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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." Influenced by Brechtian technique, Dürrenmatt used the alienation effect, in which both the audience and actors keep a kind of distance to the events and characters of the play. But when Brecht believed in reason and change, Dürrenmatt's dramas demonstrated his pessimistic social vision.

"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. In 1941 Dürrenmatt entered the University of Bern, where he studied literature and philosophy. Originally he 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. Dürrenmatt spent his time in painting, drawing, and reading widely Greek tragedies, Aristophanes, and such modern authors as Kafka, Kierkegaard, and Ernst Jünger.

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 at the University of Zurich in 1942-43, Dürrenmatt returned to Berne, where he devoted himself entirely to writing. His first work for the stage, Es steht geschrieben, premiered in Zurich 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 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.

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 rationality.

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 insane.

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 conventional theater." 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. In many essays Dürrenmatt wrote about political issues. '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.

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) 

Selected works:

  • Komödie, 1943
  • Es steht geschrieben, 1946 (early version of Die Wiedertäufer)
  • Der Doppelgänger, 1946 (radio play)
    - Kaksoisolento (radiokuunnelma, ohjaus: Risto Aaltonen, näyttelijöinä Jussi Jurkka, Pentti Irjala, Hannes Häyrinen, Esa Saario, Eila Pehkonen, suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1967)
  • Der Blinde, 1947
  • Romulus der Grosse, 1949 (revised version 1980)
    - Romulus the Great (translated by Gerhard Nellhaus, in Four Plays, 1964) / Romulus the Great: An Ahistorical Historical Comedy in Four Acts (translated by Joel Agee, in Selected Writings, Volume 1, 2006)
    - films: 1965 (TV drama), dir. by Helmut Käutner, starring Romuald Pekny; 1971, Romulus le grand (TV drama), dir. by Marcel Cravenne
  • Der Prozess um des Esels Schatten, 1951 (radio play)
  • Die Stadt: Prosa I-IV, 1952
  • Nächtliches Gesprächt mit einem verachteten Menschen, 1952 (radio play, later a stage adaptation)
    - film 1981 (TV drama), prod. Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), dir. by Guy Kubli, starring Sigfrit Steiner
  • Pilatus, 1952
  • Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi, 1952
    - The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (translated by Michael Bullock, in Four Plays, 1964; in Problems of the Theatre: An Essay; The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi: A Play, 1971; Joel Agee, in Selected Writings, Volume 1, 2006)
    - film 1961, dir. by Kurt Hoffmann, screenplay by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, starring O.E. Hasse, Johanna von Koczian, Hansjörg Felmy, Martin Held
  • Der Richter und Sein Henker, 1952
    - The Judge and His Hangman (translated by Cyrus Brooks, 1954; Therese Pol, 1955) / The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion (translated by Joel Agee, 2006)
    - Tuomari ja hänen pyövelinsä (suom. Markku Mannila, 1976)
    - films: 1957 (TV drama), dir. by Franz Peter Wirth, script by Hans Gottschalk; 1962, Colloquio con un uomo disprezzato(TV drama), dir. by Vittorio Cottafavi, starring Adolfo Geri, Vittorio Sanipoli; 1974, Le Juge et son bourreau (TV drama), dir. by Daniel Le Comte; 1976, dir. by Maximilian Schell, starring John Voight, Robert Shaw, Martin Ritt, Jacqueline Bisset
  • Der Verdacht, 1953
    - The Quarry (translated by Eva H. Morreale, 1961) / The Suspicion (translated by Joel Agee, in The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion, 2006)
    - Epäily (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1959)
    - film 1972, Posledneye delo komissara Berlakha, dir. by Vasili Levin, starring Nikolai Simonov (as Berlach), Andrei Popov, Nikolai Volkov
  • Herkules und der Stall des Augias, 1954 (radio play)
    - Hercules and the Augean Stables (translated by Joel Agee, 1963)
  • Das Unternehmen der Wega, 1954 (radio play)
  • Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon, 1954
    - An Angel Comes to Babylon (translated by William Lloyd McElwee, in Four Plays 1957-62, 1964)
  • Theaterprobleme, 1955
    - Problems of the Theatre (translated by Gerhard Nellhaus, in Four Plays, 1964)
  • Die Panne, 1956
    - Traps (translated by Richard and Clara Winston, 1960) / The Dangerous Game (GB title, 1960)
    - Haaveri: mahdollinen tarina (suom. Olli Sarrivirta, 2009)
    - films: 1959 (TV drama), dir. by Fritz Umgelter; 1971, Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe, dir. by Satyadev Dubey, script by Vijay Tendulkar; 1972, La Più bella serata della mia vita, dir. by Ettore Scola, starring Alberto Sordi, Michel Simon, Charles Vanel, Claude Dauphin
  • Der Besuch der alten Dame, 1956 (original title: Komödie der Hochkonjunktur)
    - The Visit (translated by Maurice Valency, 1958; Patrick Bowles, 1962)
    - films: 1964, dir. by Bernhard Wicki, screenplay by Ben Barzman, starring Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, Irina Demick; 1971, La Visite de la vieille dame, dir. by Alberto Cavalcanti, starring Mary Marquet, Louis Arbessier, Pierre Asso; 1976, Poseta stare dame (TV drama), dir. by Mira Trailovic; 1982 (TV drama), dir. by Max Peter Ammann, starring Maria Schell, Günter Lamprecht, Jürgen Cziesla; 1987, Vizit damy (TV drama), dir. by Mikhail Kozakov; 1992, Hyènes, dir. by Djibril Diop Mambéty; 1994, A Visita da Velha Senhora (TV drama), dir. by Artur Ramos, starring Mariana Rey Monteiro, José Viana, Rogério Samora; 2006, Vana daami visiit, dir. by Roman Baskin, starring Ita Ever, Aarne Üksküla, Raivo Trass; 2008 (TV drama), dir. by Nikolaus Leytner, starring Christiane Hörbiger, Michael Mendl, Muriel Baumeister
  • Abendstunde im Spätherbst, 1956 (radio play)
    - Episode on an Autumn Evening (translated by Myron B. Gubitz, 1959) / Incident at Twilight, in Postwar German Theatre, 1968)
  • Grieche such Griechin, 1958
    - Once a Greek (translated by Clara Winston, 1965)
    - Kreikkalainen etsii kreikkalaista (suom. Markku Mannila, 1967)
    - films: 1966, dir. by Rolf Thiele, starring Heinz Rühmann, Irina Demick, Charles Régnier; 1969 (TV drama), dir. by Hans-Henrik Krause
  • Das Vesprechen. Requiem auf den Kriminalroman, 1958
    - The Pledge (translated by Richard and Clara Winston, 1959; Joel Agee, 2000)
    - Lupaus: rikosromaanin sielunmessu (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1960)
    films: 1979, La Promessa (TV drama), dir. by Alberto Negrin; 1996, The Cold Light of Day, dir. by Rudolf van den Berg, starring Richard E. Grant, Lynsey Baxter, Perdita Weeks; 2001, dir. by Sean Penn, screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, starring Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhard, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio Del Toro. "The gloomy things "The Pledge" has to say about manhood are antithetical to the heroic rites of Hollywood action-adventure films and professional sports through which American mass culture channels and idealizes male violence. The movie has the audacity to suggest that all that ritualized sublimation ultimately doesn't solve anything." (Stephen Holden in The New York Times, January 19, 2001)
  • Frank der Fünfte: Oper einer Privatbank, 1960
    - Frank the Fifth; or, the Comedy of a Banking House (tr. 1966)
  • Friedrich Schiller: Eine Rede, 1960
  • Gesammelte Hörspiele, 1961
  • Die Physiker, 1962
    - The Physicist (translated by James Kirkup, 1964)
    - Fyysikot (suom. Aili Palmén, 1993)
    - films: 1964 (TV drama), dir. by Fritz Umgelter, starring Therese Giehse, Kurt Ehrhardt, Gustav Knuth, Wolfgang Kieling; 1969, De Fysici (TV drama), dir. by Kris Betz; 1972, Los Físicos, dir. by Alejandro Doria; 1988, Fysikerne, dir. by Per Bronken
  • Komödien II und frühe Stücke, 1964
  • Four Plays 1957-62, 1964 (Romulus the Great; The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi; An Angel Comes to Babylon; The Physicists)
  • Theater-Schriften und Reden, 1966
    - Writings on Theatre and Drama (translated with an introduction by H.M. Waidson, 1976)
  • Der Meteor, 1966
    - The Meteor (translated by James Kirkup, 1966)
    - Meteori: kaksinäytöksinen komedia (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1966)
    - films: 1969 (TV drama), dir. by Leopold Lindtberg, starring Leonard Steckel, Kornelia Boje, Wolfgang Forester; 1969 (TV drama), dir. by Ivan Hetrich
  • Die Wiedertäufer: Eine Komödie in 2 Teilen, 1967
    - The Anabaptists (translated by James Preston, 1971)
  • König Johann: Nach Shakespeare, 1968 (based on Shakespeare's King John)
    - film 1971 (TV drama), dir. by Oswald Döpke, starring Hans Korte, Alice Treff, Heinz Trixner, Hans Paetsch
  • Monstervortrag über Gerechtigkeit und Recht, 1969
  • Play Strindberg: Totentanz nach August Strindberg, 1969
    - Play Strindberg: The Dance of Death Choreographed (translated by James Kirkup, 1972)
    - film 1973 (TV drama), dir. by Dré Poppe, starring Domien De Gruyter, Joanna Geldof, Arnold Willems
  • Porträt eines Planeten, 1970
    - Portrait of a Planet (translated by James Kirkup, 1971)
  • Titus Andronicus, 1970 (based on Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus)
  • Urfaust, 1970 (based on Goethe's Urfaust)
  • Sätze aus Amerika, 1970
  • Ser Struz, 1971
  • Dramatisches und Kritisches, 1972
  • Theater-Schriften und Reden, 1966-1972 (2 vols., edited by Elisabeth Brock-Sulzer)
  • Komödien III, 1972
  • Zusammenhänge: Essay über Israel, 1976 (enlarged edition in 1980)
  • Der Mitmacher, 1976
  • Writings on Theatre and Drama, 1976 (translated by H. M. Waidson)
  • Die Frist, 1977
  • Das Dramatische Werk, 1980 (17 vols.)
  • Werkausgabe, 1980-1990 (30 vols.; Diogenes Publishing House)
  • Stoffe I-III. Der Winterkrieg in Tibet. Mondfinsternis. Der Rebell, 1981
    - Kuunpimennys (suom. Ilona Nykyri, 2006); Kapinallinen (suom. Ilona Nykyri, 2006)
  • Achterloo, 1982
    - film 1988, Achterloo IV (TV movie), prod. Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SDR), dir. by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, starring Kurt Beck, Jürgen Cziesla, Ullrich Haupt, Isabel Karajan, Charlotte Kerr, Helmut Lohner, Nikolaus Paryla, Georg Preuße, Martin Rickelt 
  • Plays and Essays, 1982
  • Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Plays and Essays, 1982 (edited by Volkmar Sander)
  • Minotaurus. Eine Ballade. Mit Zeichnungen des Autors, 1985
  • Justiz, 1985
    - The Execution of Justice (translated by John E. Woods, 1989)
    - Oikeus (suom. Marja Kyrö, 1987)
    - film: Justiz, 1993, prod. Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR),  GFF,  Saarländischer Rundfunk (SR), dir. by Hans W. Geissendörfer, starring Maximilian Schell, Thomas Heinze, Anna Thalbach
  • Der Auftrag oder Vom Beobachten des Beobachters der Beobachter, 1986
    - The Assignment: Or, on Observing the Observer of the Observers (translated by Joel Agee, 1988)
  • Rollenspiele, 1986 (with Charlotte Kerr)
  • Versuche, 1988
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1988 (7 vols., edited by Franz Josef Görtz)
  • Durchenandertal, 1989
  • Turmbau: Stoffe IV-XI, 1990
  • Gedankenfuge, 1992
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings. Volume 1, Plays, 2006 (edited by Kenneth J. Northcott, translated by Joel Agee)
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings. Volume 2, Fictions, 2006 (edited by Theodore Ziolkowski, translated by Joel Agee)
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings. Volume 3, Essays, 2006 (edited by Kenneth J. Northcott, translated by Joel Agee)

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