The works of the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) combine surface realism with an absurd and almost surreal artistic vision, expressed in an abundance of oppressive, distorted, often ironic detail.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born on January 5, 1921, in Konolfingen, Switzerland, near Bern. His father, Rheingold, was a pastor, while his grandfather, Ulrich, was a famous satirist and poet. At 13 he began to study theology, philosophy, German literature, and natural sciences, first at the Gymnasium in Bern and then at the University of Bern. Later he attended the University of Zurich to study art and philosophy. Inexplicably he began to write, yet he entered the field of graphic design in order to support himself. A heavy man with a penchant for cigars, in 1947 he won the heart of Lotti Geisler, a German actress, with whom he had three children. While residing in Basel, he composed Es steht geschrieben ("It Is Written," 1946), which caused scandal when it was produced in 1947 because of its alternative portrayal of religion, yet it earned him a prize. Der Blinde ("The Blind," 1948) was produced the next year.
Dürrenmatt's first success on the postwar German stage was Romulus der Grosse ("Romulus the Great," 1949), an "unhistorical historical comedy" about the fall of the Roman Empire. In this commentary on the absurdity of human values—with contemporary satirical implications—the last Roman emperor, more interested in breeding chickens than in politics, stoically accepts the inevitable course of history and hands his crown to the barbarian invader. The dramatist was later to write, "The world, for me, stands as something monstrous, an enigma of calamity that has to be accepted but to which there must be no surrender."
His next work and first big hit, Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi ("The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi," 1950), was produced in Munich in 1952. A grotesque yet comic "dance of death" mocking ideology as a solution to man's predicament, it was briefly produced off-Broadway in 1958 as Fools Are Passing Through to mixed criticism. With Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon ("An Angel Comes to Babylon," 1953), produced in Munich, Dürrenmatt's reputation was established in Europe. It has been alternatively described as an obscure, fragmentary drama challenging "God's injustice," and as a parable of "a heavenly emissary who brings confusion instead of happiness." Der Besuch der alten Dame ("The Old Lady's Visit," later shortened to just "The Visit", 1955), however, extended the author's impact. Caught in a struggle between moral and material values, the dramatic protagonist of this work is an entire community which slowly succumbs to the temptation of murdering one of its members for the sake of a promised fortune. When it opened on Broadway in 1958, it was one of the most highly praised plays of the season. In 1971 Austrian composer made The Visit into an opera.
Dürrenmatt's nondramatic prose also explores "black comic" elements with penetrating irony. Among the radio scripts prepared during this period are The Vega Enterprise (1956), a science-fiction thriller which ends with the atomic bombing of the last humane sanctuary in a corrupt universe, and Nächtliches Gespräach mit einem verachtelen Menschen ("Nocturnal Conversation With a Scorned Man," 1957), which contains a dialogue between the secret executioner and the idealist on the futility of self-sacrifice and the art of dying. Many of his shorter efforts can be termed detective mysteries. His full-length novel Grieche Sucht Griechin ("Greek Man Seeks Greek Woman," 1955), however, does offer some genuine comic relief from the oppressive quality of the author's world view, but it was panned because its logic escaped its reviewers.
Three years after The Visit Dürrenmatt returned to the theater with Frank V, a poorly received musical drama. Die Physiker ("The Physicists," 1961), his first classically constructed work, restored the playwright to favor. Dürrenmatt preferred to term his plays "comedies," and in Problems of the Theatre (1955) he expressed the belief that tragedy could no longer be written because the modern age, lacking a well-ordered world—with established standards of guilt and retribution—is not suited for it. He continued writing, his plays of note including Play Strindberg (1969), Die Frist ("The Appointed Time," 1977), Achterloo, and Oedipus (1989). His last major work, The Execution of Justice (1989), has been described as the culmination of 400 years of European thought on the topic of justice. Dürrenmatt passed away in 1990.
Many of Dürrenmatt's plays can be found in print, and a good number of those in English. The Playwrights Speak, edited by Walter Wager (1967), includes a chapter by Dürrenmatt on his theory of theater. Murray B. Peppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1970), contains a discussion of Dürrenmatt's writings as well as biographical details. Several critical surveys of drama devote sections to the playwright: see Hugh F. Garten, Modern German Drama (1959).