Themes and Meanings
Romulus the Great is a provocative play, using a satirical tone to portray the central character’s defeat by blind chance. While the fall of Rome is certainly material for a Greek-style tragedy, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt used much of the form of such a tragedy, including a messenger heralding the imminent invasion, this tragedy is presented with the trappings of the ridiculous. Greek tragedy itself is mocked when Rea recites verses from this literature as her world crumbles around her.
Dürrenmatt saw the world as hostile, often impossibly confusing to human beings who attempt to make sense of it and do the right thing. This play is subtitled An Historical Comedy Without Historic Basis because of the liberties the author took with historical fact, but each liberty has a purpose in that it breaks through illusion by setting opposites together. Historical scholars view the empire as a great and noble enterprise; Dürrenmatt’s play sets an ironic reality against the audience’s perception of the tradition and ideals of Rome. The audience is thus forced to see the ridiculous within the tragic; pathos is invariably undercut with irony.
The emperor as pacifist, as well as Rome’s judge, is the focus of the action. The plot revolves around the view that Rome (and Western civilization) has betrayed its values, becoming a destructive rather than constructive force, and deserves to be destroyed. The glorious past of the empire has been reduced to a series of busts of past emperors, which are displayed in the villa until they are sold by Romulus, one by one, to pay his debts.
Particularly sharp criticism is leveled against mindless social conventions and against excessive nationalism and militarism. Zeno’s recitation of Byzantine formulas when he requests asylum parodies the conventions, which are certainly also criticized in the character of Julia and her motivations for wishing to be empress. As the empire breaks down, many of the characters indulge in heroic posturing, mouthing words...
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