Durrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory

Durrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory

by Timo Tiusanen


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ISBN-13: 9780691608211
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1562
Pages: 510
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

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A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory

By Timo Tiusanen


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06332-4


Early Prose Works


The poem quoted is probably the earliest piece of literary writing extant by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was written during the night between January 13 and 14, 1943. Dürrenmatt and his artist friend Walter Jonas created a whole picture book on that night, with Dürrenmatt writing the poems, Jonas drawing the pictures. The enterprise was more or less a joke; the book was never published. Though casually sketched, the poem contains several interesting facets: a macabre basic idea, preoccupation with God, a simplistic style continued in Dürrenmatt's early prose. This exercise is a starting-point for his long journey into the absolute grotesque. Dürrenmatt is an author with world-wide ambitions; it is fitting that the first word we have from him is "the world."

Both God and the world are dead in our next piece of evidence. Die Stadt (The City), published in 1952, is a collection of short stories and prose exercises, mostly from the years 1943–46. Its first two pieces are from 1943, a year of severe headache for the world, and of growing pains for Dürrenmatt, then a twenty-two-year-old would-be writer — or painter? That year he also wrote his first play, later destroyed, discussed in our second chapter. In "Weihnacht" ("Christmas"), placed as the opening piece in The City, he sends his nameless alter ego walking into a world so completely dead and frozen that one cannot hear one's own voice: even the echo is silent. In the snow the "I" of the story finds the Christ-child, with no eyes under the lids, and eats up its halo: "It tasted like stale bread. I bit its head off. Old marzipan. I walked on."

According to Fritz Buri there is an old German saying calling the taste of Christ and his grace "old marzipan." Buri does not specify the tone of that saying; the context in Dürrenmatt hardly gives the expression any positive connotations. The air, the stars, the moon, the sun, the echo, the Christ-child, are all dead, and the only living particle in the mysterious endgame landscape does not get any revelation after having tasted Christ's body: "I walked on." God is stifled to death, or Christ is stale bread and old marzipan; if there is a general atmosphere to be read from the matter-off-act tone of these two exercises, it is that of utter disappointment, of the death of hope, of all human emotions. Dürrenmatt tells his stories of minimum length and maximum chilliness without bringing any moral comments of his own into them. He is dramatizing conflicts, not solving problems, and his dramatics take the form of a few barren verbal images.

There is a more active attitude in favor of man, against God, in the next exercise. "Der Folterknecht" ("The Torturer," 1943) is a series of visions of terror, emotionally highly charged, though stylistically simple and rhythmically monotonous. In the middle of a concrete description of a torture chamber, the reader is suddenly confronted by human emotion: "the pains cling to the walls" (S 15). There is more of a plot than before, including suggestions of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theme, or of a kind of Faustian pact between man — and a Devil-like, sadistic God. "The Torturer" is comparable with a medieval copperplate engraving, drawn with a crude technique and dealing with a terrifying subject. Living close to a torture chamber was a simile Max Frisch employed to describe his Swiss experience of World War II in a fragment quoted above. At the end of the story, when the torturer is tortured to death, the central idea is expressed with world-wide, as well as religious, implications: "The torture chamber is the world. The world is pain. The torturer is God. He tortures." (S 20)

The style of these three early exercises is simple, in fact, elementary. Yet their explosive religious ideas make them sound less derivative than the next or middle group of short stories in The City, written in 1945-51. With them we enter a Kafkaesque world of nightmare and guilt. In only a few years, Dürrenmatt had grown more conscious of belonging to a literary tradition. There are clear thematic cross-references; two of the stories, "Die Falle" ("The Trap") and "Der Hund" ("The Dog") can be called variations of themes handled in "The Torturer." Feelings of erotic guilt and death wishes are combined with suggestions about the existence of divided or duplicate personalities.

It is not necessary to give a detailed account of these stories. They or their lonesome heroes show no interest in the usual activities of life; the storytellers just walk around, get engaged in strange undertakings, and see macabre nightmares or visions. The border line between reality and dream is blurred. The surroundings are highly romantic: houses like labyrinths, sometimes as hopelessly fallen down as Poe's house of Usher, rooms or cells below the surface of the earth, moonlit or foggy nights, lighting conditions abruptly changing between glaring sunshine and menacing darkness, fires glowing red as in hell itself. The executioner, a favorite ghastly figure to Dürrenmatt ever since the slaughterers of his childhood, makes his entrance a few times, as he did in "The Torturer," too. The total effect might be grotesque — yet the other half, the normal everyday life, is lacking. There is no tension between conflicting elements, because the stories dive headlong into the mysterious underworld of crime and punishment, guilt and innocent suffering. The fearsome is not made ludicrous; the texts are chemically pure of humor.

It is surprising that the writer of these stories was ready to establish himself as a comedian in his next phase. Dürrenmatt began his work as a heavyweight Kafkaist, not as a realist.

Three stories are worth closer analysis, for various reasons. "Der Theaterdirektor" ("Theater Manager," 1945) moves closer to recent historical reality than any other story in the collection. It is a parable of Hitler's Germany, projected into a sphere of life Dürrenmatt felt tempted to enter, the world of the theater. Its villain is a spider-like theater manager, using his art as a steppingstone to further his political aspirations. He reduces the actors to marionettes, the stage to a prison cell without any dimension of depth; all accidental and individual features are cut away from the plays, until there is just one message left, a collectivistic proclamation against human freedom. Dürrenmatt's simile works on two levels: it corresponds to what happened in German theater life in the 1930's and to what was taking place on the political stage.

What Dürrenmatt criticized in this early story is in harmony with his later antipathies as a practicing playwright. There is, however, one notable exception: in his story he sternly rejects the idea of mixing up contradictory tones of voice, a mark of his own later style. "Most devilish of all was that ... the genres began to intermingle, so that tragedy was turned into comedy, comedy forged to resemble tragedy" (S 62). Brock-Sulzer tries to explain away this surprising attitude by referring to the "extra-theatrical aims" of this theater manager. A more probable interpretation is that mixing the genres was an inborn inclination in Dürrenmatt, and he wrote down that condemnation when caught by a puritan fit of self-doubts. He has his caprices, his path its twists.

The climax of "Theater Manager" takes place during the festive inaugural performance of a new theater. The supreme theatrical manipulations of the manager deify the audience, until anybody daring to contradict the collective ecstasy is found to be guilty of sacrilege. There is such an individual, an actress unwilling to submit to the measured steps of the ensemble. She is literally torn to pieces, in front of the audience, and this scene charged with mass hysteria marks the outbreak of a political revolution. Though the climax is unnecessarily violent and the execution of the story not flawless, Dürrenmatt's metaphor develops, for the first time, the dimensions of an artistic symbol with a multiple motivation. This happens, symptomatically enough, in a story placed in the theater. "Theater Manager" is truthful both as a description of Hitler's gradual stealing into power and as a commentary on the world of the theater.

"Der Tunnel" ("The Tunnel"), both begun and completed in the early 1950's, is no longer an exercise. It is the strongest link between Dürrenmatt's short prose pieces and his novels; it is an achievement that would defend its place in any anthology of short fiction published in German since World War II. The entire story grows into a poetic metaphor of the world suffering from headache. Both its narrative details and its total structure are rhythmically well mastered; the ticktack rhythm of Dürrenmatt's first exercises is left miles behind, as the writer sends his train into a tunnel not far from his home town. The train is never to emerge from the tunnel.

Dürrenmatt is conscientious in creating an atmosphere of everyday life in the first pages of the story. The normal is emphasized as a contrast to the abnormal that is soon to break into it. The precarious balance between the contradictory elements in the grotesque, lacking in The City so far, is now firmly established. Dürrenmatt sketches a hilarious self-portrait to function as the third-person hero of the story: a fat twenty-four-year-old undergraduate engaged in nebulous studies and having the ability to see the terrible behind the scenes (S 151). Before this ability is put to the test, the other passengers in the compartment are outlined with a light hand and with a curious interest in life new to the readers of The City.

Then the train passes into the tunnel, and the landscape, golden in the light of the sinking evening sun, is wiped away by the darkness of the tunnel walls. There are no signs of alarm, not even after there should be: the student knows the location of the tunnel well enough, and his watch tells him that the train should already have passed out of the tunnel. He dismisses the possibility that he might have taken the wrong train, then starts pressing the conductor. There must be some explanation for the overlong journey in the tunnel, mustn't there? Yet people everywhere in the overcrowded train go on with their business as if nothing had happened — and Dürrenmatt goes on furnishing his story with touches of humor: "In a second-class compartment an Englishman, beaming with peace, stood at the window of the corridor and tapped the windowpane with the pipe he was smoking. 'Simplon,' he said" (S 157).

After a daring climb over the locomotive, the student and the conductor arrive in the driver's cabin, only to find it empty. Something abnormal has taken over. With accelerating speed, not controlled by the levers and switches of the engine, the train is rushing toward the center of the earth, toward a vacuum, "racing madly with the speed of a star through a world made of stone" (S 161). The situation is hopeless, yet the student preserves his calmness of mind and even gives the closing line of the story "not without ghostly hilarity": "'What shall we do?' ... 'Nothing. God let us fall and thus we are rushing up to him'" (S 167).

"The Tunnel" is not only a remarkably well-rounded short story, it is also characteristically Dürrenmattian. One of the aims of his art is to show us the wild and chaotic underworld beneath the surface of our clean, safe, and bourgeois Swiss, European, and Western way of living. Dürrenmatt is an artistic reconnoiterer penetrating into that world, into Hermann Hesse's "other reality." He believes in the existence of such a world of unmotivated guilt, of alienation, and of constant disorder. We may, as mankind, be rushing headlong toward our destruction. As individuals, we are rushing toward our death.

The above is a general justification for Dürrenmatt's artistic symbol, absurd as it is. There are also more specifically personal features in the story. Dürrenmatt has his world-wide ambitions, he wants to cover this planet of ours with the results of his thinking; yet he has to admit that the position of writers and other artists is not what it used to be. Science is there, too; minds schooled to think only in figures and formulas, only in terms of facts and columns, are unwilling to give any factual value to the fears and apprehensions of the individual. "The Tunnel" is directed against this line of thinking. The fundamental idea of The Physicists, Dürrenmatt's protest against the hydrogen bomb, is already here, as a seed. Dürrenmatt sends his train toward the center of the earth, through solid rock or whatever science knows is there. The fall is not to be stopped with the levers and switches of science.

"The Tunnel" shows symptoms of scientophobia. Dürrenmatt is also sensitive to the bacilli of scholarophobia, as we shall see. Living in the middle of a world full of ready-made formulas, he defends his own freedom of movement. He does this with defiance and polemical gusto. In "The Tunnel" he takes a commonly accepted truth, a law of nature, and mishandles it until we are ready to approve its direct opposite. There is nothing so unequivocal as the railroad, a direct line of communication between two points. This is the formula of thought Dürrenmatt twists and bends until we are ready to believe that the railroad between Berne and Zurich leads toward the middle of the earth. Or into nowhere.

In this artistic miracle he is helped both by his own growing skills and by a nightmare or irrational fear shared by many. "The Tunnel" is built as a trap for the reader; before he even notices what the writer is about to do, safely identifying himself with the ignorant passengers of the train, he is tempted to put some faith in the symptoms of the abnormal. The scenes and what is behind them are shaped with equal persuasiveness. In all of its illogicality, the story proceeds just as logically as the most convincing creations of Kafka, Dürrenmatt's master par excellence. At the same time, the pupil is proving his independence by his "ghostly hilarity." And "The Tunnel" is an artistic equivalent to that odd claustrophobic feeling at the bottom of one's stomach when the train, any train, rushes into a tunnel, and the safe world of sunshine is left behind. Depending on one's habits, this feeling is perhaps more terrifying in the Alps than on the metros of man-built cities: there the huge mass of the mountains, untamed nature, rises above one. After a passing moment of apprehension one resorts, of course, to one's reason. There is nothing so safe as a railroad, a direct line of communication between two points ...

Urs J. Baschung draws the conclusion that in Dürrenmatt's work as a whole there is a belief in a Christian world order. On the other hand, Hans Mayer speaks of Dürrenmatt's "theology without God"; "God has thus let us fall. ... God is there, but useless for the human condition." The calmness of mind or "ghostly hilarity" experienced by the student is achieved only at the expense of total disaster for Dürrenmatt's symbol of mankind. Calmness of despair or serenity caused by complete trust in God? Or an absolute grotesque? A matter of faith? "Pilatus" ("Pilate"), the last story in The City, includes Dürrenmatt's next word on the relations between God and man; it was not to be his last.

Dürrenmatt's message is hardly consoling. "Pilatus," written as early as 1946, is the other important achievement in the volume, and masterly in every detail. Attaining a style suited to the period was no problem for Dürrenmatt, later a writer of several historical plays. The story of Christ's last days is told from the point of view of Pilate, largely as a stream of his perceptions. When he sees Christ, Pilate immediately recognizes him as God, and his first reaction is a fear of God. "Fear" in the original meaning of the word: terror. "The chasm between man and God had been infinitely wide, and now, as God had built a bridge over this chasm, and had become man, he [Pilate] had to perish, be shattered by Him like one thrown by waves against a cliff" (S 177–78). Looking at the scene of the scourging of Christ from a dark corner, Pilate knows that "there existed between God and man no understanding except death, no grace except damnation, and no love except hatred" (S 184). Then he rides to the cross, through a landscape grotesquely distorted by the earthquake mentioned in the Bible. The entire world is alienated and weird; in this story Dürrenmatt has created a demonic absolute grotesque, devoid of the humor balancing "The Tunnel." At the foot of the cross, Pilate sees above his head, as the last horror of the day, "the dead face of God" (S 192).

Pilate à la Dürrenmatt: a strange executioner, suffering in the role he is compelled to play to the death at the end, a substitute torturer. The scourging scene toward the end of the story: a scenic image hidden in narrative prose, visualized in its every detail, with exactly coordinated, purposeful lighting effects. The religious attitudes in Dürrenmatt's firstling: ambivalent and somber, with emphasis on suffering and torture. According to Arnold, the collection is a circle starting from Christmas and the Christ-child and closing on the day of Christ's resurrection. Both of these God-figures "abandon man, they do not care for him, one has to write them off as consolation and hope." The City s an artistic whole: interesting evidence of Dürrenmatt's fight to "achieve distance from the picture that possessed" him, through studies in philosophy, through these exercises (S 197). A portrait of the writer as a young painter.


Excerpted from Dürrenmatt by Timo Tiusanen. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Abbreviations, pg. x
  • List of Illustrations, pg. xii
  • Introduction: A Host of Dürrenmatts, pg. 1
  • 1. Early Prose Works: A Dead End, pg. 31
  • 2. Poetry in Picture Books: It Is Written, The Blind Man, pg. 43
  • 3. A Judge of His Own Case: Romulus the Great, pg. 73
  • 4. Don Quixote in a Broken Mirror: The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, pg. 93
  • 6. Nature Behind the Scenes: Three Novels, pg. 127
  • 7. The Absolute Grotesque Takes Over: A Dangerous Game, The Pledge, pg. 149
  • 8. More Than a Reservoir of Themes: Radio Plays, pg. 176
  • 9. A Judge of His Own Craft: Writings On The Theater, pg. 202
  • 10. All Roads Lead to Guellen: The Visit, pg. 223
  • 11. Freedom Among the Gangsters: Frank V, pg. 255
  • 12. Doctoring a Hopeless Patient: The Physicists, pg. 266
  • 13. The Other Half of the Paradox: Hercules, The Meteor, pg. 287
  • 14. His Own Dramaturge: The Anabaptists, pg. 309
  • 15. "Strindmatt or Dürrenberg?": Play Strindberg, pg. 322
  • 16. Shake-Scening the Barbs: Four Adaptations, pg. 336
  • 17. Cosmic and Underground Visions: Portrait of a Planet, The Partaker, pg. 366
  • 18. Models of the State: Five Prose Works, pg. 379
  • Conclusion: Dürrenmatt and the Stage, pg. 417
  • Appendix: A List of Works, pg. 441
  • Bibliography, pg. 443
  • Index, pg. 469

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