Friedrich Dürrenmatt Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–

A Swiss-German dramatist, novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist, Dürrenmatt views the world as chaos and believes that modern man is no longer master of his own fate. Because of this, pure tragedy is no longer possible: comedy and the grotesque are for Dürrenmatt the theatrical forms of our time. His works reveal his obsession with justice in a world where the complexity of power only reinforces human impotence. His response to this world is not despair, however, but rather courage and unwillingness to surrender in the face of absurdity. Dürrenmatt has explicated his approach to drama in a volume of brilliant essays, Theaterprobleme, where he explores the meaning of his own plays, their critical reception, playwriting, and the role of the artist. He has also contributed to the genre of the detective story, which he feels reflects the ambiguity of truth and justice for contemporary society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Adolf D. Klarmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Two facts stand out about Duerrenmatt's work], even upon a casual examination of his plays. Almost all have been reworked at least once, and almost all bear unusual baroque title and subtitles in which, as may be expected, the term "comedy" predominates in one form or another. It is Written (1945–46) and The Blind Man (1948) have no subtitles. Romulus the Great, "an unhistorical comedy," exists in two versions (1949 and 1957). The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, "a comedy," produced in New York early in 1958 as Fools are Passing Through in an adaptation by Maximilian Slater, has two versions (1952 and 1957). An Angel Comes to Babylon, "a fragmentary comedy in three acts," has three versions (1948, 1953, and 1957). The Visit of the Old Lady, "a tragicomedy in three acts," of 1956 was originally to have the subtitle "a bullish comedy." (p. 79)

In Duerrenmatt's love of the macabre, there is a definite kinship to Kafka and E. Th. A. Hoffmann and a spiritual affinity to the graphic art of Alfred Kubin in the conceptualization of a situation as well as in its mise en scène. Duerrenmatt visualizes scenes with the eye of an experienced draftsman before he translates them into the idiom of an imaginative stage…. (p. 81)

It is Written [Duerrenmatt's first play], the play about the Anabaptists in Münster, in spite of its immaturity and its lack of economy and discretion, best demonstrates Duerrenmatt's characteristic dramatic devices. In form and subject matter it is a kindred spirit to such divergent plays as Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen, Hauptmann's Florian Geyer, Sartre's Le Diable et le bon Dieu, and Cocteau's Bacchus. It also shows Duerrenmatt's love for Nestroy and the Viennese folk theatre…. (p. 82)

We note the primacy of the stage and the reintroduction of improvisation as practiced in the commedia dell'arte and in Viennese folk theatre. The "Idea" has a prominent place in the Duerrenmatt design. Here, as in other instances, it sometimes takes over the play and carries the author merrily and recklessly to a burlesque exuberance—he calls it "Ubermut"—which he considers an essential condiment of the comedy. Words, he says, are of great but not of exclusive importance. Almost as important are stage "Ideas" (Übermut), the rhetorical gesture which he loves so dearly and which according to him was lost for the world of drama when a naturalistic actor with bad memory could not remember his part. Striking also is his varied use of the Tieck-like touch of romantic irony…. The device of the monologue is very important here as well as in the next few plays. It serves several purposes: first, it introduces a character in the manner of a conférencier, who comments on actions past and future with conscious anachronism…. [The] second function of the monologue [is] the time filler, the substitute for a curtain between scenes, and also as the raconteur, and the obliterator of time and space. The monologue may also, in an expansiveness of language, grow into something like a couplet or chanson, a Liedeinlage à la Nestroy…. (Sometimes, however, to the boredom of the audience, Duerrenmatt allows himself to be intoxicated by his own eloquence.) (pp. 82-3)

Duerrenmatt comes to grips [in It is Written] with man's greatest glory and even greater tragedy: his incomprehension of an impatience with the design of the world order and his foredoomed attempts at correction in the role of the self-appointed savior. This is also the crucial problem of The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi and An Angel Comes to Babylon. (p. 84)

Summing up Duerrenmatt's first dramatic effort, we see certain tendencies come to the fore which—with greater skill and discretion—remain typical for his drama: The grotesque setting of a tragicomedy with strong emphasis on the bizarre and macabre; ample variations of romantic irony by the conférencier method, by parody, by anachronism, and by exaggeration; the yielding to idea and exuberance (Einfall and Übermut); the broad use of the soliloquy for purposes of persiflage, epic link, curtain, elimination of time and space, and intensification into a chanson; the use of choral speaking and similar vaudeville techniques; the preëminence of the stage by every conceivable trick of the trade; and the consistent mixture of the tragic and the comic in the shocking contrasts of sequences. (pp. 85-6)

[The Blind Man, a version] of the Job story, set at the time of the Thirty Years' War with the Italian nobelman Negro da Ponte playing the part of Satan, is the story of a faith which is stronger than all efforts to maintain it by deceit, or deny it, or destroy it. By means of its epigraph from Matthew 9:29, "Then touched he their eyes, saying according to your faith be it unto you," Duerrenmatt approaches the ramparts of unprotesting acceptance which our age has lost. (p. 86)

This play blends tragic and grotesque rather than comic elements. The satanic retinue of da Ponte and their make-believe world for the benefit of the Duke is reminiscent of Wedekind's King Nicolo with the many scenes of grotesque crudeness. On the whole, the stage is rather tame; the set is the ruin of the Duke's castle throughout, and eerie changes are achieved with lighting.

Though the play is heavy-footed, with its flirtations with King Lear, Hamlet, King Nicolo and German Neo-Romanticism, it is still noteworthy for its poetry, Its concern with man's lot in a world without faith places it in the main stream of twentieth-century drama. (p. 87)

If The Blind Man is Duerrenmatt's most Shakespearean play, then Romulus the Great is his most Shavian. This persiflage of history again follows a pattern important in modern drama, namely the use of classical, Biblical, or historical subjects to reflect contemporary concerns. As far as the bizarre and spectacular are concerned, Romulus the Great makes the least demands on the stage and easily falls into its four acts. Purely from the point of view of constructing a...

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William Gillis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt has written three detective novels. None of them has that aura of philosophical profundity which surrounds his other works: plays like Der Besuch der alten Dame, for instance, or prose works like his "noch mögliche Geschichte," Die Panne. But the detective novels do have a reason for being.

In many of his works Dürrenmatt is concerned directly or indirectly with an almost obsessive idea: justice…. In each of the detective novels it is the main idea and in each one it is treated differently. To be more precise, we might say that these novels are variations on a theme.

Dürrenmatt's optimistic philosophical conclusion in Der Richter und sein Henker, Der Verdacht, and Das Versprechen is this: If man wants justice, he must pursue it, but more often than not, the certain attainment of it is something he must leave to Heaven. What literary form is better suited to that "message" than the detective novel? It is the literary form in which the seeker of justice pursues the perpetrator of injustice. Dürrenmatt's only problem is to exalt the form, to make us realize that justice does not lie solely in the hands of the ingenious Scotland Yard man or the private eye. (p. 71)

The dramatic technique of which Dürrenmatt is a master pervades [Der Richter]. The prose style has a clarity and simplicity which one does not expect in a...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Edward Diller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paradox and grotesquerie are more than stylistic devices for Dürrenmatt: they are his reaction to our world, a world which, in contrast to earlier times, has lost all unity, has become chaotic beyond all comprehension, and therefore terrifying. (p. 328)

George Santayana calls the grotesque "… an interesting effect produced by such a transformation of an ideal type as exaggerates one of its elements or combines it with other types." Through this transformation the artist regains his freedom, and, with it, subject material which can no longer be found but must be invented, for parody and grotesque presuppose invention. This deliberate distortion of history and this sovereign willfulness in...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Edward Diller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dürrenmatt's assertions frequently cause a reader to stop precisely at a point where serious analysis of basic assumptions should begin. His statements on the absurdity and chaotic quality of the world, for example, might seem to indicate that Dürrenmatt has resigned himself to the necessity of regarding the world as "chaos" and given up the job of trying to order or formulate his basic ontology in a coherent fashion…. [However there is] an overwhelming mass of evidence to indicate that the roots of Dürrenmatt's writings are firmly planted in an orderly personal theology that he uses to measure and judge the perplexing problems of our times. (p. 28)

In one of Dürrenmatt's short stories, Der...

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Stephen Tapscott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"I describe human beings," Friedrich Dürrenmatt writes, "not marionettes; an action and not an allegory. I have presented a world, not pointed a moral." In this composite dramatic world of complex ironic situations, the authentic man of genuinely heroic stature, ultimately, is the self-conscious fool who is so dominated by fortune that even his tragic nobility becomes a source of somersaulting absurdity. Dürrenmatt's is a formless world, anonymous and abstract, but is personalized concretely in individual protagonists, so that the plays avoid the abstract irony of Pirandello or Sartre, for instance, or the deliberate alienation of Brecht. The characteristic perspective for Dürrenmatt's world is distance, a vantage...

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G. F. Benham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the face of it Dürrenmatt's first essay into [the detective story], Der Richter und sein Henker, contains sufficient traditional elements to explain its abiding popularity…. Written as it was in installments it enjoys all the sculptured, architechonic advantages of the Roman Feuilleton. (p. 147)

On first reading Dürrenmatt's Der Richter und sein Henker one is struck by the strangeness, the disconcerting oddity of the overall impression which this novel leaves. Where, one asks, is that feeling of delight, that essentially cathartic, reassuring feeling that things have turned out right? In its place one experiences a disconcerting je ne sais quoi, a nagging, worrying...

(The entire section is 381 words.)