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.)
[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 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 in Die 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...
(The entire section is 3537 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1384 words.)
[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...
(The entire section is 1556 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 753 words.)