man who failed to invent the Theater of the Absurd (but was one of its
strongest proponents) was born in Switzerland on January 5, 1921.
Although destined to become a prominent playwright and essayist, he didn't make
his mark until after World War II, and then primarily in Switzerland and Germany.
Dürrenmatt believed that pure tragedy is impossible to achieve in an age and
time when clear definitions of good and evil no longer exist. As an
alternative, he suggested that "we can achieve the tragic out of comedy."
So, through the use of the Brechtian technique, he set about crafting his
plays so that both actors and audience maintained a distance to both the
play's plot and
But Dürrenmatt strayed from Brecht, who believed in reason and change,
by crafting his plays to show the pessimism that exists in modern society.
"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
Dürrenmatt was born to a Protestant minister in Konolfingen,
Switzerland. His family moved to Berne when his father became chaplain at Salem
Hospital in 1935. Six years later, Dürrenmatt enrolled in the University, where he studied literature
and philosophy. He also spent time painting, drawing, and reading a
wide variety of tragedies, from Aristophanes to Kafka, Kierkegaard, and
Ernst Jünger, all of whom influenced the Swiss writer greatly.
After studying art at the University of Zurich in 1942-43, Dürrenmatt
returned to Berne to devote his life to writing. His first play, Es
steht geschrieben, premiered in Zurich in April 1947. It was about
the suppression of a religious group, the Anabaptists, in Münster in
16th-century Germany. Der Blinde (1948) failed at the box
office, but Romulus the Great (1949) was an international success.
In it, the last Roman emperor allows his empire to perish in order to save
In 1946, Dürrenmatt married actress Lotti Geissler, who bore him a son
and two daughters. They settled in Ligerz where he wrote sketches for
political cabarets, radio plays, and theatre reviews and essays for the
weekly magazines, Die Weltwoche and Berne Nation. He
collected his views on theatre in Theaterprobleme (1955), in which he
developed his concept of tragicomedy in order to "correct man's concept of reality."
According to Dürrenmatt, Friedrich Schiller's idea of the tragic had become
unworkable because it presupposes a clear concept of the world. But,
in the nuclear age, "we can be reached only by comedy" behind which
slowly exposes itself.
In 1952, Dürrenmatt moved to Neuchâtel, and in 1968, he was named
co-director of the Basel Theatre. The following year, he became a
freelance artistic adviser at the Zurich Schauspielhaus. From 1968 to
1971, he co-edited the Züricher Sonntags-Journal.
Dürrenmatt received numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including The Schiller Prize (1959), the
New York Drama Critics Circle awards for The Visit, the Austrian
State Prize (1984), the Büchner Prize (1986), and honorary degrees from five
He made his international breakthrough as a playwright with
The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (1952), produced in New York under the
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." Mississippi eventually dies
after drinking poisoned coffee intended for Anastasia's lover, and Anastasia
dies of coffee poisoned by her husband.
The Physicist, a comment on the morals of science in a world full
of unscrupulous politicians, is considered by many critics Dürrenmatt's
finest dramatic effort. 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 he finds 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 eventually chooses to remain in the asylum,
realizing that the world outside is becoming far too dangerous.
"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,
In his own detective novels, as in his plays, Dürrenmatt examines the
questions of guilt, responsibility, and redemption. In The Pledge,
which begins as a lecture and a travel story, he writes: "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."
novel was filmed in 2001, starring Jack Nicholson as an old homicide
detective. On the eve of his retirement, he makes a pledge to a mother
that he will not rest until he finds the killer of her eight-year-old girl.
The film was directed by Sean Penn.
From the mid-1970s, Dürrenmatt grew increasingly disenchanted with the
stage and concentrated on prose experiments and essays. In many
essays, he examines 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
objected to all totalitarian ideologies, from Communism to Nazism.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt died of heart failure in Neuchâtel on December 14,
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