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||Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990)|
Swiss playwright and essayist whose controversial plays are linked to the theatre of the absurd.
Dürrenmatt achieved prominence after World War II in Switzerland and German. He saw that pure tragic is impossible
in this grotesque time, but "we can achieve the tragic out of comedy."
"The universal for me is chaos. The world (hence the stage which represents this world) is for me something monstrous, a riddle of misfortunes which must be accepted but before which one must not capitulate. The world is far bigger than any man, and perforce threatens him constantly. If one could but stand outside the world, it would no longer be threatening. But I have neither the right nor the ability to be an outsider to this world. To find solace in poetry can also be all too cheap; it is more honest to retain one's human point of view." (from Problems of the Theatre, 1955)
Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in Konolfingen, near Berne, the son of
Reinhold Dürrenmatt, a Protestant minister, and Hulda (Zimmermann)
Dürrenmatt; at home she was the authority figure. As the son of a
village minister, Dürrenmatt felt in his childhood somewhat of an
outcast. The family moved to Bern in 1935 when his father became
chaplain at Salem Hospital.
Dürrenmatt first studied literature and philosophy at the University of Zürich, and then transferred in 1941 to the University
of Bern, with the aim to write a doctoral dissertation on "Kierkegaard and the Tragic". Originally Dürrenmatt had
intended for the church, but eventually he chose the nonconformist path
of his grandfather, Ulrich, who was a journalist and writer of
satirical and polemical verse.
In search of a new direction in life, Dürrenmatt spent his time in painting, drawing, and reading widely Greek tragedies and modern authors. Influences from Kafka and Wolfgang Kayser's theory on grotesque can be found in his early prose works; in connection of his plays, critics have often mentioned the names of Aristophanes, Lessing, Büchner, Wedekind and especially Bertolt Brecht. However, when Brecht believed in reason and change, Dürrenmatt's dramas demonstrated his pessimistic social vision.
In the summer of 1942 Dürrenmatt received his basic military training, but due to poor eyesight he was dispensed from Hilfdiest (auxiliary service). "The training was nonsense; drill, yelling and eternal shoe polishing before roll-call", he later said. After art studies in Zürich, Dürrenmatt returned to Berne, where he devoted himself entirely to writing. His first work for the stage, Es steht geschrieben, premiered in Zürich in April 1947. The play was set in Münster in 16th-century Germany and dealt with the suppression of a religious group, the Anabaptists. Der Blinde (1948) failed at the box office but Romulus the Great (1949) was an international success. Its central character was the last Roman emperor who allows his empire to perish in order to save humanity.
Dürrenmatt's rival in the theatre was Max Frisch (1911-1991).
Their plays were produced in the same theatres and they
were often compared with each other. Moreover, both were members
of the same writers' guild Gruppe Olten. Influenced by Brechtian technique, Frisch used the alienatiom effect,
in which both the audience and actors keep a kind of distance to the
events and characters of the play. Dürrenmatt maintained that he did
not belong to any particular school and criticized Brecht's idea of the
theater: "Theater is theater," he said; "to act as if the audience
members believes that theater is reality and that he must be deprived
of this belief, is something that I do not understand." (Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings. Volume 1, Plays, edited by Kenneth J. Northcott, translated by Joel Agee, 2006, p. x)
For a long period, Dürrenmatt and Frisch maintained a friendship, but after some "silly statements" their relationship became strained. In his last letter to Frisch from 1986, published in Max Frisch / Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Briefwechsel (1998), Dürrenmatt said: "Wir haben uns beide wacker auseinander befreundet. Ich habe dich in vielem bewundert, du hast mich in vielem verwundert, und verwundet haben wir uns gegenseitig. Jedem seine Narben. Ich habe mich nie sonderlich um die Schriftstellerei unserer Zeit gekümmert, du bist seiner Zeit einer der wenigen gewesen, die mich beschäftigt haben – ernsthaft beschäftigt wohl der Einzige." Frisch never replied.
Dürrenmatt married in 1946 the actress Lotti Geissler; they had one son and two daughters. With her Dürrenmattin settled in Ligerz. During this period he wrote sketches for political cabarets, radio plays, and theatre reviews and essays for the weekly magazine Die Weltwoche and the Berne Nation. His views on theatre Dürrenmatt collected in Theaterprobleme (1955), in which the concept of tragicomedy was developed to "correct man's concept of reality". According to Dürrenmatt, Friedrich Schiller's idea of the tragic has become unworkable because it presupposes a clear concept of the world. In the nuclear age "we can be reached only by comedy" behind which the tragic becomes visible.
In 1952 Dürrenmatt moved to Neuchâtel, where he lived from 1952. In
1968-69 he was a co-director of the Basel Theatre and in 1970 he was
appointed free-lance artistic adviser at the Zurich Schauspielhaus.
Between 1968 and 1971 Dürrenmatt co-edited Züricher Sonntags-Journal.
After the death of Lotti Geissler, he married in 1984 Charlotte Kerr, a
German actress and documentary filmmaker. They had met in Maximilian
Schell's flat in Munich. She was fascinated by the author and made a
documentary about him, Portrait of a Planet (1984). The four-hour-long film was shown on German television.
The marriage with Charlotte launched a creative period explosion of prose in Dürrenmatt's career. He published Minotaurus: Eine Ballade (1985, Minotaur: A Ballad), illustrated by the author, Justiz (1985), a novel, Der Auftrag (1986, The Assignment), a novella, and Durchenandertal (1989, Valley of Confusion), a novel. His many awards include The Schiller Prize (1959), the New York Drama Critics Circle awards for The Visit, Austrian State Prize (1984), Büchner Prize (1986), and honorary degrees from five universities. Dürrenmatt died of heart failure at home in Neuchâtel on December 14, 1990.
Although Dürrenmatt declared himself an atheist, he dealt with
theological questions in many of his plays from the beginning of his
career. He once
called Christ "perhaps the first religious atheist . . . who no longer
sought God in metaphysical speculation but rather in himself". (Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Roger Alan Crockett, 1998, p. 175) Due
to Dürrenmatt's self-contradictory statements, it has even been claimed
that there was a genuine religious dimension behind the author's parody
of faith. (Dürrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory by Timo Tiusanen, 1977, p. 55)
Dürrenmatt made his international breakthrough as a playwright with The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (1952), which was produced in New York as Fools are Passing Through, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. In the comedy Florestan Mississippi, a public prosecutor, who has murdered his wife, marries Anastasia, who has murdered her husband. In their missionary zeal they start to produce death sentences, failing because "everything can be changed, except man." Finally Mississippi dies after drinking poisoned coffee intended for Anastasia's lover, and Anastasia dies of coffee poisoned by her husband. An Angel Comes to Babylon (1953) shows that power wins grace. Pessimism about human nature marked The Visit (1956), in which money corrupts an impoverished community.
The Physicist, considered by many critics Dürrenmatt's best play, was a comment on morals of science in a world full of unscrupulous politicians. Johann Wilhelm Möbius, a physicist, pretends to be mad and plays the role of King Salomon in an asylum, which he has entered in order to conceal his dangerous scientific discoveries. There are also Einstein and Newton, physicist agents from Russia and America, who are after Möbius's work. However, the mad director of the asylum, Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, has copied Möbius's notes and plans to seize control of the world. The physicist remains in the asylum, realizing that the world outside is becoming even madder.
"The trouble is that in all these mystery stories an altogether different kind of fraud is perpetrated. I am not even referring to the fact that the criminal has his punishment meter out to him. Such pretty fairy-tales are morally necessary too, I suppose. They are in the same class with the other lies that help preserve the State, like that pious phrase that crime doe not pay, whereas anyone has only to look at human society to find out how much truth there is in that... No, what really annoys me is the plot in your novels. Here the fraud becomes too raw and shameless. You built your plots up logically, like a chess game; here the criminal, here the victim, here the accomplice, here the master mind. The detective need only know the rules and play the game over, and he has the criminal trapped, has won a victory for justice. This fiction infuriates me. Reality can be only partially attacked by logic" (from The Pledge, 1958)
As in his plays, Dürrenmatt examined in his detective novels questions of guilt, responsibility, and redemption. In Das Versprechen (The Pledge),
which starts as a lecture and a travel story, he said: "You don't try
to get mixed up with the kind of reality that is always slipping
through our fingers. Instead you set up a world that you can manage.
That world may be perfect - who knows? -
but it's also a lie." Subtitled "Requiem for the Detective Novel"
Dürrenmatt took a stand against authors, who still held on the rigid
formulas of the "Golden Age" detective fiction and the conventionality
of the genre.
Dr. H., former chief of the Zürich police, explains that he dislikes
detective stories and tells the story of one of his officers, Inspector
Matthäi, who makes a pledge to a mother that he will
not rest until he finds the killer of her girl. Lacking clues or
witnesses, Matthäi constructs a profile of the murderer, but
he fails to understad that the randomness of life and the complexity
and unpredictableness of human activity defy the simple-minded rules of
Dürrenmatt's film version of the story, entitled Es geschah am hellichten Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight), Matthäi
captures the murderer. The film, directed by Ladislao Vajda, was
intended to alert parents to the danger of sexual crimes against
children. Unhappy with the ending, Dürrenmatt rewrote the script as The Pledge,
his third detective novel. In Sean Penn's screen adaptation from 2001
Jack Nicholson played the role of the homicide detective, a genius, who
wants his calculations to accord with reality and becomes hopelessly
Der Richter und sein Henker (1950) introduced the old and seriously ill police inspector Bärlach. He sets a trap for a murderer, a young policeman, for his own personal reasons: he wants to get another murderer, a rich philanthropist, and balance the scales of justice. Der Verdacht (1951) dealt with Nazi crimes. Bärlach suspects that a respected doctor, Emmenberger, is really a war criminal, Dr. Nehle, a sadist who operated on patients in a concentration camp without the use of anesthesia. Bärlach becomes Emmenberger's patient and his prisoner. He is saved by Nehle's former patient, a giant Jewish man called Gulliver, who years ago managed to survive the horrible operation. The roles of an executioner and a victim are changed: Gulliver kills Emmenberger. "Wir können als einzelne die Welt nich retten, das wäre eine ebenso hoffnungslose Arbeit wie die des armen Sisyphus; sie ist nicht in unsere Hand gelegt, auch nicht in die Hand eines Mächtigen oder eines Volkes oder in die des Teufels, der doch am mächtigsten ist, sondern in Gottes Hand, der seine Entscheide allein fällt." (from Der Verdacht)
Dürrenmatt also rewrote and directed the classics, such as Play Strindberg (1969), based on Strindberg's The Dance of Death,
and Shakespeare's plays. Die Frist
(1977) was a theatrical failure. Dürrenmatt later said that the comedy
had been "an attempt to test how far he had distanced himself from
From the mid-1970s Dürrenmatt became gradually
disenchanted with the stage and concentrated on prose experiments and
essays. These works include Der Mitmacher. Ein Komplex (1976), Zusammenhänge. Essay über Israel (1976), a mixture of an essay, a travel book and a novel, and Stoffe I-III
(1981), a quasi-autobiographical search of his literary themes. Justiz
(1985, The Execution of Justice) begins with a murder in the restaurant
Café Du Théâtre and then gradually turns into an examination on the
relationship between fiction and reality. In the last part Dürrenmatt
comments on the report of his fictive character, a lawyer called Felix
Spät, becoming himself a character of the novel. "Possibility is
something almost limitless,"says Kohler, the murderer in the story, "
while reality is set within strictest limits, since, after all, only
one of all those possibilities can become reality. Reality is only an
exeption 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." (see 'A Law without the political: Carl Schmitt, romanticism, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Execution of Justice' by Panu Minkkinen, in The Contemporary Relevance of Carl Schmitt: Law, Politics, Theology, edited by Matilda Arvidsson, Leila Brännström, Panu Minkkinen, 2016)
an essayist Dürrenmatt often dealt with political issues from a
pragmatic point of view, or took a completely different direction and
wrote essays that read more like fiction than nonfiction.
'Israels Lebensrecht' (1967) took Israel's side in the Six-Day War, and
' Tschechoslowakei 1968' condemned the Soviet suppression of the Prague
Spring. 'Über Toleranz' from 1977 was a plea for political tolerance -
Dürrenmatt strongly opposed all totalitarian ideologies from Communism
to Nazism. A year before his death, Dürrenmatt delived a speech for
Václav Havel, in which he compared his home country to a prison, with
the twist: "There is only one problem for this prison, namely that of
proving that it is not a prison but a bulwark of freedom, since seen
from outside, a prison is a prison." ('Switzerland - A Prison: A Speech for Václav Havel' in Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings. Volume 3, Essays, edited by Kenneth J. Northcott, translated by Joel Agee, 2006, p. xiii) In the insightful essay Albert Einstein: ein Vortrag (1979), Dürrenmatt said, "Einstein used to speak of God so often that I almost looked upon him as a disguised theologian."
For further reading: Friedrich Dürrenmatt by H. Bänziger (1960); Frisch und Dürrenmatt by H. Bänziger (1962); Friedrich Dürrenmatt by M.B. Peppard (1969); Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Der erzählerische Werk by P. Spycher (1972); To Heaven and Back by K.J. Fickert (1972); Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Studien zu seinem Werk, ed. by G.P. Knapp (1976); Dürrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory by T. Tiusanen (1977); Über Friedrich Dürrenmatt und Max Frisch by H. Mayer (1977); The Theatre of Friedrich Dürrenmatt by K.S. Whitton (1980); Zu Friedrich Dürrenmatt, ed. by Armin Arnold (1982); Play Dürrenmatt, ed. by Moshe Lazar (1983); Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect by K.S. Whitton (1990); Dramatische Kommunikation: Modell Und Reflexion Bei Durrenmatt, Handke, Weiss by Thorsten Roelcke (1994); Understanding Friedrich Durrenmatt, ed. by Roger A. Crockett, James N. Hardin (1998); Erzähltextanalyse der Kurzgeschichte "Der Tunnel" von Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Sita Hermand (2008); Dürrenmatt, oder, Die Ahnung vom Ganzen: Biographie by Peter Rüedi (2011); Dürrenmatt und der Zufall by Thomas Markus Meier (2012); Fiktion und Erkenntnis: Dürrenmatts Ästhetik des ethischen Trotzdem by Marta Famula (2014); Becoming Fiction: Reassessing Atheism in Dürrenmatt's Stoffe by Olivia G. Gabor-Peirce (2017)