Friedrich Durrenmatt

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt

BORN: 1921, Konolfingen, Switzerland

DIED: 1990, Neuchâtel, Switzerland


GENRE: Drama, fiction

Romulus the Great (1949)
The Physicists (1962)
The Meteor (1966)
Play Strindberg (1969)
Achterloo (1983)


Friedrich Dürrenmatt was the leading German-language dramatist of his generation, after Bertolt Brecht. He dominated German, Austrian, and Swiss repertoires and was familiar to audiences throughout Europe, North America, and South America. When not directing the plays himself, he regularly participated in their production, revising and rewriting in consultation with actors up to the last minute; if the performance failed to affect the audience as he thought it should, he cast the text in a new version.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Early Artistic Talent Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born on January 5, 1921, in the Emmental region of Switzerland to Reinhold Dürrenmatt, a pastor of the Konolfingen church, and Hulda Zimmermann Dürren-matt. In 1933 Dürrenmatt entered the secondary school in the neighboring village of Grosshochstetten; he spent his spare time in the studio of a local painter, who encouraged him to indulge his passion for painting and drawing. He pursued this activity all his life and was twenty-three before he decided to concentrate on writing stories and plays and to make visual art an avocation.

A Series of Interruptions in Studies The family moved in 1935 to the city of Bern, where Dürrenmatt's father was appointed pastor of the Salem Hospital. Dürrenmatt was enrolled at the Freies Gymnasium, a Christian secondary school, where he lasted two and a half years before he was invited to leave. He transferred to a less rigorous private school, the Humboldtianum, from which he regularly skipped class. He frequently attended the City Theater of Bern, where his uncle, a government official, held a reserved seat.

Upon graduating from high school, after being rejected by the Institute of Art, he enrolled at the University of Zurich, where for one semester he studied philosophy, literature, and natural science. He then became a student of philosophy at the University of Bern for a semester, tutoring in Greek and Latin to earn pocket money. His studies were interrupted—this time, not his fault—when he was called to military duty. Although Switzerland, with its linguistic and cultural melange of German, French, Italian, and Romansh, was neutral in World War II (1939–1945), it maintained a strong military, actively conscribing citizens as part of a plan to deter a potential (and, indeed, fully planned, though never materialized) German invasion. In 1942, Dürrenmatt returned to the University of Zurich for two semesters, spending most of his time in the company of painters and writing plays and stories. In 1943, though, he fell sick with hepatitis and returned home to Bern. He spent his final four semesters of university study there, concentrating on philosophy and contemplating the possibility of a doctoral dissertation on Søren Kierkegaard and tragedy.

Marriage and Writing for the Basel Stage In 1946, Dürrenmatt married actress Lotti Geissler. They settled in Basel in 1947, at about the time he was completing his first radio play, The Double (1960), which was turned down by Swiss Radio, and his first drama, It Is Written (1947). Opening night spectators in Zurich booed the latter; but reviewers recognized Dürrenmatt's powerful talent and potential, and he received a cash prize from the Welti Foundation to encourage him to continue writing. His second play, The Blind Man (1947), aroused neither outrage nor much interest in its initial production and was removed from the Basel repertoire after nine performances. Productions at two other theaters fared no better.

The Humor of Classical History On August 6, 1947, the Dürrenmatts' first child, Peter, was born. After the failure of The Blind Man the family could no longer afford to live in Basel, and they moved to Schernelz, where Lotti's mother, Frau Falb, had a home. Dürren-matt was also helped financially by friends and anonymous patrons who wanted to foster his talent.

Before the move, though, he had agreed to provide the Basel theater with a play titled “The Building of the Tower of Babel”; the cast had been selected, and the manuscript had grown to four acts. But mature consideration forced him to destroy it. The play he quickly wrote instead, Romulus the Great (1949), became the first of his enduring theatrical successes. The work reflected Dürrenmatt's knowledge of Roman history and classical works and concerns the rule of Emperor Romulus Augustulus during the tail end of the Roman Empire. Although the work is not meant to be historically accurate, many of the details—such as the main character's obsession with rearing chickens—were taken from actual historical figures and events. The play was also produced in Zurich in 1948, and in 1949 it became the first major Dürrenmatt production in Germany when the Göttingen theater performed it. Critics were stingy with praise, objecting to the anachronisms and some of the comic effects, but the play became a standard in the German-speaking theater and beyond, perhaps not least because—after the tragedies of the Holocaust (in which Nazis deliberately murdered 6 million Jews and many others) and such Allied atrocities as the firebombing of Dresden—the German-speaking world was desperate for history with a hint of humor in it.

Writing Detective Plays to Pay Avant-Garde Bills Royalties did not yet amount to much, however, and the Falb household started to become cramped as the family grew by two daughters: Barbara and Ruth. Adding to expenses was Dürrenmatt's hospitalization for diabetes. He turned, then, in part to pay the rent on a house in the region of Ligerz in west-central Switzerland, to

writing detective novels—with great success. His income, augmented by royalties from radio plays, was great enough to make possible the purchase in 1952 of a house above the city of Neuchâtel in which he lived until his death. Dürrenmatt had completed the manuscript for The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi in 1950, only to have it rejected by Swiss theaters. Also in 1952, however, Hans Schweikart, manager of the Munich Intimate Theater, directed the premiere, establishing Dürrenmatt in Germany as an avant-garde dramatist. The play was praised by critics, although its follow-up, An Angel Comes to Babylon (1953), did not measure up to the first.

The Physicists (1963) proved to be another resounding success for Dürrenmatt. The play tells the story of a brilliant scientist who hides in an asylum and pretends to be insane in order to keep his potentially dangerous discoveries away from those in power, and in order to continue his research unmolested. The work reflects the unease that many people felt in the aftermath of World War II and during the height of the Cold War, when the efforts of scientists were increasingly applied to the development of instruments of destruction. Writing from historically neutral Switzerland, one can imagine how Dürrenmatt must have seen the United States and the Soviet Union—rivals in the Cold War and in the concomitant arms race—as paranoid, globe-spanning madmen. From the play's perspective, it is the cold war policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction: the idea that no one would want to launch the first nuclear missile because both sides had the capacity to completely destroy one another) that ensures the evil results attendant on the physicists' mental exertions, though Dürrenmatt was also highly critical of scientists' irresponsibility for the application of their work.

Strindberg, but Not Shakespeare King John (1968), based on William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John (c. 1595), was greeted enthusiastically, but Dürrenmatt's other Shakespeare adaptation, Titus Andronicus (1970), was a failure. The audience booed during the performance, and critical rejection was unanimous. Dürrenmatt's most successful adaptation was Play Strindberg (1969)—based on part 1 and the end of part 2 of August Strindberg's Dance of Death (1901). The piece has been played on major stages in Europe and America.

Retiring from the Stage in Style Dürrenmatt's final drama, Achterloo (1983)—the title is a place name from a children's rhyme—underwent four revisions, the definitive one prepared especially for the 1988 Schwetzingen Festival. In 1988, though, Dürrenmatt announced his decision to abandon the theater, and two years later he died at his home, on December 14, 1990. Despite an upand-down career as a playwright, he did not leave the stage without recognition. In his lifetime he won seventeen prestigious awards, was made honorary member at Ben-Gurion University in Israel in 1974, and earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1983. And his plays such as The Visit and The Physicists are still among the most frequently performed plays in the German-speaking world.

Works in Literary Context

Wide-Ranging Influences Dürrenmatt's complex works take inspiration from a multitude of sources: father and grandfather left their imprint on “the pastor's boy Fritzli,” as he was called by the townspeople, in his intense preoccupation with religion, his conservative cast of mind, and the hard-hitting satire of his plays. The tales his father recounted from classical mythology and the Bible stories his mother told him provided material for many of his major works. And although his early plays such as The Blind Man suffered from philosophical and theological pretension, Dürrenmatt took influence from his intensive studies of the works of Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Jean-Paul Sartre.


Düerrenmatt's famous contemporaries include:

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956): The German playwright and theater director credited with developing the concept of “epic theater.”

Václav Havel (1936–): A Czech playwright imprisoned for his opposition to the Czech government in the 1970s, Havel later served as president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic from 1989 to 2003.

Arthur Miller (1915–2005): A Pulitzer Prize–winning American playwright, most famous for his plays The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980): A French philosopher and author known for his ideas of existentialism, or the belief that life has no objective meaning beyond an individual's own life-project.

Toni Morrison (1931–): A celebrated American author and professor, she is both a Pulitzer Prize– and Nobel Prize–winning author, the first black woman to win the latter.

A Library of Styles For as many influences as there were on his playwriting, so were there that many styles and genres in which Dürrenmatt wrote—including individual and mixes of comedy, murder mystery, spy drama, love story, and intellectual pieces. The Physicists (1963), for instance, incorporates all of these—yet Dürrenmatt delivers the work in straightforward language that fits a tight Aristotelian structure still considered the basic plot structure today. As another clever device, he artfully lures

his audience into the trap of enjoying what seems to be a heartwarming happy ending, only to show it to be mere wishful thinking and a misperception of the hard truth that events will always take the worst imaginable turn.

Disillusionment and the Decline of Humanity Like many of the thinkers he studied, and like many authors writing after World War II and the Holocaust, Dürrenmatt was concerned with the decline of humanity. Consistently there appear the tones of nihilism—or a belief in nothing—and the accompanying attitudes that suggest despair, anxiety, and hopelessness. In many of Dürrenmatt's plays, the heroic characters actively fight against the worst impulses of the human condition and fail. This is shown in The Visit, where the teacher—the last holdout arguing against the murder of the man who drove off Claire—finally succumbs to the overwhelming greed of the majority. This play has also been read as a response to the pervasive poverty in Europe after the Second World War, and to the U.S. Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Europe—though Dürrenmatt himself often warned against reading his characters as symbols, noting, “Misunderstandings creep in, because people desperately search the hen yard of my drama for the egg of explanation which I steadfastly refuse to lay.”

Works in Critical Context

Dürrenmatt's most popular plays, especially The Visit (1956) and The Physicists (1962), made him the darling of theater people and critics. But as directing styles changed and texts came to be seen as mere raw material, Dürrenmatt began to complain of inadequate performances of his works. He also found reviewers rejecting his work because it seemed uncommitted when compared to the activist message plays and documentaries that began to appear in the late 1960s. Germany in particular experienced a strong surge in literary activism as the “68ers,” the student activists who protested frequently in 1968 for a more just and equitable society, came to dominate the arts world. Several of Dürrenmatt's works held up under the criticism, however. One such play is The Meteor.

The Meteor (1966) A mix of farce and the macabre, the play offers one magnificent role in its central character and several challenging secondary ones: On a seemingly endless hot, sunny midsummer day, visitors climb the stairs to the stuffy garret where Nobel Prize–winning playwright Wolfgang Schwitter starved as a young artist and where he has chosen to try to die after failing to do so in the hospital. He is irritable and says unexpected and hurtful things to those who confront him; it seems that the “resurrected” behave in an unfettered, demonic way, bringing out the worst in others.

Most critics have admired Dürrenmatt's imaginative power, even those who do not know what to make of the final scene: One thought it a failed effort at profundity, others found it anticlimactic, and a few objected to the irreverence toward the Salvation Army. Such criticism was particularly galling to Dürrenmatt, who never tired of demonstrating in his plays the severe damage done by ideologies and their true believers. More recently, critic Roger Crockett has suggested in Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt that “Dürrenmatt's characters are most often involved in some form of game, and understanding how and why they play is a big part of understanding the author.” That Dürrenmatt “has largely been neglected in the English-speaking world in recent years,” argues literary scholar Kenneth Northcott, “reflects a regrettable insularity on the part of the theatrical world of the United States in particular.”


Here are a few works by writers who also wrote about the futility of solving humanity's problems:

The Bald Soprano (1950), a play by Eugène Ionesco. In this work, wives do not know their husbands, local visitors are misunderstood, and everyone is unnerved.

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), a play by Eugene O'Neill. In this modern drama, excruciatingly close focus is put on the dysfunctional Tyrone family.

Marat/Sade (1963), a play by Peter Weiss. In the tradition of Antonin Artaud, the playwright offers a bloody, provocative examination of human suffering.

Waiting for Godot (1953), a play by Samuel Beckett. This play is a stark and daunting exploration of human cruelty, human tolerance, and human perception.

Responses to Literature

  1. Although Dürrenmatt's plays often focus on the darkest parts of human nature, he has pointed out that they are meant to be comedies. Read The Visit. Do you think comedy is an effective way of addressing humanity's faults? Why or why not? In your opinion, does The Visit succeed as comedy? Support your opinion with examples from the work.
  2. In several of his plays, Dürrenmatt performs a study of opposites. Consider one or more of his works and identify the opposing forces or characters. How are they different? Where is the tension most obvious? Is one “side” more likeable, or more sympathetic?
  3. How does Dürrenmatt's play The Physicists reflect European anxieties during the cold war? Provide a brief description of the cold war in order to better focus your analysis of the play.
  4. In an interview conducted by Violet Ketels at Temple University, Dürrenmatt recounts how he studied philosophy and theology for ten semesters. In It IsWritten, he describes a spiritual crisis. Where in a Dürrenmatt work is there evidence of his sense of a god? How does that play reveal his attitudes about that god, and what do these attitudes seem to be?



Crockett, Roger Alan. Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Fritzen, Bodo, and Heimy F. Taylor, eds. Friedrich Dürrenmatt: A Collection of Critical Essays. Normal, Ill.: Applied Literature Press, 1979.

Wilbert-Collins, Elly. A Bibliography of Four Contemporary German-Swiss Authors: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Robert Walser, Albin Zollinger. Bern, Switzerland: Francke, 1967.


Cory, Mark E. “Shakespeare and Dürrenmatt: From Tragedy to Tragicomedy.” Comparative Literature 32 (Summer 1981): 253–73.

Ketels, Violet. “Friedrich Dürrenmatt at Temple University: Interview.” Journal of Modern Literature 1, no. 1 (1971): 88–108.

Web sites

Books and Writers. Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–1990). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Der Weg. Friedrich Dürrenmatt (in German). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Imagi-nation. Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

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Nationality: Swiss. Born: Konolfingen, 5 January 1921. Education: University of Zurich, 1941-42; University of Bern, 1942. Family: Married 1) Lotti Geissler in 1946 (died 1983), one son and two daughters; 2) Charlotte Kerr in 1984. Career: Drama critic, Die Weltwoche, Zurich, 1951-53; codirector, Basler Theater, 1968-69; co-owner, Züricher Sonntags-Journal , 1969-71. Writer-in-residence, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1981; traveled to Greece and South America, 1983-84, and to Egypt, 1985. Awards: City of Bern drama prize, 1948, for Es steht geschrieben; City of Bern literature prize, 1954, for Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon; radio play prize of the War Blind, 1957, for Die Panne; Prix Italia, RAI, 1958, for Abendstunde im Spätherbst; Preis zur Förderung des Bernischen Schrifttums, 1959, for Das Versprechen; Schiller prize, Mannheim, 1959, for Grieche sucht Griechin; New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play, 1959, for The Visit; Grillparzer prize, Austria, 1968, for Der Besuch der alten Dame; Grosser Schiller-Preis, Schweizer Stiftung, 1969, for Die Physiker; Canton of Bern Grosser Literaturpreis, 1969; International Writers prize, Welsh Arts Council, University of Wales, 1976; Buber-Rosenzweig medal, 1977; City of Bern literature prize, 1979; Austrian State award, 1983; Carl Zuckmayer medal, Rhineland Palatinate, 1984; Bavarian literature prize, 1985. Honorary degrees: Temple University, 1969; Hebrew University, 1977; University of Nice, 1977; University of Neuchâtel, 1981. Died: Neuchâtel, 14 December 1990.



Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden (30 vols.). 1980.

Gesammelte Werke, edited by Franz Josef Görtz (7 vols.).1988.


Es steht geschrieben [It Is Written] (produced Zurich, 1947).1947; revised version, as Der Wiedertäufer [The Anabaptists] (produced Zurich, 1967), 1967.

Der Blinde [The Blind Man] (produced Basel, Switzerland,1948). 1947; revised edition, 1965.

Romulus der Grosse (produced Basel, 1949). 1957; revised version (produced Zurich, 1957), 1964; translated as Romulus the Great and published with An Angel Comes to Babylon, 1957.

Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi (produced Munich, 1952).1952; as Fools Are Passing Through (produced New York, 1958); as The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (produced London, 1959), published with Problems of the Theatre, 1964.

Herkules und der Stall des Augias: Mit Randnotizen eines Kugelschreibers (radio play). 1954; as Herkules und der Stall des Augias (stage play version of the radio play; produced Zurich, 1963), 1963; as Hercules and the Augean Stables, 1963.

Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon (produced Munich, 1953).1954; revised version (produced Zurich, 1957), 1957; translated as An Angel Comes to Babylon (produced California, 1962), and published with Romulus the Great, 1957.

Der Besuch der alten Dame (produced Zurich, 1956). 1956; asThe Visit (produced New York, 1958), 1956.

Nächtliches gespräch mit einem verachteten Menschen: Ein Kurs für Zeitgenossen (radio play). 1957; as Conversation at Night with a Despised Character: A Curriculum for Our Times, 1957.

Das Unternehmen der Wega (radio play). 1958; as The Mission of the Vega, 1962.

Der Prozess um des Esels Schatten [The Trial of the Ass'sShadow] (radio play). 1958.

Stranitzky und der Nationalheld [Stranitzky and the NationalHero] (radio play). 1959.

Abendstunde im Spätherbst (radio play). 1959; as Episode on an Autumn Evening, 1959; as Incident at Twilight, in Postwar German Theatre, 1968.

Frank der Fünfte: Oper einer Privatbank [Frank the Fifth:Opera of a Private Bank], music by Paul Burkhard (produced Zurich, 1959). 1960; revised edition, 1964.

Der Doppelgänger (radio play). 1960.

Die Panne, adaptation from his novel (radio play). 1961.

Die Physiker (produced Zurich, 1962). 1962; as The Physicists (produced New York, 1964), 1964.

Der Meteor (produced Zurich, 1966). 1966; as The Meteor, 1973.

König Johann, adaptation of a work by William Shakespeare (produced Basel, 1968). 1968.

Play Strindberg: Totentanz nach August Strindberg (producedBasel, 1969). 1969; as Play Strindberg (produced New York, 1971), published as Play Strindberg: The Dance of Death Choreographed, 1973.

Göthes Urfaust: Ergänzt durch das Buch von Doktor Faustus aus dem Jahre 1589, adaptation of a work by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (produced Zurich, 1970). 1980.

Porträt eines Planeten [Portrait of a Planet] (produced Dusseldorf, 1970). 1971.

Titus Andronicus: Eine Komödie nach Shakespeare, adaptation of a work by William Shakespeare (produced Dusseldorf, 1970). 1970.

Der Mitmacher. 1976.

Die Frist (produced Zurich, 1977). 1977.

Die Panne [The Breakdown], adaptation of his own novel.1979.

Achterloo (produced Zurich, 1983). 1983.

Radio Plays:

Der Prozess um des Esels Schatten , 1951;Stranitzky und der Nationalheld , 1952; Nächtliches Gespräch mit einem verachteten Menschen , 1952; Herkules und der Stall des Augias , 1954; Das Unternehmen der Wega , 1954; Die Panne , 1956; Abendstunde im Spätherbst , 1958; Der Doppelgänger , 1961.


Es geschah am heiligen Tag (It Happened inBroad Daylight), 1960; Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi , 1961; Der Besuch der alten Dame , 1963.


Pilatus (novella). 1949.

Der Nihilist (novella). 1950; as Die Falle, in Die Stadt: Prosa I-IV, 1952.

Der Tunnel (novella). In Die Stadt: Prosa I-IV, 1952.

Das Bild des Sisyphos (novella). 1952.

Der Richter und sein Henker. 1952; as The Judge and His Hangman, 1954; as End of the Game, 1955.

Der Verdacht. 1953; as The Quarry, 1961.

Grieche sucht Griechin. 1955; as Once a Greek …, 1965.

Die Panne [The Breakdown]. 1956; as Traps, 1960; as A Dangerous Game, 1960.

Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman. 1958; asThe Pledge, 1959.

Der Sturz (novella). 1971.

Justiz. 1985; as The Execution of Justice, 1989.

Minotaurus: Eine Ballade. 1985.

Der Auftraug; Oder, Vom Beobachten des Beobachters der Beobachter. 1986; as The Assignment: Or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, 1988.

Short Stories

Die Stadt: Prosa I-IV. 1952.

Der Hund; Der Tunnel; Die Panne: Erzählungen (vol. 20 ofWerkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Grieche sucht Griechin; Mister X macht Ferien; Nachrichten über den Stand des Zeitungswesens in der Steinzeit: Grotesken (vol. 21 of Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Der Sturz; Abu Chanifa und Anan ben David; Smithy; Das Sterben der Pythia: Erzählungen (vol. 23 of Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ).


Theaterprobleme (essay). 1954; as Problems of the Theatre, with the play, The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi , 1958; as Problems of the Theatre, 1964.

Friedrich Schiller: Eine Rede (acceptance speech). 1960.

Der Rest ist Dank: Zwei Reden, with Werner Weber (acceptance speech). 1961.

Die Heimat im Plakat: Ein Buch für Schweizer Kinder (satirical drawings). 1963.

Monstervortrag über Gerechtigkeit und Recht nebst einem helvetischen Zwischenspiel: Eine kleine Dramaturgie der Politik (lecture). 1966; translated in Plays and Essays, 1982.

Theater-Schriften und Reden (essays and speeches), edited byElisabeth Brock Sulzer:

Vol. 1: Theater-Schriften und Reden. 1966.

Vol. 2: Dramaturgisches und Kritisches. 1972.

Vol. 3: Writings on Theatre and Drama (translated selections from Theater-Schriften und Reden and Dramaturgisches und Kritisches ). 1976.

Sätze aus Amerika (travel book). 1970.

Zusammenhänge: Essay über Israel: Eine Konzeption. 1976.

Gespräch mit Heinz Ludwig Arnold. 1976.

Lesebuch. 1978.

Albert Einstein: Ein Vortrag (lecture). 1979.

Theater: Essays, Gedichte und Reden (vol. 24 of Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Kritik: Kritiken und Zeichnungen (vol. 25 of Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Literatur und Kunst: Essays, Gedichte und Reden (vol. 26 ofWerkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Philosophie und Naturwissenschaft: Essays, Gedichte und Reden (vol. 27 of Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Politik: Essays, Gedichte und Reden (vol. 28 of Werkausgabe in dreissig Bänden ). 1980.

Plays and Essays (includes Romulus the Great; The Visit; 21 Points to The Physicists; The Judge and His Hangman; Problems of the Theater; A Monster Lecture on Justice and Law Together with a Helvetian Interlude ), edited by Volkmar Sander. 1982.

Rollenspiele: Protokoll einer fiktiven Inszenierung und Achterloo III, with Charlotte Kerr. 1986.


Film Adaptations:

The Judge and His Hangman (television), 1957; Fools Are Passing Through, 1961; The Visit, 1964; The Deadly Game (television), 1982, from the novel, Die Panne; The Pledge, 2001.


A Bibliography of Four Contemporary German-Swiss Authors: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Robert Walser, Albin Zollinger by Elly Wilbert-Collins, 1967; Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Bibliographie by Johannes Hansel, 1968; Friedrich Dürrenmatt; A Bibliography by Regina Lawler, 1968; "Durrenmatt: A Bibliography" by Peter Gontrum, in West Coast Review, 4(3), 1970, pp. 25-32, 37-44.

Critical Studies:

The Playwrights Speak, edited by Walter Wager, 1967; Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Murray B. Peppard, 1969; Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Armin Arnold, translated by Sheila Johnson, 1972; To Heaven and Back: The New Morality in the Plays of Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Kurt J. Fickert, 1972; Dürrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory by Timo Tiusanen, 1977; Dürrenmatt: A Study of His Plays by Urs Jenny, translated by Keith Hamnett and Hugh Rorrison, with additional material by Kenneth S. Whitton, 1978; Friedrich Dürrenmatt: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bodo Fritzen and Heimy F. Taylor, 1979; The Theatre of Friedrich Dürrenmatt: A Study in the Possibility of Freedom, 1980, and Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect, 1990, both by Kenneth S. Whitton; Play Dürrenmatt, edited by Moshe Lazar, 1983; Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Happy Pessimist, 1997; Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Roger Alan Crockett, 1998.

* * *

Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) was born in Konolfingen in Bern canton and died in Neuchâtel. The son of a Protestant minister, he haphazardly pursued literary, philosophical, and scientific studies at both Basel and Zürich universities before devoting himself to full-time writing. In particular his readings in Bertolt Brecht 's epic theater and Thornton Wilder's metaphysical comedies proved decisive in his becoming a playwright. Throughout his career Dürrenmatt wrote prose fiction and critical essays, in addition to his world-renowned dramas.

Only one of his fictional works, the detective novel Der Verdacht (1953; The Quarry, 1962), deals directly with the Holocaust. Here a Bern police superintendent, with the help of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, pursues a notorious Nazi physician who operated without anesthetics on his victims in the camps. The novel's reflections on the potency of evil anticipate many of the central concerns of Dürrenmatt's mature dramas.

In his two most famous plays, the grotesque comedies Der Besuch der alten Dame (1956; The Visit, 1958) and Die Physiker (1962; The Physicists, 1964), Dürrenmatt leaves behind his earlier historically metaphysical costume dramas and treats Holocaust-related issues, but without actually setting them in World War II. He strongly felt that a stage setting of Auschwitz itself would reveal that art is weaker than reality. As Lawrence Langer has observed: "Dürrenmatt knew that there are ways of bringing Auschwitz to the audience without bringing Auschwitz directly to the audience, not by ignoring the horrors of the gas chamber and the crematorium but by inventing situations equally gruesome, reported with remorseless exactitude, but only peripherally—if at all—identifiable with the events of the Holocaust."

Clearly the town of Güllen (meaning "liquid manure" in Swiss dialect) in The Visit and the insane asylum in The Physicists are effective settings for the atrocities of an angstridden post-Holocaust world. The perverted mass behavior governed by a distortion of justice in the former play and the anxieties about the future of a world without meaning or life in the latter one reveal Dürrenmatt's fears unleashed by World War II. In The Visit (subtitled a Tragic Comedy ) the myriad characters representing all walks of life, from religion to medicine and education to commerce, become accomplices out of greed in the murder of a defenseless victim; castrated toadies and an ever-increasing number of spineless townspeople wearing yellow shoes evoke Holocaust resonances. In The Physicists, paradoxically, the more the scientists recuse themselves from bellicose governmental agencies, the greater the chances that a nuclear holocaust might be unleashed by the power-hungry director of their mental institution.

In his longest essay on drama, "Theaterprobleme" (1954; "Problems of the Theater," 1964), the playwright explains his attraction to the grotesque as a moral comedic force. Revealing that he considers Napoleon to be European history's last tragic figure, Dürrenmatt claims that the disappearance of concreteness and immanence in modern life make tragedy impossible. Thus the twentieth century, although characterized by such "world butchers with slaughtering machines" as Hitler and Stalin, was essentially a nontragic age. Black comedy, with all of its distancing devices, was the only suitable medium for exploring impersonal bureaucracy and the disappearance of direct individual responsibility. In an ever-increasingly anonymous statistical world, Dürrenmatt saw it as his mission to create a stage-worthy grotesque comedic genre of critique. As he states, in this age "Creon's secretaries deal with Antigone's case." After Strindberg and Shakespeare adaptations in the late 1960s and '70s, Dürrenmatt fell silent as a dramatist.

Despite the social satirical critique that characterizes Dürrenmatt's oeuvre, there are moments at the end of his important works where the main characters voice deep personal insights into their conduct. The most famous of these takes place in The Visit when Alfred Ill deeply regrets his own complicity in the mistreatment of Claire Zachanassian 45 years before. In The Quarry such a moment is Holocaust-specific. Gulliver, the Jewish survivor and helper of the police superintendent, defends his murder of the notorious camp physician: "We as individuals cannot save this world, that would be as hopeless a task as that of poor Sisyphus … We can help only in single instances, not in the whole—the limitation of the poor Jew Gulliver, the limitation of all people. Therefore, we ought not to try to save the world but to get through it—that is the only true adventure that remains for us at this late hour."

—Steven R. Cerf

See the essay on The Quarry.

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The works of the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) combine surface realism with an absurd and almost surreal artistic vision, expressed in an abundance of oppressive, distorted, often ironic detail.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born on January 5, 1921, in Konolfingen, Switzerland, near Bern. His father, Rheingold, was a pastor, while his grandfather, Ulrich, was a famous satirist and poet. At 13 he began to study theology, philosophy, German literature, and natural sciences, first at the Gymnasium in Bern and then at the University of Bern. Later he attended the University of Zurich to study art and philosophy. Inexplicably he began to write, yet he entered the field of graphic design in order to support himself. A heavy man with a penchant for cigars, in 1947 he won the heart of Lotti Geisler, a German actress, with whom he had three children. While residing in Basel, he composed Es steht geschrieben ("It Is Written," 1946), which caused scandal when it was produced in 1947 because of its alternative portrayal of religion, yet it earned him a prize. Der Blinde ("The Blind," 1948) was produced the next year.

Dürrenmatt's first success on the postwar German stage was Romulus der Grosse ("Romulus the Great," 1949), an "unhistorical historical comedy" about the fall of the Roman Empire. In this commentary on the absurdity of human values—with contemporary satirical implications—the last Roman emperor, more interested in breeding chickens than in politics, stoically accepts the inevitable course of history and hands his crown to the barbarian invader. The dramatist was later to write, "The world, for me, stands as something monstrous, an enigma of calamity that has to be accepted but to which there must be no surrender."

His next work and first big hit, Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi ("The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi," 1950), was produced in Munich in 1952. A grotesque yet comic "dance of death" mocking ideology as a solution to man's predicament, it was briefly produced off-Broadway in 1958 as Fools Are Passing Through to mixed criticism. With Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon ("An Angel Comes to Babylon," 1953), produced in Munich, Dürrenmatt's reputation was established in Europe. It has been alternatively described as an obscure, fragmentary drama challenging "God's injustice," and as a parable of "a heavenly emissary who brings confusion instead of happiness." Der Besuch der alten Dame ("The Old Lady's Visit," later shortened to just "The Visit", 1955), however, extended the author's impact. Caught in a struggle between moral and material values, the dramatic protagonist of this work is an entire community which slowly succumbs to the temptation of murdering one of its members for the sake of a promised fortune. When it opened on Broadway in 1958, it was one of the most highly praised plays of the season. In 1971 Austrian composer made The Visit into an opera.

Dürrenmatt's nondramatic prose also explores "black comic" elements with penetrating irony. Among the radio scripts prepared during this period are The Vega Enterprise (1956), a science-fiction thriller which ends with the atomic bombing of the last humane sanctuary in a corrupt universe, and Nächtliches Gespräach mit einem verachtelen Menschen ("Nocturnal Conversation With a Scorned Man," 1957), which contains a dialogue between the secret executioner and the idealist on the futility of self-sacrifice and the art of dying. Many of his shorter efforts can be termed detective mysteries. His full-length novel Grieche Sucht Griechin ("Greek Man Seeks Greek Woman," 1955), however, does offer some genuine comic relief from the oppressive quality of the author's world view, but it was panned because its logic escaped its reviewers.

Three years after The Visit Dürrenmatt returned to the theater with Frank V, a poorly received musical drama. Die Physiker ("The Physicists," 1961), his first classically constructed work, restored the playwright to favor. Dürrenmatt preferred to term his plays "comedies," and in Problems of the Theatre (1955) he expressed the belief that tragedy could no longer be written because the modern age, lacking a well-ordered world—with established standards of guilt and retribution—is not suited for it. He continued writing, his plays of note including Play Strindberg (1969), Die Frist ("The Appointed Time," 1977), Achterloo, and Oedipus (1989). His last major work, The Execution of Justice (1989), has been described as the culmination of 400 years of European thought on the topic of justice. Dürrenmatt passed away in 1990.

Further Reading

Many of Dürrenmatt's plays can be found in print, and a good number of those in English. The Playwrights Speak, edited by Walter Wager (1967), includes a chapter by Dürrenmatt on his theory of theater. Murray B. Peppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1970), contains a discussion of Dürrenmatt's writings as well as biographical details. Several critical surveys of drama devote sections to the playwright: see Hugh F. Garten, Modern German Drama (1959). □

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt (frē´drĬkh dür´ənmät), 1921–90, Swiss playwright and novelist. Dürrenmatt's writings depict a world both comic and grotesque. As a young German-speaking playwright in Switzerland, he was witness to the rise of fascism in neighboring countries but insulated from its direct impact. His plays include the tragic farce Der Besuch der alten Dame (1956, tr. The Visit, 1958), Romulus der Grosse (1949; adapted by Gore Vidal as Romulus, 1962), and the comedy Die Physiker (1962, tr. 1964). His sense of irony is also evident in his novels, which include the detective mystery Der Richter und sein Henker (1952, tr. The Judge and His Hangman, 1954). A volume of his stories, Der Sturz [the collapse] appeared in 1971.

See studies by M. B. Peppard (1969) and A. Arnold (1969, tr. 1972).

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Dürrenmatt, Friedrich (1921–90) Swiss dramatist, novelist and essayist. Influential in the post-1945 revival of German theatre, Dürrenmatt's works are ironic and display a nihilistic, black humour. His first play was It is Written (1947). Woyzeck (1972) is his most frequently performed play