Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s international acclaim as a playwright has long overshadowed his accomplishments as an author of fiction and essays. During the last two decades of his life, when he became gradually disenchanted with the stage, Dürrenmatt increased his production of narrative and essayistic texts. This, in turn, generated renewed critical interest in his work within these genres and a reappraisal—especially of his essays— which is far from complete. From 1947 until 1990, literally a few days before his death, he produced more than 150 essays, speeches, reviews, and critiques. These include six book-length essays, which are outgrowths of public lectures or, in one case, a sequel to his dramatic writings.
Dürrenmatt never saw a clear demarcation between genres: his speeches proliferated into essays, which often display a “dramaturgic” structure interspersed with narration.
Some of his essays seamlessly incorporate fictional material. His playful disregard for traditional literary forms and his impromptu creation of strikingly unconventional, often meandering prose lend these essays their unique textuality. Most are concerned with literary/aesthetic or social/political matters. Already in the mid-1950s, these issues became so inextricably entwined that his dramaturgical statements are invariably
political, and vice versa. His novel amalgam of the aesthetic and the sociopolitical contributes to Dürrenmatt’s original essayistic voice.
The early essays may be divided into two distinct groups: theater critiques and occasional pieces on political topics. Dürrenmatt’s growth as an essayist parallels his struggle for his own idiom as a playwright. Between 1947 and 1952, he wrote critiques of current stage performances and short essays on theater for the Berne Nation and the Zurich Weltwoche (The weekly world). Their common thrust lies in their anticlassicist stance and in their plea for a new, “objective” form of comedy: the only kind of theater fit to visualize contemporary reality on stage. At the same time, he sharpened his pen as a political essayist in brief, aphoristic pieces like “Sätze für Zeitgenossen” (1947–48; Sentences for contemporaries) and “Hingeschriebenes” (1947–48; Jottings). In the latter, the effortless transition from literary to political matters typical in all his later essays is already evident: “One must never cease to imagine the world in its most reasonable configuration.”
A summation of the early essays and a reflection of Dürrenmatt’s experience with the stage (he had in the meantime produced five plays) is the lecture Theaterprobleme (1955; Problems of the Theatre). Here he presents his own, full-fledged theory of (tragi)comedy and of the grotesque as its premier revelatory device. The aesthetic and the political are now intricately linked, as only tragicomedy can conceptualize the amorphous, chaotic, and regimented world of the mid-20th century: a world of nuclear threats, oppression, economic exploitation, and total warfare. Ultimate responsibility for humanity’s future rests not with collectives but with the “courageous individual,” as portrayed on stage. The dramatist aims to present viable alternatives to a destructive reality. Problems of the Theatre, Dürrenmatt’s most cogent and polished dramaturgical essay, remains one of the truly innovative and influential statements on theater in the 20th century. Like all his writings, it addresses (and is widely read by) an educated, predominantly bourgeois audience.
By the late 1950s, Dürrenmatt had found his own literary voice. The essays of this period reflect his growing international fame as a playwright; they often provide programmatic commentaries on his plays and on the role of the writer in a capitalist society. Among the more remarkable texts in this group are “Vom Sinn der Dichtung in unserer Zeit” (1958; On the purpose of literature today) and “Friedrich Schiller” (1959).
In the former, Dürrenmatt emphasizes the importance of the sciences for modern life—a recurring theme in his works. The latter differentiates his own dramaturgy from that of both Schiller and Bertolt Brecht, as he lays claim to a middle ground between idealistic and materialist ideologies.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Dürrenmatt’s writings became more overtly political. A second book-length essay, Monstervortrag über Gerechtigkeit und Recht nebst einem helvetischen Zwischenspiel: Eine kleine Dramaturgie der Politik (1969; “A Monster Lecture on Justice and Law Together with a Helvetian Interlude: A Small Dramaturgy of Politics”), which had once again originated as a speech, dramaturgically thematizes the dialectical relationship of individual justice versus organized law—another central aspect in the political essays to come. Many of these essays react polemically to world events, for instance, “Israels Lebensrecht” (1967; Israel’s right to live), a response to the Six-Day War, or “Tschechoslowakei 1968” (1968; Czechoslovakia in 1968), an eloquent protest against Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. Others are written as the result of Dürrenmatt’s extensive travels: Sätze aus Amerika (1970; Sentences from America) or the most voluminous of all, Zusammenhänge: Essay über Israel (1976; Connections: essay on Israel), with its 1980 addendum “Nachgedanken” (Afterthoughts). All propound Dürrenmatt’s critical position between the ideological camps, and his bellicose, often strained neutrality.
Zusammenhänge marks the apex of his production of large-scale political essays.
Originally conceived as a speech he delivered in Beersheba, its subject matter grew into a substantial book upon first publication. The essay’s structure—typical of the nonfictional prose from Monstervortrag until the end of the 1970s—is sprawling and loose-jointed, interspersed with authorial comments and long narrative passages. Dürrenmatt develops his argument in a rambling, peripatetic fashion. The lack of an authoritative, linear structure makes for a persuasive, almost private voice and a work-in-progress appearance. Zusammenhänge is his best and most personal political essay. The much less coherent “Nachgedanken”—with their strident anticommunism and their barrage of familiar clichés from the militant pseudo-liberal discourse of their time—pale in comparison.
Equally sprawling but not as convincing as Zusammenhänge is its dramaturgic counterpart, Der Mitmacher: Ein Komplex (1976; The collaborator: a complex). Here Dürrenmatt delivers a huge, convoluted essayistic-fictional-rhetorical sequel to his weak drama Der Mitmacher. The text ostensibly deals with the play’s political underpinnings in contemporary totalitarianism, but it is hardly more than a rambling, random sequence of stories, polemic, and tedious gripes of a frustrated playwright. Dürrenmatt must have realized that he overextended the essay form into a monstrous parody. From here on, his political prose returns to more manageable proportions. Less freewheeling and somewhat more disciplined in their discourse, the later essays still retain their personal, nonauthoritative tone. Once more they mostly derive from public speeches. In his last major essay, “Über Toleranz” (1977; On tolerance), Dürrenmatt makes a plea for political
tolerance and lambasts Marxism as an oppressive concept. For the sake of humanity, he hopes that reason—as a beacon in the search for humane solutions to global problems— may prevail. This quasi-utopian faith in human reason—in the arrival of a new, sober enlightenment—provides the leitmotif for Dürrenmatt’s essays after “Albert Einstein” (1979). Among the many shorter political texts from the last decade of his life, those on Václav Havel (“Die Schweiz—ein Gefängnis” [1990; Switzerland—a prison]) and Mikhail Gorbachev (“Die Hoffnung, uns am eigenen Schopfe aus dem Untergang zu ziehen” [1990; Hoping to pull ourselves out of doom by our own bootstraps]) stand out as final assertions of his hope that humanity, after all, may yet conquer the future and avert catastrophe through reason without fear.
Highly improvisational discourse, an innovative textuality, and unflagging humanism are the hallmarks of Dürrenmatt’s essayistic oeuvre. Seen as a whole, it appears clearly a cut above much of contemporary nonfictional prose, though uneven and closely bound to the given sociopolitical context at the time of writing. Individual pieces weather the test of time fairly well as the century draws to a close. But even these ultimately fail to attain greatness. A disturbing lack of stringency and intellectual discipline—the trade-off for their spontaneity and work-in-progress openness—mars even the best of the lot.
Born 5 January 1921 in Konolfingen, near Berne, Switzerland. Studied at the University of Berne, 1941–42 and 1943–45; University of Zurich, 1942–43. Married Lotti Geissler, 1946 (died, 1983): one son and two daughters. First play, Es steht geschrieben, premiered in Zurich, April 1947. Drama critic, Die Weltwoche, Zurich, 1951–53. Codirector, Basle Theatre, 1968–69. Coeditor, Züricher Sonntags-Journal (Zurich Sunday journal), 1969– 71. Traveled to the United States, 1959, 1969, 1981, the U.S.S.R., 1964, 1967, Israel, 1974, Greece and South America, 1983–84, and Egypt, 1985. Married Charlotte Kerr, 1984. Awards: many, including the Schiller Prize (Mannheim), 1959, (Switzerland), 1960; Grillparzer Prize, 1968; Buber-Rosenzweig Medal, 1977; Zuckmayer Medal, 1984;
Austrian State Prize, 1984; Bavarian Literature Prize, 1985; Büchner Prize, 1986; Schiller Prize (Stuttgart), 1986; Ernst Robert Curtius Prize, for essays, 1989; honorary degrees from five universities. Died (of heart failure) in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 14 December 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
Theaterprobleme, 1955; as Problems of the Theatre, translated by Gerhard Nellhaus, in Four Plays, 1964, and with The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, 1966
Friedrich Schiller: Eine Rede, 1960
Theater-Schriften und Reden, edited by Elisabeth Brock-Sulzer, 2 vols., 1966–72; part as Writings on Theatre and Drama, edited and translated by H.M.Waidson, 1976
Monstervortrag über Gerechtigkeit und Recht nebst einem helvetischen Zwischenspiel: Eine kleine Dramaturgie der Politik, 1969; as “A Monster Lecture on Justice and Law Together with a Helvetian Interlude: A Small Dramaturgy of Politics,” in Plays and Essays, edited by Volkmar Sander, 1981
Sätze aus Amerika, 1970
Zusammenhänge: Essay über Israel, 1976; enlarged edition, 1980
Der Mitmacher: Ein Komplex (includes a play), 1976
Stoffe I-III, 3 vols., 1981; revised edition, as Labyrinth: Stoffe I-III, 1 vol., 1990
Plays and Essays (various translators), edited by Volkmar Sander, 1982
Rollenspiele, with Charlotte Kerr, 1986
Turmbau: Stoffe IV-IX, 1990 Gedankenfuge, 1992.
Other writings: many plays (including Der Besuch der alten Dame [The Visit], 1956;
Die Physiker [The Physicists], 1961), screenplays, radio plays, and several novels (including Der Richter und sein Henker [The Judge and His Hangman], 19 52; Die Panne [A Dangerous Game], 1956; Justiz [The Execution of Justice], 1985; Der Auftrag [The Assignment], 1986).
Collected works editions: Werkausgabe, 30 vols., 1980–90;
Gesammelte Werke, edited by Franz Josef Görtz, 7 vols., 1988.
Knapp, Gerhard P., in Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993
Whitton, Kenneth S., in Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect, New York and Oxford: Berg, 1990
Arnold, Armin, editor, Zu Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Stuttgart: Klett, 1982
Bänziger, Hans, Frisch und Dürrenmatt, Berne: Francke, 1976 (original edition, 1960)
Federico, Joseph A., “The Political Philosophy of Friedrich Dürrenmatt,” German Studies Review 12 (1989):91–109
Keel, Daniel, editor, Über Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Zürich: Diogenes, 1980
Keel, Daniel, editor, Herkules und Atlas: Lobreden und andere Versuche über Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Zürich: Diogenes, 1990
Knapp, Gerhard P., and Gerd Labroisse, editors, Facetten: Studien zum 60. Geburtstag Friedrich Dürrenmatts, Berne: Lang, 1981
Knapp, Gerhard P., Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993
Knapp, Mona, and Gerhard P.Knapp, “Recht—Gerechtigkeit Politik: Zur Genese der Begriffe im Werk Friedrich Dürrenmatts,” Text+Kritik 56 (1977): 23–40
Knopf, Jan, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Munich: Beck, 1988 (original edition, 1976)
Lazar, Moshe, editor, Play Dürrenmatt, Malibu: Undena, 1983
Sheppard, Vera, “Friedrich Dürrenmatt as a Dramatic Theorist,” Drama Survey 4 (1965): 244–63
Whitton, Kenneth S., Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect, New York and Oxford: Berg, 1990, particularly “The Essays”: 158–209
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