Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings, Volume I, Plays

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The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90) was one of the most important literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century. During the years of the cold war, arguably only Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht rivaled him as a presence in European letters. Yet outside Europe, this prolific author is primarily known for only one work, The Visit. With these long-awaited translations of his plays, fictions, and essays, Dürrenmatt becomes available again in all his brilliance to the English-speaking world.

Dürrenmatt’s concerns are timeless, but they are also the product of his Swiss vantage during the cold war: his key plays, gathered in the first volume of Selected Writings, explore such themes as guilt by passivity, the refusal of responsibility, greed and political decay, and the tension between justice and freedom. In The Visit, for instance, an old lady who becomes the wealthiest person in the world returns to the village that cast her out as a young woman and offers riches to the town in exchange for the life of the man, now its mayor, who once disgraced her. Joel Agee’s crystalline translation gives a fresh lease to this play, as well as four others: The Physicists, Romulus the Great, Hercules and the Augean Stables, and The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.

Dürrenmatt has long been considered a great writer—but one unfairly neglected in the modern world of letters. With these elegantly conceived and expertly translated volumes, a new generation of readers will rediscover his greatest works.

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Editorial Reviews

John Simon
"[Dürrenmatt] was one of the giants of this, or any, century. As more of his vast bodu of work . . . becomes available in more and better translations, the Anglo-American world will share in the grief of losing him—even while taking comfort in the joy of discovering him."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226174266
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in 1921 in the village of Konolfingen, near Berne, Switzerland, and was the son of a Protestant minister. During World War II he studied philosophy and literature at the Universities of Berne and Zurich. He wrote prolifically and traveled widely in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, taking particular interest in human rights and the preservation of Israel. Joel Agee has translated numerous German authors into English, including Heinrich von Kleist, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Elias Canetti. He is also the author of two memoirs: Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and In the House of My Fear. In 2005 he received the Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for his translation of Hans Erich Nossack’s The End: Hamburg 1943. Kenneth J. Northcott is professor emeritus of German at the University of Chicago. He has translated a number of books for the University of Chicago Press. Theodore Ziolkowski is the Class of 1900 Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises. Brian Evenson is the author of numerous works of fiction, including Altmann’s Tongue, Dark Property, Father of Lies, and The Wavering Knife. He is also director of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University.

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Read an Excerpt

Friedrich Dürrenmatt Selected Writings Volume 1 Plays
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-17426-6

Chapter One The Visit A Tragicomedy

[1955] [Revised version 1980]


THE VISITORS Claire Zachanassian, née Wäscher, Toby Gum chewers multimillionairess (Armenian Oil) Roby Gum chewers Her husbands VII-IX Koby Blind The butler Loby Blind

THE VISITED Ill First man Citizens His wife Second man Citizens His daughter Third man Citizens His son Fourth man Citizens Mayor Painter Pastor First woman Teacher Second woman Doctor Miss Louise Policeman

THE EXTRAS Stationmaster Conductor Train supervisor Bailiff

THE NUISANCES Journalist I Radio reporter Journalist II Cameraman

PLACE: Güllen, a small town TIME: The present

(Intermission after Act Two)

Act One

The ringing of a railway-station bell before the curtain rises. Then an inscription: Güllen-evidently the name of the small town whose buildings, run-down and dilapidated, are sketchily indicated in the background. The station building, equally run-down, with or without a barrier, depending on local customs; a ripped schedule on the wall, a rusty signal cabin, its door marked No Entry. In the center just a hint of the wretched Station Road. On the left a little house, bare, with a tiled roof, ripped posters on the windowless wall. On the left a sign: Women; on the right: Men. Everything steeped in hot autumn sun. In front of the little house, a bench. On it, four men. A fifth man, indescribably disheveled (they all are), is painting red letters on a banner, evidently for a procession: "Welcome Clairie." The thunderous pounding noise of an express train rushing past. The Stationmaster salutes in front of the station. The men on the bench move their heads from left to right, following the movement of the train as it speeds past them.

FIRST MAN. That's the "Gudrun," Hamburg-Naples.

SECOND MAN. The "Racing Roland," Venice-Stockholm, gets here at eleven twenty-seven.

THIRD MAN. The only pleasure we have left: watching trains go by.

FOURTH MAN. Five years ago the "Gudrun" and the "Racing Roland" stopped in Güllen. Also the "Diplomat" and the "Lorelei." Important express trains, all of them.

FIRST MAN. World-class trains.

Bell rings.

SECOND MAN. Not even the local trains stop now. Just two from Kaffigen and the one-thirteen from Kalberstadt.

THIRD MAN. Ruined.

FOURTH MAN. The Wagner Works kaput.

FIRST MAN. Bockmann & Co. bankrupt.

SECOND MAN. The Hopewell Foundry shut down.

THIRD MAN. Living on welfare.

FOURTH MAN. On soup kitchen handouts.

FIRST MAN. Living?

SECOND MAN. Vegetating.

THIRD MAN. Rotting away.

FOURTH MAN. The whole town.

Sound of a passing train. The Stationmaster salutes. The men follow the train with a movement of their heads from left to right.

FOURTH MAN. The "Diplomat."

THIRD MAN. And we used to be a cultural center.

SECOND MAN. One of the foremost in the country.

FIRST MAN. In Europe.

FOURTH MAN. Goethe spent a night here. In the Golden Apostle.

THIRD MAN. Brahms composed a quartet here.

Bell rings.

SECOND MAN. Berthold Schwarz invented gunpowder here.

PAINTER. And I was a brilliant student at the École des Beaux-Arts, and what am I doing now? Sign painting!

SECOND MAN. It's about time the millionairess got here. They say she founded a hospital in Kalberstadt.

THIRD MAN. And the day nursery in Kaffigen and a memorial church in the capital.

PAINTER. She had her portrait painted by Zimt. That naturalist dabbler.

FIRST MAN. She and her money. She owns Armenian Oil, Western Railways, the Northern Broadcasting Company, and the nightlife quarter of Bangkok.

Sounds of a train. Conductor enters from the left, looking as if he has just jumped off the train.

CONDUCTOR, with a long-drawn cry. Güllen!

FIRST MAN. The local train from Kaffigen.

A passenger has gotten off, walks past the men on the bench from the left, disappears behind the door marked "Men."

SECOND MAN. The bailiff.

THIRD MAN. He's here to put a lien on the town hall.

FOURTH MAN. Now we're ruined politically too.

STATIONMASTER, raising his baton. Stand clear!

Enter from town the Mayor, the Teacher, the Pastor, and Ill, a nearly sixty-five-year-old man; all shabbily dressed.

MAYOR. Our distinguished guest will be arriving on the one-thirteen local from Kalberstadt.

TEACHER. We'll have the mixed choir singing, the Youth Club.

PASTOR. And the fire bell ringing. It hasn't been pawned yet.

MAYOR. The town band playing on the marketplace, and the gymnastics club forming a pyramid in honor of the billionairess. Then a banquet at the Golden Apostle. Unfortunately we don't have the funds to illuminate the cathedral and the town hall for the evening.

BAILIFF, coming out of the little house. Good morning, Mayor, a very good morning to you.

MAYOR. What are you doing here, bailiff?

BAILIFF. Your Honor knows that already. I'm faced with a colossal task. Just you try putting a lien on an entire town.

MAYOR. Except for an old typewriter, you won't find a thing in the town hall.

BAILIFF. Your Honor is forgetting the Güllen Historical Museum.

MAYOR. Sold off to America three years ago. Our treasury's empty. No one is paying taxes.

BAILIFF. That calls for an investigation. The country is flourishing, and Güllen with its Hopewell Foundry goes bankrupt.

MAYOR. We're baffled ourselves. It's an economic enigma.

FIRST MAN. Bet you the Freemasons rigged the whole thing.

SECOND MAN. It's a Jewish plot.

THIRD MAN. I think big business is behind it.

FOURTH MAN. International communism is pulling the strings.

Bell rings.

BAILIFF. I always find something. Got eyes like a hawk. I'll have a look at the treasury. Off.

MAYOR. Better he fleeces us now, than after the millionairess arrives.

The Painter has finished painting his sign.

ILL. That, of course, just won't work, Your Honor, these words are too informal. "Welcome Claire Zachanassian" is what it should say.

FIRST MAN. But she's Clairie.

SECOND MAN. Clairie Wäscher.

THIRD MAN. Born and bred here.

FOURTH MAN. Her father was a building contractor.

PAINTER. So I'll just write "Welcome Claire Zachanassian" on the back. Then, once the billionairess is touched, we can still show her the front.

SECOND MAN. It's the Stockmarketeer, Zürich-Hamburg.

A new express train passes from right to left.

THIRD MAN. Always on time, you can set your watch by it.

FOURTH MAN. Oh please, who still wears a watch in this place?

MAYOR. Gentlemen, the billionairess is our only hope.

PASTOR. Except for God.

MAYOR. Except for God.

TEACHER. But he won't pay.

PAINTER. He has forgotten us.

Fourth Man spits.

MAYOR. You used to be friendly with her, Ill, so everything depends on you.

PASTOR. But then their ways parted. I heard some vague story-do you have a confession to make to your pastor?

ILL. We were the best of friends-young and impetuous-after all, gentlemen, I was a young fellow forty-five years ago-and she, Clara, I can still see her shining through the dark on her way to meet me in Petersen's barn or walking barefoot on moss and leaves through the woods of Konradsweil with her red hair streaming behind her, slender, supple, delicate, what a ravishing little witch. It was life that separated us, nothing but life. That's how it goes.

MAYOR. I should have some details about Mrs. Zachanassian for my little speech at the banquet in the Golden Apostle. Takes a small notebook from his pocket.

TEACHER. I went through the old school records. Clara Wäscher's grades were, most unfortunately, very poor. So was her conduct. Her only passing grade was in botany and zoology.

MAYOR, taking notes. Good. Passed in botany and zoology. That's good.

ILL. I can help you here, Your Honor. Clara loved justice. No doubt about it. One day they were arresting a bum. She threw rocks at the police.

MAYOR. Love of justice. Not bad. Always make an impression. But we'd better drop that bit about the police.

ILL. She was charitable too. Whatever she had, she shared. She stole potatoes for a poor widow.

MAYOR. A charitable disposition. This, gentlemen, I must definitely include. It's the main issue. Does anyone remember anything her father built? That would be worth mentioning.

PAINTER. Nobody.

FIRST MAN. They say he was a drunk.

SECOND MAN. His wife left him.

THIRD MAN. Died in a madhouse.

Fourth Man spits.

MAYOR, closing his notebook. For my part, I'm ready-the rest is up to Ill.

ILL. I know. Get Zachanassian to cough up her millions.

mayor. Millions-you've got the right idea. Exactly.

TEACHER. A nursery school just isn't enough.

MAYOR. My dear Ill, you've been the most popular personality in Güllen for a long time. I will be retiring in the spring. I made contact with the opposition. We've agreed to nominate you as my successor.

ILL. But Your Honor.

TEACHER. I can only confirm this.

ILL. Gentlemen, back to business. I will first talk to Claire about our miserable situation.

PASTOR. But carefully-sensitively.

ILL. We have to be smart about this, strike the right psychological note. If we botch the welcome at the station, that alone could jinx the whole thing. The town band and the mixed choir just isn't enough.

MAYOR. Ill is right. This is an important moment, after all. Mrs. Zachanassian sets foot on her native soil, she's found her way home, is moved, tears in her eyes, she sees the old familiar sights. I, of course, won't be standing here in my shirtsleeves like this, I'll be wearing a formal black suit with a top hat, my wife beside me, my two grandchildren in front of me, all in white, with roses. My God, I hope it all falls into place at the right time.

Bell rings.

FIRST MAN. The "Racing Roland."

SECOND MAN. Venice-Stockholm eleven twenty-seven.

PASTOR. Eleven twenty-seven! We still have nearly two hours to put on our Sunday best.

MAYOR. Kühn hoists the "Welcome Claire Zachanassian" banner, together with Hauser. (Points at the fourth man.) The others should preferably wave their hats. But please, no shouting like last year for the Government Commission, the impact amounted to zero, and to this day we have not received a subsidy. Excessive high spirits are out of place here; the occasion calls for an inward joy, close to sobbing, heartfelt sympathy with this child of our town who has returned to us. Be natural, be sincere, but don't slip up on the timing; make sure the fire bell goes off right after the mixed choir. And above all ...

The thunder of the oncoming train drowns out his speech. Screeching brakes. Dumbfounded astonishment on all faces. The five men leap up from the bench.

PAINTER. The Express!

FIRST MAN. Stopping!

SECOND MAN. In Güllen!

THIRD MAN. The most poverty-stricken-

FOURTH MAN. -lousiest-

FIRST MAN. -pathetic dump on the Venice-Stockholm route!

STATIONMASTER. The laws of nature have been suspended. The "Racing Roland" is supposed to show up as it comes around the bend at Leuthenau, zoom past here, and vanish again as a dark dot in Pückenried Valley.

Enter, right, Claire Zachanassian, sixty-two, red-haired, pearl necklace, huge gold bracelets, extravagantly made up, quite impossible but just for that reason a grande dame, with a peculiar grace, despite her grotesque appearance. Followed by her entourage, the Butler, Boby, about eighty years old, with black glasses, her Husband VII (tall, slim, black moustache) with a complete set of fishing tackle. An agitated Train Supervisor with a red cap and a red pouch accompanies the group.


TRAIN SUPERVISOR. Madam, you pulled the emergency brake.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. I always pull the emergency brake.

TRAIN SUPERVISOR. I protest. Vigorously. In this country, you don't pull the emergency brake, not even in an emergency. Staying on schedule is our first principle. May I request an explanation?

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. This is Güllen, Moby. I recognize the pathetic little dump. Over there are the woods of Konradsweil with the brook, where you can go fishing-trout and pike. And that roof on the right is Petersen's barn.

ILL, as if awakening. Clara.

TEACHER. It's Zachanassian.

ALL. Zachanassian.

TEACHER. And the mixed choir isn't ready, the youth club!

MAYOR. The gymnasts, the fire department!

PASTOR. The sexton!

MAYOR. My frock coat, for God's sake, my top hat, my grandchildren!

FIRST MAN. Clairie Wäscher's here! Clairie Wäscher's here! He jumps up and rushes off toward town.

MAYOR, calling after him. Don't forget my wife!

TRAIN SUPERVISOR. I am waiting for an explanation. Officially. In the name of the Railway Authorities.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. You are a blockhead. I'm here to pay this little town a visit. Do you expect me to jump off your express train at full speed?

TRAIN SUPERVISOR. Madam, if you wish to visit the town of Güllen, please, the twelve-forty local from Kalberstadt is at your service. At everyone's service. Arrival in Güllen one thirteen p.m.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. You mean the local that stops in Loken, Brunnhübel, Beisenbach, and Leuthenau? You really expect me to go puffing around the countryside for half an hour?

TRAIN SUPERVISOR. Madam, this will cost you dearly.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. Give him a thousand, Boby.

ALL, murmuring. A thousand.

The Butler gives the Train Supervisor a thousand.

TRAIN SUPERVISOR, baffled. Madam.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. And three thousand for the Railway Widows' Relief Fund.

ALL, murmuring. Three thousand.

The Train Supervisor receives three thousand from the Butler.

TRAIN SUPERVISOR, bewildered. There is no such relief fund, Madam.


The Mayor whispers something in the Train Supervisor's ear.

TRAIN SUPERVISOR, dismayed. Madam is Madam Claire Zachanassian? Oh, I beg your pardon. That is a different matter, of course. We certainly would have stopped in Güllen if we'd had the faintest idea-here is your money back, Madam-four thousand-my God.

ALL, murmuring. Four thousand.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. Keep it, it's nothing.

ALL, murmuring. Keep it.

TRAIN SUPERVISOR. Would Madam prefer the "Racing Roland" to wait while she visits Güllen? The railway management would gladly comply. The portal of the cathedral is said to be remarkable. Gothic. With the Last Judgment.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. Just zoom off, you and your train.

HUSBAND VII, whining. But the media, sweetie, the media people didn't get off yet. The reporters have no idea; they're dining up front in the dining car.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. Let them dine, Moby. I don't need the media in Güllen just yet. They'll come soon enough.

Meanwhile the Second Man has brought the Mayor his frock coat. The Mayor approaches Claire Zachanassian with a ceremonious air. The Painter and the Fourth Man on the bench raise their banner: "Welcome Claire Zachanassi ..." The painter didn't quite finish it.

STATIONMASTER, raising his baton. Stand clear!

TRAIN SUPERVISOR. I sincerely hope Madam does not complain to the railway management. It was a pure misunderstanding.

The train starts moving. The Train Supervisor jumps on.

MAYOR. Dear Madam Zachanassian. As mayor of Güllen, it is my honor to welcome you, a child of our town ...

The Mayor goes on talking, though the rest of his speech is obliterated by the din of the train as it races away.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. Thank you, Mayor, for your beautiful speech.

She approaches Ill, who has stepped toward her, somewhat embarrassed.

ILL. Clara.


ILL. How nice that you came.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. It's something I always planned to do. All my life, ever since I left Güllen.

ILL, unsure of himself. That's sweet of you.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN. You thought about me too?

ILL. Of course. Always. You know I did, Clara.


Excerpted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction by Kenneth J. Northcott

The Visit
A Tragicomedy

The Physicists
A Comedy in Two Acts

Romulus the Great
An Ahistorical Historical Comedy in Four Acts

Hercules and the Augean Stables
A Comedy

The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi

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