrenmatt has with such great care introduced: the poster of the Oberammergou Passion Plays turns Ill, into a Jesus who is trapped in one of the highest points of his Road to Calvary, while the poster that invites one to visit the South is a clear hint at Ill's end: the Old Lady is indeed going to take his body to Capri! The yellow sun, big and bright, which is seen on one of the posters, becomes a bitter and blood-freezing comment.

Indeed, the stage directions apparently do not contribute any new or essential information. However, the visual and stunning spectacle that concludes the second act is a kind of tableua vivant. It lends complexity to the whole scene, invests it with emotional heterogeneity. We imagine the Gülleners surrounding the frightened Ill, the train rushing thunderously through, the Station Master fulfilling his duty and saluting, the posters charged with irony. And in the middle of all this, Ill, motionless, peering fearfully around. Not only does the optic aspect add some information to the dialogue, but, it might be argued, that the dialogue becomes here an illustration of the stunning visual process. In the dialogue there are no posters, no trains rushing through, no Station Master saluting—only the Gülleners with their sweet hypocrisy plead with Ill to remain. The visual spectacle creates a world in itself, some kind of independent action, that speaks a language of its own—the language of the stage.

The tension between the stage and the action reaches its pungent form in Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi. We have already mentioned Dürrenematt's remark about the tension between the realistic scenery and the unreal, or rather fantastic action. We have also noticed that the precise and detailed description turns what seems like an ordinary realistic bourgeois living room into an impossible place, into a "nowhere." Now, the more the details are realistically precise, the more their mere excess neutralizes their specific nature and renders it, both geographically and historically, ineffectual. However, this is still a room. At the beginning the stage directions raise an essential matter worth considering. The play's subject, we recall, is the story of a room. Moreover, as the events that are going to occur in it would indeed, as the stage directions specify, happen in this room alone, it seems as if Dürrenmatt has in mind the traditional unity of place. However, as with other Dürrenmattian expectations, this one should also be considered somewhat sceptically. The play's physical action, it is true, never goes beyond the limits of a room, but one of the play's explicit characteristics is the existence of a persistent tension between the unity of place and its constant violation.

The opening stage directions make it clear how the outside world intrudes, and how the contradictory views from the windows refute the sense of unity of place. The stylistic contradiction of the pieces of furniture, each realistic in itself, again undermines the traditional concept of unity. Even some details that distinguish the characters' behavior contribute to this feeling. One character, we recall, enters through the window, while another bursts out of the grandfather-clock. Some objects, strange as it may sound, descend into the room, or disappear mysteriously. Windows open as if by themselves, while strange, or rather fantastic events take place in a manner that cannot be explained in terms of strict realism. The contrast between the room and the action also amounts to parodistic dimensions, as if we have in mind another type of discrepancy: between the living room, where coffee is being drunk and a maid is summoned by a delicate silver bell, and the violent events that occur there according to the logic of fantasy. What has begun as a respectable bourgeois living room is gradually destroyed visually. The story of the room turns into the story of its physical destruction. The demolishing of most of the furniture becomes a visual statement of the disaster caused by narrow minded idealists who seek to reform, but who, in fact, bring about utter destruction.

The play cannot be separated from its visualization of the sustained destruction of the scenery. Without this visualization, there is mere verbal polemics. The words and acts attain their full significance when they are shown in direct relationship to that grotesque and violent transformation that the room undergoes. The scenery is no mere "background" anymore. It has become an active factor in the play's logic. A concept such as this is impossible without the extension of the stage directions, which delineate the "behavior" of the scenery, at times even behind the back of the characters. Many actions thus take place autonomously; they are not prompted by the dialogue and the characters have no control over them. Indeed, this lack of control over events is a major theme in the play.

The tension that rises from Ein Engel Kommt nach Babylon, however, is of a different kind. Dürrenematt, constantly aware of the process of creativity, mentions the unique question of the concept of space in his essay on the problems of the theater: (…) there are two locations in this comedy—the heavens and the city of Babylon. The heavens as the secret starting-point of the action and Babylon as the place where the action happens.

Dürrenmatt's problem is therefore of how to communicate (non-verbally) the feeling of the direct presence of the two poles, heaven and earth. The stage representation has therefore to deliver the feeling of an unattainable and impenetrable Kingdom of Heaven and an earthly level. This contrast between the two worlds lies at the heart of Dürrenmatt's grotesque outlook, in which man is shown in all his limitations in front of infinite space, which the scenery attempts to depict. The unavoidable sense that the play conveys is of the existence of that unbridgeable gap between vast spaces, openness and infinity, on one hand, and enclosed worlds, contracted and imprisoned, on the other. As usual with Dürrenmatt this sense is carried over the heads of the characters, who are unaware of their circumscriptions. As usual with Dürrenmatt this task is ascribed not to the dialogue, but to the detailed stage directions. Without the stage directions this gap, so central to the play, has no existence. Toward the end of the play the infinite space takes up its priority:

Darkness. The scenery vanishes overhead.

Vaguely, a measureless desert can be glimpsed, a vast wilderness through which Akki and Kurrubi are fleeing.

Scenery has made way for the empty space. The only limits are the boundaries of the stage. At the end there is a sand storm. The scenic occurrence, that has by now become autonomous, has completely passed to the stage directions.

The gap between space and scenery in Romulus der Grosse does not take on the cosmic dimension of Ein Engel Kommt nach Babylon. However, again we are confronted with a contrast between the real situation and the lofty ideals to which the characters try to keep faith. This contrast attains a visual dress by the contradiction between the conventional image of the Emperor's glory and the rural negligence of the royal "court". The grotesqueness of the last Roman Emperor, captured in a filthy yard of cackling hens, strikes one as an original and brilliant image. Pompous declarations and wretched reality become once again an ironic comment (through stage directions) upon the discrepancy of the characters' words and deeds. This is a play at whose center lies the development of the theme of disintegration: the decline of the Roman Empire. At first sight there is again the familiar phenomenon of unity of place. However, Dürrenmatt raises once more his beloved tension of unity of place and its violation. As in the case of Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi, the house does not suffer any change; it is only the objects that underline the change that takes place. The atmosphere of disintegration and decay is accentuated by the collection of statues in the background. After Romulus has sold everything to the Antique Dealer, the porters continue to remove busts during the whole of the first act. This turns into an autonomous background action, which takes place independently of the dialogue. This action exists in the stage directions only. The same applies to the exciting image of the cackling hens, around which a considerable part of the action is woven. One critic has rightly noted the coordination that exists between the ideas pronounced in the play and its scenery, as it is a play at the heart of which lies a visual transformation.

Dürrenmatt's verbal-visual dichotomy therefore attains many faces. By means of placing the words and the actions against the visual image, Dürrenmatt expresses his central belief about man who distorts the evidence of reality. The chaotic world and man's proclaimed actions do not always agree with each other. The poignant sense of the grotesque that comes out of this concept demands that the starting point be well anchored within a familiar model of reality: a model that can be easily identified and that is far from any allegory. Within the most realistic background the most unexpected is due to take place. The source of horror is usually found in the most familiar environment. The contrast between the visual world of the stage and the action that takes place on it becomes, with Dürrenmatt, a poignant ironic comment upon man's words and deeds.

Jennifer E. Michaels (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3098

SOURCE: "Through the Camera's Eye: An Analysis of Dürrenmatt's Der Auftrag …," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 141-147.

[In the following, Michaels examines Dürrenmatt's use of observation in Der Auftrag. Typical of his work, Dürrenmatt's characters are in a dichotomy—this time of not wanting to be observed, yet wanting to observe.]

In his recent work, Der Auftrag oder Vom Beobachten des Beobachters der Beobachter: Novelle in vierundzwanzig Sätzen (1986), as in his earlier works, Friedrich Dürrenmatt is sharply critical of many trends in modern technological society. The tone of the work is suggested by the introductory quotation from Kierkegaard's Either/Or to which Dürrenmatt refers on two further occasions in the novella: "What portends? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment. When a spider hurls itself down from some fixed point consistently with its nature, it always sees before it only an empty space wherein it can find no foothold however much it sprawls. And so it is with me: always before me an empty space; what drives me forward is a consistency which lies behind me. This life is topsy-turvy and terrible, not to be endured." This quotation expresses the atmosphere of despair, emptiness, and uncertainty that, despite Dürrenmatt's characteristic grotesque humor and his inventive twists in the plot, pervades the whole work. Dürrenmatt creates a world in which chance reigns, in which God (if He even exists) is a mere onlooker, and in which people, acutely sensing their insignificance, desperately search for meaning.

As the title indicates, the role of observing and being observed is central to the novella. Out of this, Dürrenmatt creates a powerful image of the alienation and the dehumanization that, he believes, people experience in the modern world. In this novella, everyone observes everyone else, and in turn everyone is observed by everyone else: there is no longer any freedom or privacy. Observation reaches into all aspects of life, from the domestic to the political, scientific and even the theological spheres. Observing, for Dürrenmatt, is an indication of callousness and inhumanity. As he remarks elsewhere, to want to be only an observer requires a certain inhumane hardness. Even the genre that Dürrenmatt chooses for his work, that of the suspenseful detective novel, stresses the focus on observation, since in the classic detective novel the detective observes the facts coolly, and logically searches for clues.

In his depiction of the marriage of Tina and Otto von Lambert, Dürrenmatt explores the effect of observing and being observed on human relationships. The novella opens with the burial of Tina who supposedly has been raped and murdered, a crime that has not been solved. Her corpse, which has been badly mauled by jackals, has been found in the Al-Hakim ruins in the desert of M. (The description of M. suggests Morocco but, by refusing to give the country a specific name, Dürrenmatt implies that the events could happen anywhere.) The psychiatrist, Otto von Lambert, has the coffin containing the corpse airlifted by helicopter over the Mediterranean and the Alps, dangling from a cable, and lowered into the grave, a grotesque funeral that the protagonist F. and her film team record. Von Lambert gives F. the mission of reconstructing on film the last days of Tina's life, a film that he intends to show to the prosecutor's office and at professional meetings. Von Lambert holds himself responsible for Tina's death since he believes that she fled from home after reading his case notes about her depression. In these notes, he does not treat her as a woman but as a psychiatric object, devoid of all human qualities. He has turned her into an abstraction, a trend symptomatic of our age which has become, according to Dürrenmatt, an age of abstraction. As her diary shows, Tina is also guilty of such merciless observation. It is as if she has observed her husband under a microscope with increasing magnification, an observation that has stripped him of all individuality. As the logician D. remarks, observing leads to an objectification of people. This marriage, which is typical of many marriages in Dürrenmatt's works, has, however, an untypical happy end since it is discovered that the wrong corpse has been buried and that Tina is still alive.

The observing and being observed that characterizes Otto and Tina von Lambert's relationship is, however, no isolated case, as the logician D. argues. In his house in the mountains, he tells F., he has a telescope. Whenever he looks through the telescope, he sees people looking at him with binoculars. When they realize that he is watching them, they hurriedly turn away: those observing have themselves become the observed. Being caught in the act of observing leads to aggression and humiliation, and some of the people throw stones at D.'s house in revenge. From this experience, D. generalizes that today man is an observed person. People become suspicious of the state which likewise is suspicious of them and observes them with increasingly sophisticated devices. In despair, people try to flee from being observed.

Dürrenmatt explores observation on the state level when F. and her team go to M. to try to reconstruct what happened to Tina. Everywhere they go they are accompanied by the police and filmed by other cameramen. Dürrenmatt shows the insanity of present-day politics in his depiction of this corrupt and brutal system that callously tortures people for its own political ends. The two characters who represent the state in this work are both in positions in which observation plays a key role—in the police and in the secret service. The fat police chief, who resembles Göring, is locked in a power struggle, filled with Machiavellian intrigues, with the "sanfter Schönling" (the gentle little beautiful one) who turns out to be the ruthless head of the secret service. Both use the case of Tina and manipulate F. to gain power and topple the government, although they fail and are later executed. The head of the secret service listens to every conversation of the police chief (there are "bugs" everywhere) and watches everything that he does, although the police chief is unaware that he is being observed—he does not even know who the head of the secret service is. This state, which not only watches its own citizens but also the members of its own government, is itself watched by others: the country is filled with spies from all nations.

In this novella, even war is waged only to be observed, a sharp criticism of the senselessness of war which Dürrenmatt has called on other occasions a reckless crime and a great stupidity. As the cameraman Polyphem tells it, this state relies on the strange mixture of tourism and war for its economic health. For many years, a war that has lost all political meaning has been fought over an insignificant piece of desert, inhabited only by a few bedouins and desert fleas. The war is conducted solely to test the weapons of the arms-producing countries, to observe how these weapons function. This is emphasized towards the end of the novella when Polyphem drives F. to a tank graveyard where the mad Achilles intends to rape and murder her. In addition to the tanks, there are burnt-out floodlight poles, built to illuminate the battle, proof that the battle was staged only to be observed.

Throughout the novella, Dürrenmatt sharply criticizes modern technology for dehumanizing people—and he focuses in particular on the technologies that enable people to observe each other. Initially man has used machines as a prosthesis. Now, however, man himself has become the prosthesis of the machine, and ultimately discardable, an indication of the topsy-turvy world referred to in the quotation from Kierkegaard. Polyphem tells F. that the state launches satellites equipped with computer-controlled cameras to spy on other satellites, likewise equipped with computer-controlled cameras which in turn are watched by other computers. At this point, the individual is fully eliminated. Polyphem himself has been replaced by an automatic video camera. To be observed, Polyphem remarks, is bad enough, but to be observed not by a person but by a computer is worse, a mistrust of the computer that Dürrenmatt expresses in other works.

In this work, the camera in particular expresses the detachment and alienation of people from each other. Most of the characters in the work are connected to the camera. F. is a filmmaker; Polyphem and Björn Olsen are cameramen; Jytte Sörensen (the real corpse) was a television journalist; and there are cameramen everywhere who film F. as she is filming. Those who are not cameramen, like Otto von Lambert and the police chief, want to be filmed. F. has the idea of putting together a complete portrait of our planet by creating a whole out of chance scenes, a satirical reference to Dürrenmatt's Porträt eines Planeten (1970; Portrait of a Planet), an idea that she later abandons since she begins to mistrust the camera's ability to capture reality. The characters even use film to explain the real world. When F. is alone in the run-down hotel in the desolate mountains, it seems to her as if she is in an unreal film. Dürrenmatt sometimes uses analogies to people to describe the film. When Björn Olsen is killed in the explosion, his films burst out of their tin cans and look like intestines (82).

In his preface to Bernhard Wicki's book Zwei Gramm Licht, Dürrenmatt compares the camera to the human eye. The human eye is fleeting, forgetful, and can be deceived. It sees only what it wants to see and suppresses everything else. It cannot see anything that occurs too swiftly. In contrast, the camera can capture the most fleeting moment. It documents and is incorruptible: it penetrates everything. This is the view that Polyphem—who is so called because, like the Cyclops, he views the world through one eye, the eye of the camera—presents. In his underground observation station, there is a wild confusion of films and the walls are covered with single photographs. Polyphem argues that only the camera can capture reality objectively and aseptically without any feelings that lead to distortion. Without the camera, the experience slips away and becomes just memory, and, like all memories, falsified fiction. Polyphem even believes that the film itself is deceptive since it conjures up a sequence out of single pictures. For this reason, he cuts up his films into single pictures which are for him crystallized reality.

Dürrenmatt is, however, critical of the camera. Polyphem's method of cutting his films into isolated pictures is indicative of a world which, Dürrenmatt believes, has lost the sense of the total picture and has declined into many pictures, a world that has become a series of unrelated, meaningless images. Elsewhere, Dürrenmatt defines the camera as the eye of the human saurian that stares at us coldly and glassily. This glassy, cold stare is typical of many of the cameramen in this work. With the exception of F., they are characterized by their complete detachment from the events they are filming, no matter how much suffering and death they are recording. The most striking example of such detachment is Polyphem himself. F. sees photographs that Polyphem has taken of a burning armored vehicle with a man caught in the turret and burned to death. Polyphem goes beyond such callous observation, however, to actually stage events to film. He blows up Björn Olsen's van because he wants to film the explosion. This is a tragic and terrible accident, he comments, but thanks to the camera it is immortalized. Polyphem also stages Jytte Sörensen's death, partly to satisfy the lust of the mad Achilles whom he normally keeps sedated with Valium, but partly because he wants to capture the murder on film. Even at the end, when Achilles is killed by the police, Polyphem continues filming Achilles whose body is being torn apart by shots. Polyphem is utterly divorced from all feelings, from any sense of humaneness, compassion, or morality. Like Dürrenmatt, F. criticizes Polyphem's views of depicting reality. Since he stages the events he films, he does not record reality, as he claims, but only his twisted perception of reality.

In this vicious circle of observing and being observed, people feel helpless and insignificant, the playthings of powers that they do not understand. They feel at a loss in a hostile and threatening world, a world in which peace is maintained only by atomic and hydrogen bombs. In this world of technology, chance reigns supreme. The logician D. notes that should the arms race unleash an atomic firebrand because of some blunder, this would be nothing more than a senseless manifestation that the earth was once inhabited. It would be a firework that nobody would notice. The world, according to Düirenmatt's apocalyptic view, is one that can be destroyed by some technical short circuit, by an explosion in an atomic bomb factory caused by an absent-minded technician.

In the world of the novella, a world made up of unconnected fragments, even people have lost their sense of wholeness, of identity, and have themselves become in effect like Polyphem's cut-up films. The logician D. argues that nobody is identical with himself; at each moment in time a person is different. F. reflects that this would mean that there are no whole selves. What one calls the self is only a collection of innumerable past selves, a collection of experiences, memories, and roles, a self that constantly shifts, a self that cannot be captured, as she previously thought, on film. It is also a self that cannot communicate effectively with others. The logician D., for example, gives lectures that nobody can understand. This inability to communicate with others reinforces people's sense of isolation, their sense of estrangement from one another.

People's feeling of isolation is made more acute in the world as Dürrenmatt portrays it because "there does not seem to exist a divine power which will either help or hinder." As D. remarks, a personal god who observes each person, a god who rules the world, a god who is a father, has become unthinkable. The only god who is now possible is god as an abstract principle, a philosophical and literary construct, created to conjure up some meaning in a monstrous whole. Polyphem echoes this view. If God exists, then he is the pure spirit of pure observing without the possibility of becoming involved, rather like Allah in Dürrenmatt's "Monstervortrag über Gerechtigkeit und Recht" ("Huge Speech on Justice and on Law").

Dürrenmatt explores people's response to this hostile and threatening world, in which people feel as if they are trapped in a labyrinth, an image that he uses in the novella. Although people flee from being observed, they also want to be observed. If people are not observed they feel unimportant and meaningless. People film each other out of fear of their insignificance in a universe, filled with millions of Milky Ways, exploding stars, and collapsing suns, a universe that contains billions of absurd, populated planets like ours, hopelessly separated from each other by enormous distances. Even countries want to be observed. They want to be spied upon, and therefore stage events such as the arms race to ensure that they will be observed, to ensure that they will be considered important.

The desire to be observed, to feel significant, explains for D. the current trend towards religious and political fundamentalism. Since people cannot bear not being observed, they flee into the notion of a personal god or a similarly metaphysically founded party who or which observes them. From this they derive the right to ensure that others observe the commands of god or the party. D. sees this as people's attempt to thrust on an unobserved mankind some meaning. Man, he comments, cannot live without meaning.

Another response to the dehumanization characteristic of the world as Dürrenmatt sees it is that of the mad Achilles, a former professor of Greek who is so called because he quotes Homer even when he is killing people in air raids in Vietnam or strangling women; a particularly grotesque use of culture. Achilles protests against the automation of war. He feels like a coward, a non-person, in his plane which he terms a flying computer. He kills people by pushing buttons and never comes face to face with his victims. Yet his protest against the inhumanity of modern warfare does not make him protest for peace. Instead, he argues for war filled with hatred and fear in which man becomes an animal and tears apart his enemy. Killing should be filled with hatred, he argues. People should fight like the real Achilles fought at Troy. For Achilles, two possibilities are open to man. He can either become a soulless machine, a camera, a computer, much like Polyphem has become, or an animal. Achilles opts for the latter. He longs to do something really criminal; he longs to become an animal and rape and strangle women, a wish that he later fulfills after he has become severely wounded in an air raid over Vietnam. F.'s behavior when she is faced with death appears to support Achilles's division of people into animals or soulless machines. When she fights for life, she herself becomes a predator, at one with the man who would rape and murder her, at one with the terrible stupidity of the world.

Unlike his earlier works in which, despite the gloom, flickers of hope appear because of courageous individuals like Romulus in Romulus the Great or Akki in An Angel Comes to Babylon, Dürrenmatt offers little hope for change, for any improvement in mankind's condition in this work. More than ever he sees his role here as a diagnostician rather than a therapist. In light of the quotation from Kierkegaard that the world is a terrible place and not to be endured, the concluding words by D., who tells F. after she arrives back home that she has been lucky, are particularly grotesque, a happy end that does not often happen in Dürrenmatt's works. Elsewhere, Dürrenmatt has commented that it is good to know how far the branch on which we are sitting is sawn through. In this work, the branch on which we are sitting is about to fall.

Sven Birkerts (essay date 5 June 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2305

SOURCE: "Crimes of the Mind," in New Republic, Vol. 200, June 5, 1989, pp. 39-41.

[In the following review, Birkerts looks at the mind games and plot twists which Dürrenmatt has placed in The Execution of Justice and The Assignment.]

Friedrich Dürrenmatt is best known on these shores as one of Switzerland's two world-class playwrights, the other being Max Frisch. Both came to prominence after World War II, tilling the then-fertile soil of European malaise. Both filtered an existential pessimism into refined, often paradoxical investigations of good and evil, guilt and accountability. Politically neutral, culturally Germanized, the status of these Swiss writers seemed to mandate that ambiguity of thought and deed should be their proper subject. Dürrenmatt's two best-known plays, The Visit and The Physicists, reconnoiter precisely this terrain.

But Dürrenmatt, like Frisch, also turned his hand early on to novels, and to non-fiction prose of various descriptions. The Execution of Justice, which appeared in Germany in 1985, addresses many of Dürrenmatt's familiar themes—just as the title suggests. Nothing, however, can prepare us for the innovations of The Assignment, which was released the very next year. Careers, too, can make quantum leaps.

In 1950 Dürrenmatt published a short novel, The Judge and His Hangman, enormously successful, which was the first of many speculative crime novels, what Graham Greene might call "entertainments." Here, using an intricate pattern of reversals and revelations, Dürrenmatt pried away at appearances to show what quick and unpredictable currents ran beneath the routine procedures of a police investigation. Punishments, like crimes, were matters of destiny: if the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, it is because his capture is a necessary fulfillment of the deed. The novella was in no way an innovation, but it pressed its episodes forward with a confident rigor.

The Execution of Justice could almost stand as a companion piece to The Judge and His Hangman. It, too, marks no great stylistic or conceptual advance. Indeed, it belongs to the era of the earlier book; Dürrenmatt tells us in a short postscript that the work, originally titled Wheels of Justice was begun in 1957; he took it up and abandoned it a number of times before rewriting it entirely in 1985. Once again we have a crime and an expectation of the echoing call of justice. But now there is a difference: the killer steps free, apparently untroubled by even the slightest pang of remorse. (In English, the title can be read as a pun on the two meanings of "execution.")

Perhaps by temperament, and perhaps, too, because of his experience as a writer for the stage, Dürrenmatt is impatient with all the niceties of descriptive evocation or transcription of inwardness. The Execution of Justice, like the earlier novel, cuts its way forward in the terse, flat cadences of a police report. The conceit, in fact, is that this is a report, a confession set down by a dissipated lawyer named Spät in anticipation of his murder of the murderer—an execution he will ultimately be unable to carry out.

The plot (don't be deceived by the slimness of the book) is as complicated, maybe as impossible to pin down, as Faulkner's screenplay of The Big Sleep. Time frames and identities keep shifting; new relationships between subsidiary players emerge at every turn. But the motion of this "wheel" revolves around a fairly simple core premise. One March day in 1955, as Spät reports it, a well-known Zurich councilman, Dr. h.c. (honoris causa) Isaak Kohler, walks into a crowded downtown restaurant, and after a ritual exchange of greetings, shoots one Professor Winter at his table. Then, as calm as can be, he leaves, and resumes his busy life as a man-about-town. When Kohler is later apprehended at the concert hall, he gives himself up without protest. He is tried, found guilty, sentenced to prison. The whole city is baffled by what seems to be a purely gratuitous crime.

But Kohler, we soon learn, is something of a scientist, an experimenter. One day he summons Spät to the prison and offers him a rather peculiar commission. He asks the lawyer to reinvestigate his case under the presumption that he was not the murderer. Spät does not understand. "You are to create a fiction, nothing more," directs Kohler. He then tries to explain his reasoning:

You see, my dear Spät, we know very well what reality is, that's why I'm in here weaving baskets, but we hardly know what possibility is. Possibility is something almost limitless, while reality is set within strictest limits, since, after all, only one of those possibilities can become reality. Reality is only an exception to the rule of possibility and can therefore be thought of quite differently too. From which follows that we must rethink reality in order to forge ahead into possibility.

In a matter of days, Spät has plunged into a thicket of possible clues and motives so dense that he has no hope of extricating himself. The sequence of revelations defies detailing. Suffice it to say that Spät is able to construct a tissue of plausible circumstance that implicates another man, whereupon the case is brought to appeal. And when the other man—a former fencing champion named Olympic Heinz—commits suicide, Kohler is freed.

Spät cannot endure the miscarriage of justice that he has abetted. He resolves to murder Kohler and then to take his own life; his confession, he is sure, will explain everything. In the end, his plan fails. He winds up a besotted lawyer in a small farming village, regaling the locals with his extraordinary tale.

Dürrenmatt then appends to Spät's confession an epilogue in his own person (the device, I would guess, that finally allowed the author to finish the novel). He tells how some 30 years later he chanced to be at a gathering where ancient, wheelchair-bound Dr. Kohler was telling the guests the story of his crime and his release. His outrage has become something charming:

Renewed laughter, people were having a great time, strong coffee was served, cognac. All that was left, the old man began once more, while concentrating on the ash of his cigar, which he had not knocked off but was carefully allowing to grow, was the moral question. Suddenly he was a different person. No longer a hundred years old but timeless. Whether he had killed or only intended to kill, he said, in moral terms it was the intent that counted, not the execution…. Everything can be justified dialectically, and thus morally as well.

Kohler continues in this vein long enough to establish the relativity of all moral constraints, then asks his daughter to wheel him away. A fitting place to end. But it is not the end. Dürrenmatt then describes his visit to Kohler's daughter, who was briefly Spät's lover, and she gives him an astonishing account of how she was raped and humiliated by a group that included Professor Winter. The elaborate architecture of her father's supposedly gratuitous crime collapses upon itself: Kohler turns out to have had an excellent motive.

I have not been able to do more than hint at the circles within the circles of connected depravities that Dürrenmatt ultimately parades before us. Perhaps it was his intent to show that the fretwork of social and personal justice cannot be safely supported by any private or collective standard, that all pretense to the contrary is sham. Well, we take the point. But somehow we are not as shocked or as distressed as we ought to be. The whole of the novella feels like a conceit that has been whipped up logically and then set to the page. The characters all have a predictable police-blotter flatness. Their thoughts and arguments, Kohler's especially, read like a writer's notebook musings on the paradoxes of morality.

What's more, we've absorbed all of these reversals and inversions before, by way of Dostovevsky, Sartre, even Frisch, who dissected similar notions in I'm Not Stiller and a half-dozen other works—to say nothing of Dürrenmatt himself. The Execution of Justice suggests that the provocations of postwar European literature may no longer provoke; that they long ago shattered the complacency that Dürrenmatt would here assault. How startling, then, to turn to Dürrenmatt's next novella. The Assignment, which has been subtitled: On Observing the Observer of the Observers.

This work is sui generis, a late-modernist legend that pushes past the usual conceptions of self and society and finds a whole new way of rendering disturbance. While the clever circularity of the subtitle (which is not part of the book's German title) suggests the thematic concerns of the narrative, it gives a sportive ring to what is, in fact, a most chilling recognition: that our electronic technology has entirely deformed our self-conception and our behavior. When Rilke wrote in his "Archaic Torso of Apollo" that "there is no place that does not see you," he was not, presumably, referring to electronic surveillance, but his conclusion—"You must change your life"—would still apply. Dürrenmatt would probably say that for the culture at large it's too late.

Reading The Assignment is like taking a head-first tumble down a staircase made of words. The book has 24 chapters, each a single sentence that builds velocity from phrase to phrase. Once again we have a murder and a search for a killer. But this time the crime is less a central subject, more a pretext for the creation of a futuristic scenario that will allow Dürrenmatt to expose the changed terms of our contemporary situation.

Psychologist Otto von Lambert, who has written a well-known book on terrorism, learns that his wife's body has been found at the site of the Al-Hakin ruin in an unnamed Arab country. Lambert ships her body home for burial and at the funeral hires the filmmaker F., who is working on an idea of "creating a total portrait, namely a portrait of our planet, by combining random scenes into a whole." F. is to go to the site with her crew to film the investigation of the murder. Not an everyday request, but then F. is clearly a woman who lives for such adventuring—a kind of Laurie Anderson of the dark side. What's more, the hyper-ventilating prose creates a climate wherein the extraordinary seems the expected.

But before jetting off, F. must consult with her friend D., a logician at the university. D. hears her out, then tells a story of his own. He has been watching people through a telescope in his home. He has observed that these same people have been looking at him through field glasses. As soon as they realized that they were being watched, they ran off—a fact that prompts D. to make this Gertrude Steinian peroration:

anything observed requires the presence of an observer, who, if he is observed by what he is observing, himself becomes an object of observation, a banal logical interaction, which, however, transposed into reality, had a destabilizing effect, for the people observing him and discovering that he was observing them through a mirror telescope felt caught in the act, and since being caught in the act produces embarrassment and embarrassment frequently leads to aggression, more than one of these people, after retreating in haste, had come back to throw rocks at his house.

D.'s little story, his "banal logical interaction," is, in a sense, the metaphorical pivot for the rest of this strangest of novellas: only the scale and application of its point keep changing. Briefly: F. flies to the unnamed Arab country; she instantly finds herself in a nightmare world of cubicles and interrogations. She films, and her filming is filmed. The plot flashes forward, chapter-sentence by chapter-sentence, obeying only the paralogic of dreams. Until at last the intrepid filmmaker finds herself in what might be seen as the Urlocation of our modern world: a fortified, automated monitoring site for high-tech weaponry. World powers are testing their new weapons by proxy in a staged desert war. Everything is filmed—even the satellite filming the site is being filmed by another satellite. In the back room, under lock and key, is a fighter pilot gone mad named Achilles, who reads Homer in the Greek and lives only to rape and destroy.

Trust me, Dürrenmatt's narrative is far more compelling than any precis can indicate. The improbable plot is pressured by a sense of ominous inevitability: F. is led remorselessly to her rendezvous with the rough beast, the extrusion of what Yeats called the "animus mundi." Moreover, the ruling conceit—observer and observed—is true enough to the way things are to activate the paranoid strain in most readers. We bother less with F. and her fate, but we are riveted by the implications of the trope. For Dürrenmatt has hit upon a very real connection between exposure and aggression. D.'s insight about embarrassment leading to violence only grazes the surface.

The real issue, we come to see, revolves around identity and the authentication of existence. The more we watch and are watched watching, the less we are able to hold a self-boundary in place. And the diffusion of the sense of the real, like the sleep of reason, breeds monsters. Marshall McLuhan, the antic theorist of a world transformed by electronic technology, remarked on this very thing: "The meaningless slaying around our streets is the work of people who have lost all identity, and who have to kill in order to know if they're real." The Assignment finds this same horrifying logic of compensation at the heart of our late-century doings. Dürrenmatt's edgy musing may seem futuristic, but so does the daily news.

Margaret Scanlan (essay date March 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5199

SOURCE: "Terror as Usual in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1, March 1991, pp. 86-93.

[In the following essay on Dürrenmatt's The Assignment, Scanlan explores the fragmentation of identity and "the paired themes of terrorism and literary realism."]

The history of terrorism has been entwined with the history of the novel ever since serialization of Dostoevski's The Possessed began in 1871. Perhaps in spite of traditional assumptions, still not entirely lost, about the clear distinctions between literary and political activities, it is inevitable that terrorists sometimes seem to resemble novelists. Marginalized plotters both, they seek to impose their own constructions on a chaotic and resistant reality, relying on their ability to move the emotions of strangers. And though terrorists attract attention through violence, their targets are almost always symbolic, and their aims must finally be explained in language. Moreover, as leftist critics frequently argue, the public perception of terrorism is itself highly constructed. To say so is not to aestheticize the cruel reality of terrorist activities—to gloss over, for example, the fate of the passengers on Pan Am flight 103—but to argue that the ways in which government officials and the press represent terrorism are remarkably similar to the ways in which popular fiction does so. The nature and inadequacy of such representations of terrorism are the subject of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment, a 1986 novel in which the author's absurdist critique of contemporary politics merges with a postmodern conception of terrorism.

Before turning to Dürrenmatt, we need to look at the public conceptions of terrorism that his novel implicitly criticizes and at some of the alternatives scholars have proposed. In popular representations, the terrorist is always the other, an outsider who—if not a representative of a once-colonized people, a swarthy Islamic archfiend, say, or a grubby chain-smoking product of the Shankill Road—is at the very least a drug-crazed adolescent from a subculture that defies everything the middle class values. Clever enough to elude the police, terrorists are nonetheless usually assumed to be mad bombers, motivated more by their traumatic childhoods and personal failures than by the causes they publicly adopt. It is their deviance from mainstream values and solutions, rather than their connection to a familiar social setting or to recognizable political problems, that defines them.

In this representation, the plot of the terrorist story, whether we find it within the embossed covers of a paperback novel or in the headlines of the Washington Post, is almost reassuringly familiar; "terrorist acts are never really news." We know about bombings and hijackings, about SWAT teams and exhausted negotiators, about communiqués issued in halting English by dark-eyed men in ski masks, and we are reasonably sure, most of the time, that in the end the security forces, the orderly state, will triumph. As the other, terrorists gratify a need for an identified enemy that can only increase as differences between communist and capitalist states dissolve.

Seen as a political strategy rather than as a myth, the terrorist deed is perhaps best defined as "a symbolic act designed to influence political behaviour by extranormal means, entailing the use or threat of violence." Terrorism is a behavior of small groups alienated from conventional ways of influencing the political system, incapable of mounting a full-scale military campaign (in which violent acts cease to be symbolic and compel by sheer force alone) and unwilling or unable to take part in, for example, free electoral processes.

While agreeing with Thornton's basic definition, commentators on the political left, such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, have expressed their dismay at the tendency to label as terrorist the behavior of what they see as legitimately revolutionary groups—the PLO, say, or the IRA—and to deny the terrorizing activities of the state. Mick Taussig argues that the terrorist myth props up the unstable and violence-ridden regimes of much of the Third World, where "terror in … disruption is no less than that of the order it is bent on eliminating." The state's attempt to brainwash the population into accepting its violence as orderly seems even more futile when one recognizes that the state itself is disappearing under the pressures of modern corporations and technologies of knowledge. "Might not the very concept of the social, itself a relatively modern idea, be outdated insofar as it rests on assumptions of stability and structure? In which case what is all the talk about order about?" Terrorists, half-creations of the unstable state, serve to legitimate its own violence. "There may even arise in the political economy of news a certain 'demand' for publicized terrorist activity in order, paradoxically, to continually reaffirm the principle that the use of force rightly belongs only with the state."

Dürrenmatt shares with these political commentators a wish to expose the myths and explore the realities of terrorism. An experimental fiction, The Assignment points to the complex reality that lies behind the too-familiar story and suggests as well what factual studies mask, the actual experience of human beings caught up in terrorist activities. Fragmentation of identity in the novel's unstable world leads to a longing for order that asserts itself in totalitarian politics, fundamentalist religion, and documentary realism, all disciplines, in Foucault's sense, that depend on observation. Suggesting the difficulty of distinguishing between the victims and practitioners of terror, Dürrenmatt undermines the usual story of sinister Islamic terrorists. Terrorism in his novel belongs as much to the illusory order as to its half-imagined opposition; it is dispersed through government and business and can be found as well in high culture and in the representational practices taken for granted in realism and mass journalism. Yet while he thoroughly recognizes the popular critique of the letter as terrorizing, Dürrenmatt implicitly argues that a novel about terrorism can suggest what is otherwise "unpresentable" in our experience of public violence. His manipulations of the myth present terror both as an understandable private response to the conditions of late twentieth-century life and as a public practice that intensifies and conditions panic.

Although The Assignment begins like a standard thriller, with the funeral of a European woman found "dead and violated at the foot of the Al-Hakim ruin," the briefest survey of its bizarre plot demonstrates how Dürrenmatt borrows from, but quickly revises, the familiar story in order to deny the reader the comfortable satisfaction of identifying the usual culprits and bringing them to an unexamined justice. After Tina von Lambert's funeral, her husband, a psychiatrist, engages another woman, the Filmmaker "F.," to find her murderer. F. goes to North Africa, where she interviews two officials, a police chief resembling Göring and a mild-mannered "investigating magistrate" who is actually the head of the secret service. After filming the murder site and the execution of an obviously innocent man condemned for the crime, F. is convinced by the head of the secret service to help him track down the real murderer by impersonating the victim, wearing Tina's red fur coat while another woman plays F.'s part, touring the country with her film crew. On a tip from Björn Olsen, a Danish journalist who is almost immediately murdered, F. discovers that Tina is still alive and that the real victim was another journalist, Jytte Sörensen. Wandering down the road on which she discovered Olsen's body, F. is picked up by a Vietnam veteran who mans a giant observatory intended to keep track of the country's war with its next-door neighbor. This veteran and his brain-damaged friend are the real murderers of Jytte Sörensen and Björn Olsen, and F. is saved from their fate only at the eleventh hour.

F. and, very likely, the reader look for some sinister Arab as Tina von Lambert's killer, because her body was found not only in an Islamic country but at a shrine sacred to Shi'ite Muslims, a group consistently demonized in the Western press for its role in the Iranian revolution. Dürrenmatt, however, immediately complicates the case by presenting Tina's husband as "a man who had defended the Arab resistance movement and hadn't called it a terrorist organization." Although nothing in the book suggests empathy for Islamic culture or political causes—Dürrenmatt's point, indeed, is that nationalist causes have become meaningless—The Assignment refuses the stereotype of the Arab terrorist. The Shi'ite "saints" may be fanatics, starving to death as they wait for their caliph to emerge from his stone cube, but they are dangerous only to themselves. The Westernized head of the secret service, lecturing F. about Khomeini and the finer features of Islamic fundamentalism as he sips an Alsatian white wine, is a considerably more sinister figure because he is more European, more powerfully interested in weaving F. into his plots, which include turning his country's war into an "international scandal." Sörensen and Olsen are killed not by the infidel but by Americans, Vietnam veterans with names taken from Homer.

At its simplest level, the novel complicates the terrorist myth by making the identities of the victims as problematic as those of the killers. Nothing is what it seems: Jytte Sörensen, not Tina von Lambert, is the first of Polypheme and Achilles' murder victims; F., the once-detached filmmaker, nearly becomes the third. Surely few readers can have the moral certainty to decide whether a brain-damaged Vietnam veteran-turned-rapist is a victim or a terrorizer. Identity also remains problematic in part because few characters, including the protagonist, have names. The second subtitle of the original text (omitted from the translation), Novelle in vierundzwanzig Sätzen, calls the reader's attention to the artifice of constructing a short novel in twenty-four chapters, each consisting of a single long sentence or—to draw on another connotation of the German word—philosophical proposition. And this device, too, by departing from the conventions of realistic fiction and documentary journalism and by at least suggesting an allusion to the twenty-four books of the Iliad, reminds us that the text does not correspond neatly to some external reality. Dürrenmatt's mock omniscient narration, presenting everything as summary, refusing to render dialogue directly, to give the protagonist a personal history, to name the country in which the novel is set, and so on, frustrates the reader's desire to master the whole story. If it is true that "the [criminal] under-world is the phantasmagoric paranoid construction of the ruling class," surely the desire for a solid external reality, for the identities and oppositions contemporary thought and events refuse to give us, drives that construction.

Terrorism in the novel deviates, then, from the story we already know to become what Taussig calls "terror as usual," a dispersed and decentered phenomenon of the postcolonial world. His phrase provides a pale suggestion of the nightmarish confusion of the apparently normative and social with terror that Dürrenmatt's novel develops. In the streets of his fictional North African country one finds "a multiracial thicket of travelers all busily photographing and filming each other and forming an unreal contrast to the secret life inside the compound of the police ministry, like two interlocking realities, one of them cruel and demonic, the other as banal as tourism itself." Yet the presence of a Grand Hotel Maréchal Lyautey, with its large portrait of that quintessential empire builder, suggests that tourism is colonialism by other means and as such is not only banal but cruel in its indifference to the "secret life" of local people. The state is unstable: the mild, bespectacled investigating magistrate turns out to be the head of the secret service, locked in a power struggle with the chief of police, "who didn't even know who the head of the secret service was."

One of the accomplishments of The Assignment is to depict "terror as usual" as more than a political phenomenon and to communicate to the reader an anxiety corresponding to the symptoms of postmodernism as Jean-François Lyotard diagnoses them. In a world incommensurable with our desires and conceptions, something unrepresentable always remains outside art, and though we long for the consolations of form and order, we must make up the rules as we go along. Such views are not, of course, an invention of the twentieth century—Lyotard himself refers to Montaigne's essays as possessing some of these qualities—and in The Assignment they are represented by a passage from Kierkegaard and enacted in the fate of the three Europeans killed in North Africa. When F. discovers the quotation from Kierkegaard, it is in Jytte Sörensen's handwriting and in her native Danish, which F. parses out, believing that she has discovered a code. The fuller quotation forms the novel's epigraph:

What will come? What will the future bring? I do not know. I have no presentiment. When a spider plunges from a fixed point to its consequences, it always sees before it an empty space where it can never set foot, no matter how it wriggles. It is that way with me: before me always an empty space; what drives me forward is a consequence that lies behind me. This life is perverse and frightful, it is unbearable.

The quotation evokes the conditions of life lived in a period of frequent terrorist attacks, a radical insecurity conditioned by a historical past, as well as the familiar existential angst felt by the human moving forward into a future at once unknowable and deeply determined. The now-dated slogans of "alienation" become fresh in the experience of Europeans encountering in North Africa not oriental romance but the cruelties of a world where they have lost all familiar points of reference and every benign expectation is crushed. Reducing a human being to a short-lived pest is not only unwelcome but Kafkaesque.

More precisely, like Jytte Sörensen, who came to North Africa to track down a story, and F., who came to find the killer of a still-living woman, the spider is a weaver of traps, in popular lore a plotter, in Swift the very image of the "modern" scholar with his dictionaries and footnotes, ready to strip a rich traditional culture of its living grace. It would be hard to construct a better metaphor for a documentary realism that seeks to "capture" the real in its web, at the risk of destroying its mysterious, unpresentable life. And when F., almost as if the message were in code, begins to identify with Jytte Sörensen, walking off "helpless as a spider" along the road that leads to Polypheme's cave, "a consequence of her whole life", she does so as the representative of a certain kind of art, of a documentary realism whose premises began to explode for her the day she filmed the burial of Tina von Lambert.

"I am being watched," writes Tina in her journal, and the problem of being watched and its relationship to identity enters a political and philosophical context when the logician "D." ruminates on these matters. D., apparently a disciple of Derrida, for whom he may even have been named, lectures F. about the impossibility of self-identity, for "everyone was subject to time and was therefore, strictly speaking, a different person at every moment." Given this insight, portrayal becomes impossible; the human self is a fiction, an "accumulation of shreds of experience and memory, comparable to a mound of leaves." The novel then presents the process by which late twentieth-century human beings struggle to understand each other, the world outside the ego, with no certainty of achieving more than "reconstruction, raking together scattered leaves to build up the subject of [a] portrait, never being sure, all the while, whether the leaves … actually belonged together, or whether, in fact, [one] wasn't ultimately making a self-portrait."

Therefore, although no novelists stalk Dürrenmatt's pages, although no one ever reads or quotes from a novel or play, The Assignment again and again demonstrates a concern with the problematics, and especially with the political implications, of literary realism. The novel's first subtitle, Or on the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, recalls a Shakespearean phrase that had, by the late nineteenth century, become ominous; given "the depersonalized relations of the information society … the condition of being 'the observed of all observers' [is] no longer a compliment, as it was intended for Hamlet, but a threat of exposure."

Made sensitive to such threats by Michel Foucault, at least two recent critics argue that realism fundamentally depends on a "fantasy of surveillance" that corresponds to nineteenth-century developments in, for example, psychiatry and urban sociology. In the extreme case, the representational practices of realism are seen as another way of policing, enforcing social norms and denying aberrations. Trollope, for example, just because he seems so tolerant, not to say boring, forces the reader to accept his own highly detailed moral code, and the problem in reading him is "to render as such, and not merely repeat, the terroristic effects of the banality that Trollope, as a matter of principle and program, relentlessly cultivates."

One might protest that realistic and naturalistic novels were often destabilizing, that Hard Times did help change the divorce laws. Dickens's novels generally might, in the mystery and undecidability they grant to working-class characters such as Jenny Wren of Our Mutual Friend (sunbeam? witch?), be taken as rather less complicit with state terror than, say, the Nazi remake of Jew Süss. The whole argument that the conventions of nineteenth-century realism reproduce a taken-for-granted consensus about what constitutes reality, and therefore stifle dissent, weakens when we consider Mikhail Bakhtin's persuasive arguments to the contrary. Unlike poetry, which traditionally avoids "actual available social dialects," the realistic novel, says Bakhtin, constantly posits a difference between the narrator's language and intentions and those of the dramatized characters, "a freedom connected with the relativity of literary and language systems." Reproducing in part the variety of the world's languages, the novel brings about "a destruction of any absolute bonding of ideological meaning to language, which is the defining factor of mythological and magical thought."

Nonetheless, despite the frequency with which recent theorists cite Bakhtin, the critique of realism as allied with official views of reality and with the suppression of dissent remains a key point in the post-modernist program, for which Lyotard is a prestigious and articulate spokesperson, and it is one that Dürrenmatt obviously takes seriously. In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard argues that "terror" is "the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him." In his peroration he argues eloquently for an experimental, postmodern art that preserves the living contradictions and incompletion of the world:

It is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented. And it is not to be expected that this task will effect the last reconciliation between language games (which, under the name of faculties, Kant knew to be separated by a chasm), and that only the transcendental illusion (that of Hegel) can hope to totalize them into a real unity. But Kant also knew that the price to pay for such an illusion is terror. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality.

Lyotard's theory goes some way toward explaining the significance of the paired themes of terrorism and literary realism in The Assignment. The holes in Dürrenmatt's plot, the unanswered questions about unnamed characters, the fragmentary glimpses of landscapes, interiors, motives, and political contexts are as so many refusals of "the transparent and communicable." The effect is perhaps not so antimimetic as it might seem; refusing transcendent illusions, the novelist suggests an elusive dimension of personality or experience that withers under the harsh floodlights of documentary realism.

F.'s goal for many years has been to create a documentary, a "total portrait … of our planet," a goal that leads her to film Tina von Lambert's funeral and then to agree to the psychiatrist Otto von Lambert's request that she find his wife's killers. But even before F. leaves Europe, her faith in representation is shaken by her reading of Tina von Lambert's journal, in which Tina has recorded her husband's every minute action with Balzacian intensity. Yet her descriptions have not given but destroyed her husband's identity, putting into question the old humanistic idea of the unique person:

Reading this journal was like being immersed in a cloud of pure observations gradually condensing into a lump of hate and revulsion, or like reading a film script for a documentary of every human being, as if every person, if he or she were filmed in this manner, would turn into a von Lambert as he was described by this woman, all individuality crushed out by such ruthless observation.

This terroristic "ruthless observation" that ends by destroying the identity it seeks to establish, what Lyotard might call the "unpresentable" in the person, resembles the medical jargon that turns us into unflattering synecdoches of ourselves, the ruptured appendix in 412B, the morbidly enlarged liver in 413A.

In von Lambert's notes on his wife, whom he fears having seen as a case, we find such observations carried to the point that they are no longer

observations at all but literally an abstracting of her humanity, defining depression as a psychosomatic phenomenon resulting from insight into the meaninglessness of existence, which is inherent in existence itself, since the meaning of existence is existence, which insight, once accepted and affirmed, makes existence unbearable, so that Tina's insight into that insight was the depression, and so forth, this sort of idiocy page after page.

Neither journal nor case notes—both like documentary-film allotropes of literary realism and the faith in communicating observation—provides F. with insight into Tina's motives for running off to North Africa, and she is left feeling like some adjunct of the contemporary information system, "one of those probes they shoot out into space in the hope that they will transmit back to the earth information about its still unknown composition."

Because its representations are closest to a commonsense, consensus notion of reality, Dürrenmatt sees a realistic art as potentially dangerous. Its illusions appear graphically when F., having found the address of a famous, recently dead painter in Tina's journal, goes to his studio. Its floors and walls are lined with paintings that recall F.'s own project of creating a "total portrait … of our planet": a whole gallery of the city's more disreputable citizens. "At the feet of these figures who were no longer present except on canvas stood smaller pictures, representing a streetcar, toilets, pans, wrecked cars, bicycles, umbrellas, traffic policemen, Cinzano bottles, there was nothing the painter had not depicted, the disorder was tremendous."

As in the von Lamberts' writings, but here presumably only because of the riotous juxtaposition of the paintings, a representational art suggests what its critics say it is intended to repress, the underlying chaos of the world. F., turning to let in light from a window, sees a portrait of a woman in a red fur coat that she "at first took for a portrait of Tina von Lambert, but which turned out not to be Tina after all, it could just as well be a portrait of a woman who looked like Tina, and then, with a shock, it seemed to her that this woman standing before her defiantly with wide-open eyes was herself." Yet when she returns later in the day the "portrait" is gone, and the apparently real studio turns out to be a "reconstruction" made for a film crew and intended to "give an impression … of how the studio had looked when the artist was using it." And indeed, at the end of the novel, F., who has barely escaped rape and murder in North Africa, realizes that the woman in the portrait must have been Jytte Sörensen and the one standing in front of her Tina von Lambert; "no doubt the director was her lover."

The dangerous illusions of realism have more specifically political implications. F.'s "total portrait … of our planet" would indeed be that kind of totalizing, totalitarian art that Lyotard deplores. In The Assignment, the political terrors of realism are seen at their simplest in North Africa when the police chief steals F.'s film of the execution of the Scandinavian prisoner and replaces it with an official "documentary," complete with shots of cheerful cadets at a police training academy, which might be equally convincing to a European audience. Such documentaries seem to carry out the logical implications of nineteenth-century realism:

Photography did not appear as a challenge to painting from the outside, any more than industrial cinema did to narrative literature…. The challenge lay essentially in that photographic and cinematographic processes can accomplish better, faster, and with a circulation a hundred thousand times larger than narrative or pictorial realism, the task which academicism had assigned to realism: to preserve various consciousnesses from doubt.

Indeed film, while clearly an art form for F., often associates itself directly with the police and with surveillance in The Assignment. F., to take one example, rides to Al-Hakim in a convoy of "policemen and television people."

More nakedly still, the complex technology on which F.'s art depends can be separated almost entirely from human agency. The ultimate surveillance of the novel's last chapter, for example, depends on a series of cameras, each operated by a computer, watching each other observe the world. Achilles spoke of that nightmare in Vietnam, where he flew a computerized bomber: "Their plane was a flying computer, programmed to start, fly to the target, drop its bombs, all automatic, their only function was to observe." Discipline, in short, becomes the only human function, reducing a person to an observer of machines made pour surveiller et punir.

Dürrenmatt clearly agrees with Foucault that such observation is a fundamental condition of twentieth-century life: his Arab jail is positively Benthamite, with its courtyard that looks like a shaft and its series of peepholes. As D. puts it, "A very suitable definition of contemporary man might be that he is man under observation—observed by the state, for one." Yet D. argues that such a Foucauldian discipline is not only necessary but deeply desired. Fundamentalism, both religious and political, has revived because "many, indeed most, people could not stand themselves if they were not observed by someone." Nuclear weaponry, requiring spy satellites and at best eventuating in mutually agreed on-site inspections, enacts the same need, "which was why they basically hoped to be able to keep up the arms race forever, so that they would have to observe one another forever, since without an arms race, the contending powers would sink into insignificance."

If the novel could have a center, then, it would be the terrifying underground observatory, equipped with the latest cameras, from which the half-crazed Vietnam veteran nicknamed Polypheme observes the desert border war that is the mainstay of this unnamed country's economy. It is the ultimate panoptical war, Undershaft-gone-mad, existing only to be observed for the benefit of the people who really run things, that is, the sellers of weapons: "the war effort was constantly seeking out new battlefields, quite logically, since the stability of the market depended on weapons exports." Polypheme himself, the camera his one eye, links the most ancient violence with the problematics of modern identity: "Nobody injured me." His original purpose had been to provide such close documentation of the weapons that he could make "espionage obsolete," but "he really wasn't needed anymore, he had been replaced by fully automated video cameras, then a satellite had been launched to a permanent position above the observation center."

Polypheme exists at a disquieting nexus between immemorial violence and its contemporary manifestations. During the Vietnam war, his life was saved by his closest friend, a classics professor and bomber pilot nicknamed Achilles. In a world of automatic weapons, where computers do most of the work, Achilles had complained that "the idea of a human being was an illusion, man either became a soulless machine, a camera, a computer, or a beast," and he "sometimes wished he could be a real criminal, do something inhuman, be a beast, rape and strangle a woman." Horribly brain-damaged in the war, Achilles is locked in a V.A. hospital, from which he occasionally escapes to rape and murder women, and since it is the only pleasure he is able to feel, Polypheme feels obliged to procure it for him after he liberates his friend and installs him at the observation center. In his case, "terror as usual" takes the form suggested by Robin Morgan, who argues for a direct link between the old classical heroes and modern terrorism, the "sexuality of violence," the capture and rape of women that is, in fact, taken for granted in the Iliad. By suggesting that terrorism has an affinity with beautiful and durable monuments of Western, not Islamic, culture, Dürrenmatt reminds us of Benjamin's famous observation that there is "no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."

Better than any political analyst, Dürrenmatt draws us close to understanding the emotional and intellectual costs of living in the late twentieth century, when even terrorism cannot be counted on to correspond to our conceptions of it. Otto von Lambert's insight that "Auschwitz … was not the work of terrorists but of state employees" is well supported in this novel. Terrorists serve the need to believe that there are centers of resistance against a well-established order, yet as this novel amply demonstrates, the very notion of a center is illusory. The new physical terror of computerized bombing and the old one of rape correspond to a condition in which late twentieth-century human beings live and move, their identity fragmented by new philosophical conceptions of memory and the self but also by new technologies that violate their privacy or reduce their importance in traditional roles, such as that of the warrior. Surveillance and observation, intended to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war or successful terrorist attacks, are oppressive but desired. F., ironically, is at last saved from Achilles because a camera crew rises up in the desert to film her (Taussig explains how a friend in Bogotá warned him to "always make sure that if anything happens to you there will be publicity. Make sure there are journalists who know where you are going"). Fear of nuclear holocaust feeds the conventional weapons industry; the barbarous high-tech warfare of Vietnam turns a highly civilized man into a primitive rapist; computerized satellites observing other computerized satellites make a mockery of human observers and of the idea of God; "the world [is] spinning back to its origin," that is, to chaos.

Franz P. Haberl (essay date Autumn 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

SOURCE: Review of Midas oder Die schwarze Lenwand, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 708-709.

[The following is a favorable review of Dürrenmatt's Midas oder Die schwarze Lenwand.]

The nucleus of the opusculum Midas oder Die schwarze Leinwand is narrated by one of its characters, the writer significantly named F.D. An industrialist appears before his company's board of directors, where it is made clear to him that his firm is bankrupt and that his business practices will land him in jail. His friends on the board are ready to help him. They will take over the company, pay his debts, and provide for his family. They have taken out an insurance policy on his life. All he has to do is sign the policy and step out of his villa punctually at 8 P.M., and a truck will run him over. The industrialist agrees to the scheme and signs the document. He then visits his mistress and a pastor to say a sort of vicarious farewell without telling them what he intends to do. He has a similarly opaque conversation with his family during supper, then steps out of the house, and the truck rolls down the street, "a gigantic, sullen animal."

F.D. states that he intended to develop this nucleus into a filmscript, but "then Midas had to come to my mind…. The bankrupt industrialist became a tycoon." F.D. makes these revelations during the last few pages of the work, long after the reader has been told and retold that the character F.D. is the author Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In a brief dust-jacket description of his slim volume Dürrenmatt characterized the work thus: "Not a script for a film, a film to be read."

Bearing that characterization in mind, it is a sheer pleasure to follow the "plots" of this nonfilm. The one agon involves the question of how the immensely rich tycoon Green will die or has died. For die he must, or die he did, depending on which of the purported twelve versions of the script we are following. The other agon involves me process of artistic creation, in this case the creation of a filmscript that has become too convoluted by the addition of the mythical tale of King Midas to the topic of a ruthless billionaire who can no longer be tolerated even in this corrupt world. Some of the nocturnal encounters between the writer F.D. sitting at his desk with a candle and a bottle of Bordeaux and arguing with his characters belong to the wittiest scenes Dürrenmatt ever wrote.

Reading Midas evokes fond memories of Dürrenmatt's many excellent plays. Seeing the date when the work was completed (31 July 1990) makes one doubly sad at the author's death less than half a year later.


Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 1)


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