Friedrich Dürrenmatt

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Dürrenmatt, Friedrich 1921–

A Swiss-German dramatist, novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist, Dürrenmatt views the modern world as chaos and believes that individuals are no longer in control of their own lives. Because of this, pure tragedy is no longer possible: a gallows comedy is for Dürrenmatt the theatrical genre 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. In Theaterprobleme, his collection of brilliant essays, Dürrenmatt 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Armin Arnold

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[The early narrative pieces collected in Die Stadt (The City)] were the first tortuous steps of an author who was still feeling his way. No one knew that better than Dürrenmatt himself, who wrote in the epilogue to Die Stadt: "This work is not an attempt to establish values or to tell some stories; rather, it is a necessary attempt to fight out something with myself…."…

[The] stories in Die Stadt form the nucleus out of which the subsequent works grew. They illustrate Dürrenmatt's intellectual and emotional state at the beginning of his career. (p. 5)

"Weihnacht" is a parable about the despair of a man who becomes conscious of life's truths, who recognizes his own helplessness and weakness, and who blames God for not acting more justly toward mankind and for not giving it a better chance. This man can no longer love and trust God….

["Der Folterknecht"] too, transmits the despairing cry of a man who holds God responsible—since he is all-powerful—for the grim condition of humanity in general and of the individual in particular. (p. 7)

In the remaining tales in Die Stadt, the language is different. Dürrenmatt abandons short sentences in favor of a more realistic style, which includes long descriptive statements. "Der Hund" [The Dog] seems to be a dream vision in which a rich industrialist comes to understand the truth about the tragic situation of man on earth. He becomes a preacher and lives in poverty. (pp. 9-10)

Dürrenmatt ascribes Christ-like characteristics to the [preacher's] dog when he says that it walks along like "a lamb" and is only seen again "after three days." The dog, with his glowing, sulfur-yellow eyes, is the embodiment of evil; for Dürrenmatt, evil indicates God. (p. 10)

Because the book concludes with "Pilatus," while chronologically "Der Tunnel" belongs at the end, we can surmise that Dürrenmatt had a definite order in mind for this first volume. I have already said that it begins with the day of Christ's birth and ends with his death. Significantly, the two pieces do not describe Christ's misery and destitution. Dürrenmatt is interested in showing that man can count on neither the Christ child nor the crucified Christ. Christ has abandoned man; he does not care what happens to him; he can be dismissed as a source of comfort and hope. The tales from "Weihnacht" through "Pilatus" are parables of the despair, abandonment, and downfall of the individual man and of mankind in general. No help is to be expected from God; if he should happen to take an interest in humanity at all, then it is only as a torturer.

Dürrenmatt has never lost...

(This entire section contains 3537 words.)

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this pessimistic concept of the world: he has always seen "the horror lurking behind the scenes." But, with time, he has perceived and described it differently. The sketches inDie Stadt came into being as the result of a shock: suddenly Dürrenmatt stood without the shield of faith, face to face with human existence. Above all, he saw with horror that God—if he exists at all—is unjust. Justice and injustice, the senselessness of human existence, the "horror lurking behind the scenes"—these remain Dürrenmatt's central themes. But later he was able to treat these themes with irony; what had been horrible became grotesque. (pp. 15-16)

In contrast to Die Stadt, where one is for the most part directly confronted by … naked terror, this same terror is relegated to the background of [Dürrenmatt's first play Es steht geschrieben (It Is Written)] and is thus partly concealed. The author continually distracts the audience by means of comedy, parody, irony, grotesque action, and other devices to create detachment. Again and again it is made clear to the members of the audience that they are in a theater: with the greatest monotony, just about every important character introduces himself to the audience on his first entrance. (p. 21)

Dürrenmatt has made it a frequent practice to revise his plays. There are two, three, and even four different versions of some of the plays. He revised Es steht geschrieben after two decades and named the new play Die Wiedertäufer [The Anabaptists]. (p. 23)

Es steht geschrieben is the gigantic vision of a dramatist who has had little experience with the practical staging of a play. Die Wiedertäufer is a work by a master of the stage, who has been through the mill. The first version is the product of a young idealist struggling with himself to come to terms with the horror of human life. The second version is the product of an experienced skeptic, who accepts the absurdities of life without astonishment and who no longer has illusions to lose. (pp. 23-4)

[Der Blinde (The Blind Man), Dürrenmatt's second play,] is a parable of man's situation, as are Kafka's The Trial and The Castle. The blind one is he who closes his eyes in the face of reality and believes in God, his grace, and his paradise. His blindness shields him from the horror of reality…. In the world of this play, the more inhumane a man is, the better he gets along in life.

The realm of the philosophically grotesque and absurd takes over when the blind father, himself betrayed, condemns his own innocent son and when this son makes no attempt to defend himself. (pp. 27-8)

Der Blinde may be interpreted biographically. The blindly trusting Duke suggests Dürrenmatt's father, the Christian pastor. Aspects of Friedrich's own personality can be found in two characters: Palamedes, who has lost his faith through his exposure to cruel reality; and the penniless poet Gnadenbrot Suppe, who is finally strangled by the Duke. (p. 29)

In the fifteen months between the first performance of Der Blinde and that of Romulus der Grosse (Romulus the Great) … Dürrenmatt seems to have become a completely different person. Romulus, at first glance, has scarcely anything in common with the earlier works. Initially a disciple of Kierkegaard, Dürrenmatt evolved into a Spengler with the humor of Parkinson. Dürrenmatt says nothing further of God. As before, the world is full of evil. God, however, is no longer blamed for it; instead, man, human nature, and chance are held responsible.

Alongside this change in intellectual approach there is a comparable change in language and stage technique. For the first time the characters are defined by means of language. While formerly one or the other of the characters shocked the public by occasionally throwing in a bit of jargon or dialect, now the figures speak within well-defined limits….

Instead of achieving critical distance through the whimsical and random use of jargon or dialect. Dürrenmatt secures detachment through the intrusion of such characters as Caesar Rupf and Apollonius. The audience, of course, knows that these types are as clearly out of place in the fifth century as is the twentieth-century businessmen's language they speak. Again and again the audience is disillusioned. It knows that things are happening on stage that do not belong to fifth century Roman life; therefore, parallels must be drawn with the present. Furthermore, the audience can never forget that it is in a theater. (p. 32)

[Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi (The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi) shows that idealism cannot] accomplish anything in the present world. The world belongs to ruthless pragmatists, to the politicians who adhere to no theory but can adapt themselves quickly and arbitrarily to any set of circumstances. Even justice is not absolute but is subject to opportunism. (p. 37)

[Played off against the three idealists is Anastasia who in every case] opts for life and comes out each time on top—because she has no ideals. She lies, murders, betrays, and adapts herself constantly; this is her formula for getting along in the world. Although in the stage version she dies of poisoning, even here Dürrenmatt shows how, with her final gasps, she continues to lie.

The view of life as expressed in this play is just as despairing as that in Der Blinde. The cynicism of the later plays is anticipated: justice is for sale, as in Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit); men of good will can be found only in insane asylums, as in Die Physiker (The Physicists); the woman wins in the brutal marital war (Play Strindberg). Yet The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi does not seem morose, because it is comic in its details. Dürrenmatt achieves the same effects as Chaplin, by using gags, paradoxical definitions, grotesque actions, and parodies of Brecht and himself. (p. 38)

The Visit is Dürrenmatt's best play and the one that has least worried the author: since its first performance, on January 29, 1956, he has made only minor textual changes. Inasmuch as its locality is typically Swiss, this tragicomedy has indeed become a kind of second national drama for Switzerland. While Schiller's William Tell depicts the awakening of a people to freedom, The Visit demonstrates the spiritual and intellectual corruption of a community. (pp. 41-2)

The Visit exposes the dubiousness of human logic: the Gülleners' reasoning is based solely on utilitarian values. Human conscience does not control man's actions; conscience is applied to those actions of man that are motivated by egoism. Such egoistical actions are subsequently designated as good by the conscience. The townspeople begin to despise and hate Ill so that they may then kill him with a "clean conscience." He becomes the scapegoat in the familiar ritual. From the audience's point of view, Ill's punishment has no real relation to his guilt because he has long since done penance through his miserable life. Ill's fate is an extension of the actions of the sadistic, revengeful God of Dürrenmatt's early works. But in The Visit Dürrenmatt has given, for the first time, a visible face to his evil God—that of Claire Zachanassian. (p. 45)

Dürrenmatt's four detective novels have attained the same international renown as his dramas…. They are, to be sure, typically Dürrenmatt, but in no way do they depart from what one usually expects from a detective story. (p. 48)

Dürrenmatt must have had great fun in writing these novels. It is much easier to insert incidental material in a novel than in a play. In the first half of The Judge, there is not a page without its touch of humor. Dürrenmatt ridicules the police, the people of Bern, the separatists from the Jura Mountains, state officials and their titles, the militarists, Swiss artists, and others. He administers such a heavy dose of symbolism that it becomes parody. (p. 51)

[Protagonist] Bärlach's conversations with Edith Marlok and Emmenberger form the high point of [The Quarry]. Both doctors think, in the truest sense of the word, Dürrenmatt's thoughts. They think and act completely consistently—with horrifying results. Dürrenmatt rejects their actions, but he respects the philosophy that motivates those actions. Bärlach, like Dürrenmatt, has nothing with which to oppose this philosophy—no faith. All that remains for him, if he is honest with himself, is silence. Or else he can, with the Jew, cry out, "Long live mankind!" and add, "But how?" The enigma of existence is man's fate…. (pp. 53-4)

Dürrenmatt's narrative technique in The Pledge is considerably more mature than in his first two novels. [In this novel the] story is being told to Dürrenmatt. Whereas his earlier dialogues were often too long and complicated to be believed as actual conversation, Dürrenmatt now exercises greater discipline and goes so far as to apologize to the reader for changing a word or so of the narrator's account. (p. 56)

Die Panne (Traps, 1956), exists in two versions—as a short novel and as a radio play…. Traps stands apart from the other three novels in that it is not properly a detective novel. (p. 57)

Many things in Traps remind one of Kafka's The Trial; this is especially true of the narrative version. In Kafka's novel the trial and K.'s guilt remain mysterious; perhaps they have to be interpreted theologically. In Dürrenmatt's work, however, Traps is unquestionably guilty, although the court remains grotesque enough. (p. 58)

Dürrenmatt wrote his radio plays during the period when earning money was still very important to him. That they are outstanding examples of their genre is, however, not open to doubt. Dürrenmatt has won some of the most highly respected awards for radio plays: in 1956, the Prize of the War Blind for "Die Panne"; and in 1958, the Prix d'Italia for "Incident at Twilight."

Thematically, "Der Doppelgänger" [The Double] belongs to the world of Die Stadt and the early dramas. A man finds himself suddenly face to face with his double. The double has killed someone, and the court wishes the man to take the guilt upon himself. Like Kafka's K. in The Trial, the man is not acquainted with the court, nor can he comprehend why he should let himself be punished for something he did not do. (p. 62)

What is the meaning of the play? Dürrenmatt has attempted to observe the human situation through the eyes of neither God nor man, but through those of God's death figure. The heavens are as empty as the little castle in "Der Doppelgänger." God does not exist, or at least he does not let anyone find him. If he did exist, then the individual man—an ant crawling around on the earth—would be completely unimportant to him. The idea that God owes justice to anybody is absurd. (pp. 65-6)

"Incident at Twilight" is a brilliant satire on the writing profession, on Dürrenmatt himself, and above all on biographical criticism. Dürrenmatt purposely puts details of himself in the character of the writer, Maximilian Frederick Korbes (Herr Korbes "must have been an evil man," goes the Grimms' fairy tale). (p. 69)

A visitor, Feargod Hofer, comes into his suite. This visitor is a representative of biographical criticism. He has found out that Korbes himself has committed twenty-one of the twenty-two murders he describes in his novels….

Biographical interpretation is relatively fruitless when applied to Dürrenmatt, who, by the way, despises the method. In the instance of Herr Korbes, however, the critic—absurdly enough—hits the nail on the head. With the greatest of pleasure Dürrenmatt takes his revenge on invaders of the privacy of the artist. Korbes throws the visitor out the window; the death is called a suicide. Korbes immediately uses the episode as the subject for a new radio play. (p. 70)

Two of Dürrenmatt's dramas were unsuccessful: Frank der Fünfte [Frank V] and the stage version of Herkules und der Stall des Augias…. From the first performance on, [Frank der Fünfte] was called a weak imitation of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. His self-justifications were to no avail: Dürrenmatt was unable to make the critics reconsider their verdict. (p. 72)

Dürrenmatt has made clear his debt to [Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus]: "Frank der Fünfte is modeled on a Shakespearean tragedy of royalty. I want to show a society similar to Shakespeare's, but described in contemporary terms. Therefore—and this is important—I must introduce a power structure other than the monarchy." For his power structure Dürrenmatt chose a bank. Instead of kings, there are bank directors; instead of vassals and courtiers, there are clerks, cashiers, and personnel directors. (p. 73)

In his speech to the Munich critics (1963), Dürrenmatt stressed that Shakespeare was his model, not Brecht; that the play is about freedom, not justice; that the failure of the bank is a metaphor for the failure of democracy (if each man has a key to the safe, the state grows powerless); that "the unrestricted freedom of everybody becomes a threat to the human community." All this may be true, but Dürrenmatt had to say it in a speech because the play says nothing of this sort. (p. 74)

In contrast to Frank der Funfte, The Physicists is a clearly conceived and precisely constructed play—Dürrenmatt's best achievement in form. It is also, after The Visit, his most successful work. As in The Visit, Dürrenmatt lays a "tragedy trap"; here, the audience observes with amusement how three mad men act in an insane asylum. (p. 77)

In his "21 Punkte zu den Physikern' [Twenty-One Points about The Physicists], Dürrenmatt writes, "A story has been completely though through when it has taken its worst possible turn." (p. 78)

Chance plays an important role in this play…. Dürrenmatt was aware of this fact and defended himself in the "21 Punkte" thus: "The worst possible turn is not predictable. It occurs accidentally. The dramatist's art is to integrate chance most effectively into a plot." (p. 79)

The play is constructed along strictly classical lines: the unities of place, time, and action are observed. Much of the second act is an inversion of the first…. (p. 80)

The German critic Hans Mayer and others have compared The Physicists to Brecht's Galileo. Galileo was prepared to recant so that he might continue to work in secret. To him, science was progressive and therefore good. With Dürrenmatt it is just the opposite; scientific discoveries must be retracted because they are too dangerous for men. Fifty years ago, Shaw and some of the German expressionists had foretold what was bound to happen. It was clear to them that technology could not be held back. The only solution to save the world was, in their view, to change the nature of man. Dürrenmatt, a skeptic by nature, with another world war behind him, can no longer take such a possibility seriously. (pp. 80-1)

[In his adaptation of Goethe's Urfaust (the original Faust)], Dürrenmatt mixed three elements together: Goethe's text, the text of the anonymous Faust book of 1587, and his own inventions. The action proceeds rapidly; scene follows scene; the actors double as stagehands and stay right on the stage to the end of the play. Mephistopheles has become a comic figure, a master of gags; Faust is no longer a vital and ambitious young man but an old codger who succeeds in seducing the child Gretchen. Dürrenmatt's piece is original, full of new ideas and shocking gags. The public was highly amused; the critics had mixed feelings. (p. 93)

[Portrait eines Planeten (Portrait of a Planet)] was very negatively received by the press. If one considers the philosophies behind Die Stadt, An Angel Comes to Babylon, "Das Unternehmen der Wega," and The Physicists, one must come to the conclusion that Dürrenmatt will, one day, write a successful play in which he demonstrates how ridiculous (and dangerous) the human situation on Earth really is. What is the role of the little planet Earth in the context of the universe? Our planet, evidently, is of no importance whatever. And what is the importance of a human being on this little, unimportant planet? Nil! We have no guarantee that our existence will continue for even a week. At any time, the sun may explode, change into a supernova, and terminate life on this planet.

This is what happens in Portrait eines Planeten. (pp. 93-4)

[In Der Sturz (The Pledge), Dürrenmatt's first novel since 1958, he] presents a parable—similar to one used by H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen in the great seventeenth-century German novel Simplicius Simplicissimus—in which all human beings are given a position in relation to a tree; the ones near the top move higher and higher—until they fall down. Dürrenmatt's model reminds the reader of a Russian, Chinese, or East German top-level meeting of the Communist Party. Few will believe that such an action could take place in a Western country. The fact that Dürrenmatt introduces an English lord will deceive nobody. Whether Dürrenmatt intended to or not, he has written an anticommunist pamphlet.

It is probable that Dürrenmatt [at fifty] still has much to offer. What he has achieved up to now, however, would be enough for us to consider him among the more important dramatists of German (and world) literature. Besides obvious genius, Dürrenmatt possesses the characteristics that distinguished Shaw: a sharp critical intelligence and the honesty to think through a problem logically and uncompromisingly (even when the end is despair). Dürrenmatt has the background of a great humanist. He also has a vital and indestructible sense of humor, which encompasses everything from crude puns to grotesque absurdities, and includes satire as well as the most polished parody.

Dürrenmatt is convinced of the absurdity of human existence; isolated man stands powerless, facing the void. The human race is digging its own grave because of its senseless worship of technology. Even if Dürrenmatt, with his hard logic, is far from being a devout Christian, many of his works are like sermons. They contain hidden challenges to act like Därlach and not like the inhabitants of Güllen. They ask us to distrust slogans and shibboleths and any kind of political leadership. (pp. 99-100)

Armin Arnold, in his Friedrich Dürrenmatt, translated and revised by Armin Arnold with Sheila Johnson (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972, 120 p.

Peter J. Graves

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The writings of Friedrich Dürrenmatt are liberally scattered with disclaimers, warning all who would approach his works that they are dealing here with a creative writer, not a theoretician; with a theatrical experimenter, not a philosopher…. [However, in his essay 'Vom Sinn der Dichtung in unserer Zeit,' Dürrenmatt reveals that for him art is] a means of helping the ordinary individual, trapped and powerless in a depersonalized society, to comprehend his world, or, perhaps more realistically, at least to come to terms with its incomprehensibility. (p. 133)

Of course it would be a fundamental error to claim that Dürrenmatt's purpose is primarily didactic. He himself … has been at pains to emphasize that their theatrical quality should be the criterion by which his plays are judged…. Yet one cannot ignore the extreme and … paradoxical position into which Dürrenmatt is led by his evident horror of being regarded as a philosopher or moralist disguised as a playwright. This is seen at its most striking when he discusses the reaction of the spectator to his plays and seeks to arrogate to himself a complete detachment. (p. 134)

In his thoughts on Die Wiedertäufer (1967) he … places the responsibility for any reaction to his plays firmly on the individual spectator, disclaiming any for himself…. Such a complete personal withdrawal, however, is notably at variance with Dürrenmatt's conception of the intimate relationship between the world of the stage and the world of everyday reality. To be sure, in these thoughts he seeks to increase the distance between the two by an appeal to comedy as a medium of alienation that prevents an automatic equation of actor and audience, of portrayed world and real world…. The spectator is therefore allegedly not being pointed towards any particular response, and the dramatist retires to a position of neutrality on the side-lines. However, not even the most extreme forms of comedy can completely obviate the resemblance that the stage presentation must of necessity bear to the real world, and by the very choice of the particular face that the playwright gives to his created world he in a sense prescribes, or at least strongly directs, the picture that will be built up in the spectator's mind. But this point Dürrenmatt will not allow. In the section of the post-script to Die Wiedertäufer under discussion here he seems to regard his plays as a kind of catalyst that will produce in certain spectators a reaction which will be wholly and exclusively determined by the disposition of the individual concerned. Yet one may surely claim that, although Dürrenmatt regards the spectator as the entirely controlling factor in this process, the nature of the reaction will also be in part determined by the nature of the catalyst, and this catalyst in its turn will bear to some degree the marks of its creator. In 'Theaterprobleme', for instance, the very description of humanity's progress as a 'Wahnsinnsfahrt' [crazy car-ride] … already presupposes certain assumptions about the nature of the world, and in this same essay Dürrenmatt in fact states that 'der Künstler stellt immer die Welt und sich selber dar' [the artist always places society and himself (in his work)]…. (p. 135)

Therefore, although one may recognise Dürrenmatt's desire to defend himself against those who would facilely seek to tie some convenient philosophical label to him, one cannot at the same time unquestioningly accept his ascription to his plays of neutrality in themselves and of no more significance than that of experiments with one particular mode of artistic expression…. It is thus not a question of trying to foist upon the dramatist a cap that he has declared himself unwilling to wear, but rather of recognizing that, for all his disclaimers, his own stated intentions do not allow him to divest himself of it entirely….

[Through] a recognition of the existence in some of Dürrenmatt's theoretical writings of certain irreconcilable elements, one is able to gain a clearer insight into the extent to which paradox lies at the very core of his thinking. This feature will become further apparent if we return now to Theaterprobleme.

During the course of this essay, as has already been indicated, Dürrenmatt considers the problems involved in portraying today's world on the stage. For him the world is not straightforward and transparent, something which can be grasped and mastered in cold, neat and logically unassailable terms. Rather, it is an embodiment of 'das Gestaltlose … das Chaotische' [the formless … the chaotic] …, it is 'ein Ungeheures' [a monster] …, threatening, destructive, and utterly illogical. Gone is the fixed scale of moral values against which, say, a Schillerian hero played out his existence, when the extent of his power was visible to all and when he could hence be held personally responsible for its use. But today power has grown so vast and complex and the machinery of power so anonymous and diffuse that it is no longer possible to ascribe guilt to any one single individual for abuses of that power. (p. 136)

Against this background then, when man has become a victim of sheer chance and a prey to forces over which he has no control, it is evident that pure tragedy as such is no longer possible, and thus Dürrenmatt explains his turning to comedy and the grotesque as the forms most appropriate to the portrayal of our tragic world. For tragic it is, and comedy is just a means of sweetening this distasteful pill, of luring the public into facing up to unpleasant facts it might otherwise prefer to ignore. From all this one could well conclude that comedy here is just an expression of despair in the face of this 'Rätsel an Unheil' [ruinous enigma] … which we call the world, and Dürrenmatt concedes that despair is a perfectly valid response…. However, another equally valid response is not to despair, but rather to stand up against this world in a personal act of courageous self-assertion, and this is precisely the position adopted by some of his principle characters….

The responsibility of the individual to provide the sphere of resistance to the attacks of a monstrous world is a recurrent theme in Dürrenmatt…. Guilt in the general sense, as we have seen, no longer exists (except collective guilt visited upon us by the sins of our forebears, for which we cannot be held individually answerable), but it can nevertheless be achieved 'als persönliche Leistung, als religiöse Tat' [as a personal accomplishment, as a religious act]…. These 'mutigen Menschen' [courageous individuals], by a bold and deliberate act of will, recognize that personal responsibility can and does exist for them within their own private sphere, and they voluntarily submit themselves to the demands that this imposes upon them and to the consequential possibility of individual guilt. (p. 137)

Yet the cruel paradox of his theatre is that this positive achievement on the individual level, when viewed against the larger canvas of a nonsensical world, devoid of any secure frame of reference and governed by nothing more predictable than chance, is revealed to be faintly ridiculous and basically futile. Modern man is hence in a grotesque situation, for the efforts of the courageous individual, whilst potentially effective in and of themselves, are nevertheless bound in the end to fail, simply because of the very absurdity of the society in which they are being made. (p. 138)

[It] is possibly in Die Physiker (1961) that Dürrenmatt's injunctions to the individual not to capitulate before the world are seen in their most paradoxical light, for in this play the courageous hero fails so signally in his objectives. Johann Wilhelm Möbius, the greatest physicist of all time, who has discovered the key to all possible inventions, seeks to save the world from the consequence of this discovery, and the certainty of its misuse in the hands of men, by feigning madness and taking refuge in an asylum. However, all his efforts to conceal the truth about himself, at first seemingly successful, are revealed in a ghastly twist at the end of the play to have been in vain: the owner of the asylum, Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, has discovered his identity, copied his manuscripts and now, her mind unhinged, sets out to take control of the world and the universe, whilst Möbius must remain in confinement for killing his nurse, a murder which was just one of his, as we now know, futile endeavours to safeguard his secret. For the grim workings of reality have rendered this act 'sinnlos' [senseless] …, just as the burning of his papers was 'sinnlos' …, just as indeed, so it would appear, is any attempt to deflect the world from the path that it is taking….

Thus we see man confronted by 'das Sinnlose, das Hoffnungslose dieser Welt' [the senselessness, the hopelessness of this world], before which, as was considered earlier, Dürrenmatt recognizes the legitimacy of despair, but nevertheless points to the possibility of precisely the opposite reaction, namely 'Nichtverzweifeln' [non-despair]…. Yet his plays generally give very little reason for choosing the latter response rather than the former, and this is the heart of the paradox: the battle will be lost, but it must nevertheless be fought. (p. 139)

If man is essentially powerless in a chaotic world, then he can either (perhaps more logically) despair, or else he can consciously resist despair by acting as if there were some kind of final order and some form of absolute justice, whilst at the same time being forced to recognize that there are not, at least not visibly. That he is still bound to fail in his struggle against a senseless world, and fail preposterously, is the tragedy and paradox of his position. Further, if one chooses to exclude the possibility that some supernatural force will intervene, or has intervened, to bring humanity to mankind's inhumanity and order to the world's disorder, then man is condemned to remain for ever a prisoner of the flaws in his own nature and a victim of the arcane and uncontrollable obtrusions of chance. Although in this situation the courageous stance of the 'mutige Mensch' is a meaningful response on the restricted level of the individual, the problem of humanity at large remains unresolved, and this is reflected in the open, unanswered question that concludes Die Wiedertäufer. After the defeat of the Anabaptists at Münster in 1535, with all ideals having been dragged through the mud, morality perverted, and justice stood on its head, bishop Franz von Waldeck reviews the incongruous and absurd outcome of events and closes the play with the reflection: 'Diese unmenschlicher Welt muss menschlicher werden. Aber wie? Aber wie?' [This inhuman world must become more human. But how? But how?]…. These words naturally refer in the first instance to the events on the stage, but, placed as they are at the very end of the play, they clearly have a significance above and beyond their immediate dramatic context, as the audience, rather in the manner of Dürrenmatt's allegorical car-driver being warned by her passenger of impending danger, is invited to extend its view away from a purely local situation to a consideration of the state of man in general. That such an obviously moralistic question should conclude a mature work of a dramatist who consistently denies the presence of any 'Moralien oder Tiefsinn' [moral maxims or depth of meaning] … in his writings, is perhaps not the least of the paradoxes in Dürrenmatt. (pp. 140-41)

Peter J. Graves, "Disclaimers and Paradoxes in Dürrenmatt" (revised by the author for this publication), in German Life & Letters, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, January, 1974, pp. 133-42.

Kenneth S. Whitton

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Although Dürrenmatt himself has repeatedly repudiated any suggestion of an early Brecht influence, one would acknowledge, of course, that Dürrenmatt—least of all modern writers—should not be taken at his word. Paradoxical, diametrically opposed statements abound in the vast literature which has grown up around him in the last twenty years or so, but we believe that Dürrenmatt only "used" Brecht, as he has "used" Aristophanes, Sophocles, Strindberg and Wedekind, as irregular sounding-boards from which his own ideas give back new resonances. (p. 65)

The crucial difference between Dürrenmatt and Brecht is this: Where Dürrenmatt wages theatrical war against "the rulers of the world" ("Die Mächtigen") wherever they may be found, in east or west, the objects of Brecht's satirical attacks tend to be found on one side only, among the capitalists, that group whom he had observed so closely in Weimarian Germany and during his exile in the USA from 1941 to 1947. Brecht's characters, Puntila, Shui Ta, Barberini and the rest are pre-War sketches of more or less brutal capitalists. The people whom Dürrenmatt attacks, the pretentious, the pompous, the mindless, can be found in all classes of people and society and in all countries. The citizens of bourgeois Güllen are as "guilty" as royal Nebukadnezar, the conservative military men of Romulus' court, or the time-serving Communist adventurer, Saint-Claude, in Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi. Dürrenmatt castigates them all with the scourge of his "comedy". (pp. 69-70)

Like Ibsen, Dürrenmatt would declare: "Zu fragen bin ich da, nicht zu antworten" [I am here to question, not to answer], and it was that that made him reject both Schiller and Brecht, for both writers, in their different ways, had sought to impose a "solution" on the audience….

If we now turn to a consideration of the works of these two writers in some more detail, we are immediately struck by the similarity of their approach to the main protagonists in their plays. Brecht has what he called his "negativen Helden" [negative heroes] …, while Dürrenmatt has (or had) his "mutigen Menschen" [brave men]. How similar—or dissimilar—are these authors' attitudes towards these very important characters in their works?

The answer to the question probably lies in their attitudes towards their fellow-men. What depressed Brecht most about Dürrenmatt's concept of the world was the Swiss author's treatment of human beings as helpless objects at the mercy of the whims of Fortune. (p. 72)

The Brechtian "negative hero" is shown in desperate situations, not because of his or her own character, but because of the social circumstances which have put him or her there…. Dürrenmatt, on the other hand, is more concerned with human nature than with social circumstances and believes not only that human nature cannot and will not change but that human beings make up "the world" and that it is highly improbable that that will change either…. Distrusting ideological solutions as he does, Dürrenmatt rests what hope he can find, not in vast, improbable changes in human nature or even in cataclysmal social upheavals, but in the inherent goodness of the majority of his fellow-men. (pp. 72-3)

The early works, up to Der Besuch der alten Dame (1956), could be, and indeed were, treated as "Einfälle der Gnade" [a fall from grace, in the words of F. Buri]. From 1960 onwards, however, Dürrenmatt's works have become more humanistic; he is concerned less with God's grace and Man's fall than with Man's inhumanity to Man generally. The "mutigen Menschen", the Herzog in Der Blinde, Akki, Romulus, the men who attempted "die Welt zu bestehen" [to endure the world], have given way to tougher, more down-to-earth characters: Wolfgang Schwitter in Der Meteor (1966) and his attack on the "Bewusstseinsindustrie", [consciousness industry] or the Dürrenmatt "Bastard" in his version of Shakespeare's King John (König Johann 1968) and his attack on the hypocrisy of politics and politicians in that Komödie der Politik. Dürrenmatt has descended into the market-place and become very much the "zoon politikon"….

[Whatever] similarities there may be between Dürrenmatt and Brecht, the former's belief in the workings of Chance, of "Zufall", set him clearly apart from his predecessor. (p. 74)

[What] Dürrenmatt and the other younger dramatists who came after Brecht have achieved is to "use" Brecht's epic theatre to illuminate modern reality; some have achieved this by means of "documentary theatre" (Hochhuth, Weiss, Kipphardt), others, like Dürrenmatt and Frisch, by means of what have been called their "crazily alienated parables" which, by blending the grotesque, blackest humour and wildest farce, produce the modern theatre's substitute for ancient tragedy—the Komödie…. (p. 76)

Dürrenmatt has chosen a "symbolical" dramaturgy, one which had progressed from a "Denken über die Welt" [thinking about the world] to a "Denken von Welten" [thinking of worlds]…. This progression has allowed him, unlike Brecht, to make "hypotheses"; Brecht's desire to reproduce reality on the stage limits him, Dürrenmatt asserts, to reproducing (only) the society in which Brecht lived. Dürrenmatt's method allows him, he believes, to show many possible worlds and many possible human relationships, all of which can be regarded as "good" or "bad"….

Dürrenmatt pursued this point in his treatment of the theme of the "responsibility of the scientist" in his Die Physiker in 1962. Again, he chose a subject which laid him open to the charge of being a "Nachfolger" [successor] of Brecht. Brecht's Leben des Galilei treats, in its three versions, the problem of the scientist who makes a discovery which, while neutral in itself, can be developed into a force capable of destroying the world. Galileo's recantation is seen as a criminal action. The final version, written after the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, lays more stress on these criminal consequences. (p. 78)

Dürrenmatt's "Galileo"-figure, Möbius, in Die Physiker, is a rather different type. True to his remarks on his dramaturgy after Frank V, Dürrenmatt here makes a hypothesis—Möbius' world is only one of many possible worlds—the deed, the discoveries are imaginary, exaggerated, "überspitzt". Yet their import is the same as that of Galileo's. Möbius has made a discovery which could obliterate the human race from the face of the earth, so he attempts to "take it back", to pretend that it had never been—and discovers that he cannot…. Twenty years of man's inhumanity to man had taught the Swiss writer to believe that human nature cannot change, that, if man wishes to use a discovery for evil purposes, no power on earth, no pious utterances, Christian prayers or social-democratic appeals will stop him. (p. 79)

It is quite false to suggest that Dürrenmatt, by facing problems squarely, is a cynic, a pessimist or a nihilist. His ways of thinking have proved anathema to many, particularly to those Germanisten who would prefer to attempt to keep intact the "heile Welt" [sane world] of the past. But we no longer live in a "heilen Welt" (if, indeed, we ever did) and Dürrenmatt should be given credit for stressing this undeniable fact, unpalatable though it may be to the critic in the ivory tower.

It has been a critical commonplace for a generation to say that all European dramatists who began to write after 1945 accepted the "Brechtian legacy" of the non-Aristotelian theatre. Dürrenmatt, as we have attempted to show, would deny this; the main influence on the form of his dramaturgy, he would say, was that of Aristophanes, Nestroy, Wedekind—and one could argue that they influenced Brecht as well. (pp. 79-80)

It goes without saying that Dürrenmatt, a writer living in a cynical, unheroic age, writes to "make his audience think". (p. 80)

His contention is that "theatre" must remain theatre, that is, whatever is expressed in a play can only be expressed in a play, on a stage…. In both life-and art-styles [Dürrenmatt and Brecht] lie a good deal apart, and one would hope that critics and writers would bear this in mind in future. (pp. 80-1)

Kenneth S. Whitton, "Friedrich Dürrenmatt and the Legacy of Bertolt Brecht" (copyright © by Forum for Modern Language Studies and Kenneth S. Whitton), in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XII, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 65-81.∗


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[It is Dürrenmatt's] conviction that tragedy cannot justifiably be mirrored in the dealings of a lone protagonist, since the latter's individuality has been effaced by the collective concerns of a highly organized society. Tragedy implies a sense of individual choice, and it is precisely this autonomous moral responsibility which Dürrenmatt finds to be lacking in the contemporary world.

In his most important theoretical contribution entitled 'Problems of the Theater', Dürrenmatt states that although one no longer can justifiably present personal tragedy on stage, nevertheless, the tragic in life can still be illuminated, and, he writes, this sense of the tragic can best be accentuated by means of comic elements, through the incongruous, the bizarre, the grotesque, et al. The tragic is often seen as a catastrophic reversal of the social order, as an abyss that opens suddenly to engulf all that are being pushed toward it. It is precisely this terrifying moment, the frightfully sudden opening of the abyss which will swallow up society, that Dürrenmatt so skillfully dramatises in 'The Visit'. He shows us how swiftly the tragic can envelope society when humane values come into conflict with greed, a vice which hides its identity under the mask of "the goodlife" and/or of economic necessity. (pp. 130-31)

[In] a play which is primarily comic in tone, the playwright also manages to successfully portray the tragic struggle and inevitable death of the protagonist along with the latter's gradual development to the noble and enlightened position of a classical tragic hero. As a result we are left with the perplexing question of just how we can classify this play. Is it a tragedy when seen in the light of its conclusion? To this question the answer must be an emphatic "yes." But if so, is the play a comedy in view of the humour that abounds throughout, from the very first to the very last scene? To this second question one must also categorically answer in the affirmative, and yet in spite of all the comic elements it contains, the final image which assaults our vision in 'The Visit' is that of the moral paralysis of a totally deformed society. Personal tragedy is undermined because in the modern state the individual has lost his individuality, and it is through comedy that Dürrenmatt castigates society and its new morality and reveals the tragic implication of the new life-style.

Dürrenmatt's play is a heterogeneous work which draws much from the traditional and just as much from the avant-garde: on the one hand he utilizes a multiplicity of stock devices to be found in the conventional theater of illusion, but on the other he exploits numerous tricks found in modern comedy; he incorporates the surrealistic technique of a dream-like transformation of familiar objects, makes use of the bold effects associated with literary expressionism, and to close his play he even employs a parodistic version of a Sophoclean chorus. Thus, he imaginatively exhausts the stage's possibilities with all the devices at his command, and in each instance it is humour in all its various guises—the bizzare, the incongruous, the comic, the grotesque, etc.—which informs the work with an overall unified character. In all of Dürrenmatt's works, the term "grotesque" goes beyond its basic sense of distortion or exaggeration and is seen to include demonic factors, primitive vitality, farce, and parody. Instances of Dürrenmatt's consummate artistry at fusing the demonic and the parodistic along with various techniques, both conventional and modern, into one organic whole are legion…. (pp. 131-32)

[Dürrenmatt takes good advantage of the] conventional use of the curtain … to chart the development of the hero and his gradual movement toward an encounter with fate. In 'The Visit' a multi-millionairess named Claire Zachanassian comes to the economically depressed town of Güllen with a grotesque entourage of husbands, thugs, and castrati…. Her first act on stage is to offer boundless wealth to the impoverished townspeople of Güllen on the one condition that they murder the aging storekeeper, Alfred Ill. Will Claire's temptation prove too great to resist? Here the curtain plays its vital role in answering the question in a traditional way…. Claire's only comment as the curtain descends is "I will wait!". We are left with her ominous words, and the nebulous fate of the victim begins to take on a clearer form. By the conclusion of the second act Ill's fate already has been sealed. He attempts to flee, to board a train, while the curtain descends with an amorphous mass of people blocking his path. (p. 132)

Another conventional technique used by Dürrenmatt to explain how the tragi-comic series of events came into being, namely those events currently taking place on the stage, is that of analytical exposition…. [In] Dürrenmatt's hands the analytical exposition is always accompanied by a grotesque twist. For example, while through the obsequiousness and fawning remarks of the town officials we are able to perceive precisely the nature of Claire's affinity with the town of Güllen, the administrative officials are seen trying to pass from one individual to the next the town's only available top hat….

Anticipatory remarks, echoings, correspondences, omens, etc., though all part of the conventional theater, are each in turn given an added dimension because of their fusion with the comic. (p. 133)

Even the use of sound effects, or the absence of sound on stage—both being an integral part of the traditional theater of illusion—are made to foreshadow the action in a comic-grotesque manner. Initially the church bell's ring sounded like the knell of doom to the impoverished citizens. However, as soon as money comes into their hands the bell is said to have a "pompous ring" to it. The church, the law, the family, etc., in short, every social institution, is in the process of decay, and all the effects of Dürrenmatt's stage, the acoustical, the visual, substantiate this notion. (p. 134)

Many of the non-conventional techniques which try to prevent the audience from being drawn into the illusion being presented on stage might well be regarded as a legacy of Bertolt Brecht…. Time and again Dürrenmatt deliberately and methodically goes about destroying the illusion of a "slice of life" which he just as deliberately had managed to create. For example, we are momentarily led to believe that we are witnessing a tender love scene in a fairy-tale forest, echoes of how it once must have been between Clara (Claire) and Ill. But suddenly these traditional notes which are contained in the typically sentimental scene are enumerated in so perfunctory a manner that the sentimental illusion disappears, and the tender love scene is reduced to an absurdity. Thus Dürrenmatt uses words deliberately (sometimes repeating lines word for word) in order to stress that the dialogue no longer strives to give the illusion of being genuine; it is an absurd dialogue in an absurd world. The stage scene and the accompanying spoken word illustrate precisely this; what portends to be a love scene becomes a parody…. The depersonalization of the spoken word reaches the height (or low-point) of comic grotesqueness when a cameraman who is busy taking pictures of the new boom-town experiences disappointment, since Ill refuses to utter his scream (Oh my God!) a second time for him; while Ill was crying out in despair the cameraman had been unable to capture the anguish on film because his camera had had a mechanical failure. The scene is one of absolute comic grotesqueness, and as a "V-effect" prevents empathy and arouses objective contemplation à la Brecht. A guitar is played solely for the purpose of commenting on the stage action. Several speakers are used to express a single thought, in effect a parody of Greek stichomythy. Not the slightest attempt at maintaining the illusion of everyday speech is made. Dürrenmatt takes a group of townspeople and by transforming them into a Greek chorus while parodying them at the same time, he manages to double the alienation. (pp. 134-35)

[The] comic tone that prevails not only helps to sustain our interest, but since it is usually accompanied by a "V-effect", we, the audience, are constantly forced to think about the moral issues that Dürrenmatt is mirroring on stage. Every conceivable type of humor is utilized, and through the tragicomic situations the playwright sets forth a Sphinxian-like riddle, only to supply his own clear answer at the drama's conclusion. He poses the question whether a man can live with the values of the collective society, i.e. how can he live when his entire being is evaluated as a commodity, as a thing to be bought and sold in the market place? How, he implies, can a man live in a completely materialistic world where the individual is submerged beneath the group, where the good life is equated to the "rich life," where independence, distinction, and the needs of the heart slowly atrophy. Such is the essence of Dürrenmatt's dramatic inquiry, and his answer to it is clear: He cannot! Grotesque are the elements that go into Dürrenmatt's formation of his message; ugly and terrifying is the message. (p. 135)

Edward R. McDonald, "Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'The Visit': Comedy or Tragedy? Avant-Garde or Traditional Theatre?" in Maske Und Kothurn, Heft 2, 1977, pp. 130-35.

Sister Corona Sharp

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The Dance of Death and the Triumph of Death are themes that appeared across late medieval and Renaissance Europe in the visual arts, poetry and drama. Death snatching people away became a favourite subject of didacticism. In Germany, France and Switzerland, particularly, the lasting impressions made by extant murals, verses and plays have continued into our time…. In modern drama, there are two distinct manifestations of the influence of the Dance of Death: first, the imitative Dance of Death plays …; and second, the more original adaptations of the theme such as … Dürrenmatt's The Meteor…. (p. 107)

In Dürrenmatt we find a playwright wholly obsessed with death. It is a peculiar aspect of his dramatic art that he places death in a grotesquely comic universe…. The Meteor represents "grotesque theatre," a type of play based on the philosophical proposition that man's fate is grotesque but logical and therefore not absurd, when his careful planning is thwarted and reversed through chance, and he is thus reduced to the worst possible end. In The Meteor, Dürrenmatt has transposed the elements of the Dance of Death into an unexpected pattern: death prevails through the paradoxical and comic agency of Schwitter, the man who desperately desires death, dies several times, but keeps on resurrecting. He is the meteor that destroys the representatives of modern society. (p. 109)

Dürrenmatt has inherited the earthy humour and violence of Germanic artists and writers before him. He sees modern man as the victim not only of society, but even more of a demythologized transcendent force that reduces him to total frustration. This force is paradoxical chance. Dürrenmatt stands apart from Absurd Theatre on account of his view of existence and the moral purpose of his writing. He seeks to put a model of the real world on the stage to dramatize its grotesqueness. This formula works well for The Visit, where reality is parodied on various levels of unreality and where the moralist's accusing finger is pointed squarely into the auditorium. But when Dürrenmatt tackles theological mysteries such as life, death and immortality, as he does in The Meteor, the artistic purpose becomes confused. The blend of surface realism with myth and eschatology renders the play exceedingly difficult to stage. Schwitter, the Nobel Prize author who in revulsion against existence burns his manuscripts and millions and tries desperately to die—strangely enough without thinking of suicide—is from the start a grotesque and improbable figure. Unwittingly he exerts a lethal influence on the clergyman, the artist, the contractor, the surgeon, his call-girl wife and finally, his mother-in-law, the toilet attendant. Here we have a burlesque of the Dance of Death procession of classes…. (pp. 109-10)

In an interview, Dürrenmatt indicated that Schwitter is a symbolic figure. He represents the self-destructive side of man, desiring his own death to excuse his brutal and nihilistic egoism. As the most grotesque character, he receives—paradoxically—the grace of a miracle. But he rejects it. That is the dialectic of the play. It is Schwitter who gives the play its metaphysical turn. He declares: "Death rushes toward one like a locomotive. Eternity is whistling about your ears, new creations roar into being, crash apart—the whole thing a gigantic accident."

The human problem posed in the play is the agony of man as unwilling instrument of the death force. (p. 110)

As a Lazarus-figure Schwitter is an innovation in modern drama. From death he brings back an uncontrollable rage, an uncomprehending frustration and a growing horror of his predicament. One wonders from which existence he has rescued his abiding sense of irony. But it pervades the play, which consists of a series of comic reversals juxtaposing the glory of this world (success and money) with Schwitter's loathing of it…. Death no longer symbolizes transition into eternity—it represents only the end of man's mortal life and the scattering of his goods. This horrible joke is evident in Holbein's picture of the rich man: Death is scooping up his pile of gold while he leaps up in horror. Hence I interpret The Meteor as a twentieth-century version of the secular spirit of the Renaissance combined with a burlesque of the social types and of the corpse dancing vigorously out of the charnel-house. (p. 111)

Sister Corona Sharp, "The Dance of Death in Modern Drama: Auden, Dürrenmatt and Ionesco," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1977, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XX, No. 2, June, 1977, pp. 107-16.∗


Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 11)


Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (Vol. 4)