Friedrich Diirrenmatt - World Literature

World Literature

Friedrich Diirrenmatt


BORN: 1921, Konolfingen, Switzerland

DIED: 1990, Neuchatel, Switzerland


GENRE: Drama, fiction


Romulus the Great (1949)

The Physicists (1962)

The Meteor (1966)

Play Strindberg (1969)

Achterloo (1983)



Friedrich Diirrenmatt. Keystone / Getty Images



Friedrich Durrenmatt was the leading German-language dramatist of his generation, after Bertolt Brecht. He dominated German, Austrian, and Swiss repertoires and was familiar to audiences throughout Europe, North America, and South America. When not directing the plays himself, he regularly participated in their production, revising and rewriting in consultation with actors up to the last minute; if the performance failed to affect the audience as he thought it should, he cast the text in a new version.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Early Artistic Talent. Friedrich Durrenmatt was born on January 5, 1921, in the Emmental region of Switzerland to Reinhold Durrenmatt, a pastor of the Konolfingen church, and Hulda Zimmermann Durrenmatt. In 1933 Durrenmatt entered the secondary school in the neighboring village of Grosshochstetten; he spent his spare time in the studio of a local painter, who encouraged him to indulge his passion for painting and drawing. He pursued this activity all his life and was twenty-three before he decided to concentrate on writing stories and plays and to make visual art an avocation.

A Series of Interruptions in Studies. The family moved in 1935 to the city of Bern, where Durrenmatt’s father was appointed pastor of the Salem Hospital. Durrenmatt was enrolled at the Freies Gymnasium, a Christian secondary school, where he lasted two and a half years before he was invited to leave. He transferred to a less rigorous private school, the Humboldtianum, from which he regularly skipped class. He frequently attended the City Theater of Bern, where his uncle, a government official, held a reserved seat.

Upon graduating from high school, after being rejected by the Institute of Art, he enrolled at the University of Zurich, where for one semester he studied philosophy, literature, and natural science. He then became a student of philosophy at the University of Bern for a semester, tutoring in Greek and Latin to earn pocket money. His studies were interrupted—this time, not his fault—when he was called to military duty. Although Switzerland, with its linguistic and cultural melange of German, French, Italian, and Romansh, was neutral in World War II (1939-1945), it maintained a strong military, actively conscribing citizens as part of a plan to deter a potential (and, indeed, fully planned, though never materialized) German invasion. In 1942, Durrenmatt returned to the University of Zurich for two semesters, spending most of his time in the company of painters and writing plays and stories. In 1943, though, he fell sick with hepatitis and returned home to Bern. He spent his final four semesters of university study there, concentrating on philosophy and contemplating the possibility of a doctoral dissertation on Soren Kierkegaard and tragedy.

Marriage and Writing for the Basel Stage. In 1946, Durrenmatt married actress Lotti Geissler. They settled in Basel in 1947, at about the time he was completing his first radio play, The Double (1960), which was turned down by Swiss Radio, and his first drama, It Is Written (1947). Opening night spectators in Zurich booed the latter; but reviewers recognized Durrenmatt’s powerful talent and potential, and he received a cash prize from the Welti Foundation to encourage him to continue writing. His second play, The Blind Man (1947), aroused neither outrage nor much interest in its initial production and was removed from the Basel repertoire after nine performances. Productions at two other theaters fared no better.

The Humor of Classical History. On August 6, 1947, the Durrenmatts’ first child, Peter, was born. After the failure of The Blind Man the family could no longer afford to live in Basel, and they moved to Schernelz, where Lotti’s mother, Frau Falb, had a home. Durrenmatt was also helped financially by friends and anonymous patrons who wanted to foster his talent.

Before the move, though, he had agreed to provide the Basel theater with a play titled ‘‘The Building of the Tower of Babel’’; the cast had been selected, and the manuscript had grown to four acts. But mature consideration forced him to destroy it. The play he quickly wrote instead, Romulus the Great (1949), became the first of his enduring theatrical successes. The work reflected Durrenmatt’s knowledge of Roman history and classical works and concerns the rule of Emperor Romulus Augustulus during the tail end of the Roman Empire. Although the work is not meant to be historically accurate, many of the details—such as the main character’s obsession with rearing chickens—were taken from actual historical figures and events. The play was also produced in Zurich in 1948, and in 1949 it became the first major Durrenmatt production in Germany when the Gottingen theater performed it. Critics were stingy with praise, objecting to the anachronisms and some of the comic effects, but the play became a standard in the German-speaking theater and beyond, perhaps not least because—after the tragedies of the Holocaust (in which Nazis deliberately murdered 6 million Jews and many others) and such Allied atrocities as the firebombing of Dresden—the German-speaking world was desperate for history with a hint of humor in it.

Writing Detective Plays to Pay Avant-Garde Bills. Royalties did not yet amount to much, however, and the Falb household started to become cramped as the family grew by two daughters: Barbara and Ruth. Adding to expenses was Durrenmatt’s hospitalization for diabetes. He turned, then, in part to pay the rent on a house in the region of Ligerz in west-central Switzerland, to writing detective novels—with great success. His income, augmented by royalties from radio plays, was great enough to make possible the purchase in 1952 of a house above the city of Neuchatel in which he lived until his death. Durrenmatt had completed the manuscript for The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi in 1950, only to have it rejected by Swiss theaters. Also in 1952, however, Hans Schweikart, manager of the Munich Intimate Theater, directed the premiere, establishing Durrenmatt in Germany as an avant-garde dramatist. The play was praised by critics, although its follow-up, An Angel Comes to Babylon (1953), did not measure up to the first.

The Physicists (1963) proved to be another resounding success for Durrenmatt. The play tells the story of a brilliant scientist who hides in an asylum and pretends to be insane in order to keep his potentially dangerous discoveries away from those in power, and in order to continue his research unmolested. The work reflects the unease that many people felt in the aftermath of World War II and during the height of the Cold War, when the efforts of scientists were increasingly applied to the development of instruments of destruction. Writing from historically neutral Switzerland, one can imagine how Durrenmatt must have seen the United States and the Soviet Union—rivals in the Cold War and in the concomitant arms race—as paranoid, globe-spanning madmen. From the play’s perspective, it is the cold war policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction: the idea that no one would want to launch the first nuclear missile because both sides had the capacity to completely destroy one another) that ensures the evil results attendant on the physicists’ mental exertions, though Durrenmatt was also highly critical of scientists’ irresponsibility for the application of their work.

Strindberg, but Not Shakespeare. King John (1968), based on William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John (c. 1595), was greeted enthusiastically, but Durrenmatt’s other Shakespeare adaptation, Titus Andronicus (1970), was a failure. The audience booed during the performance, and critical rejection was unanimous. Durrenmatt’s most successful adaptation was Play Strindberg (1969)—based on part 1 and the end of part 2 of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death (1901). The piece has been played on major stages in Europe and America.

Retiring from the Stage in Style. Durrenmatt’s final drama, Achterloo (1983)—the title is a place name from a children’s rhyme—underwent four revisions, the definitive one prepared especially for the 1988 Schwetzingen Festival. In 1988, though, Durrenmatt announced his decision to abandon the theater, and two years later he died at his home, on December 14, 1990. Despite an up- and-down career as a playwright, he did not leave the stage without recognition. In his lifetime he won seventeen prestigious awards, was made honorary member at Ben- Gurion University in Israel in 1974, and earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1983. And his plays such as The Visit and The Physicists are still among the most frequently performed plays in the Germanspeaking world.



Duerrenmatt's famous contemporaries include:

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): The German playwright and theater director credited with developing the concept of ''epic theater.''

Vaclav Havel (1936—): A Czech playwright imprisoned for his opposition to the Czech government in the 1970s, Havel later served as president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic from 1989 to 2003.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005): A Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, most famous for his plays The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): A French philosopher and author known for his ideas of existentialism, or the belief that life has no objective meaning beyond an individual's own life-project.

Toni Morrison (1931—): A celebrated American author and professor, she is both a Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author, the first black woman to win the latter.



Here are a few works by writers who also wrote about the futility of solving humanity's problems:

The Bald Soprano (1950), a play by Eugene Ionesco. In this work, wives do not know their husbands, local visitors are misunderstood, and everyone is unnerved.

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), a play by Eugene O'Neill. In this modern drama, excruciatingly close focus is put on the dysfunctional Tyrone family.

Marat/Sade (1963), a play by Peter Weiss. In the tradition of Antonin Artaud, the playwright offers a bloody, provocative examination of human suffering.

Waiting for Godot (1953), a play by Samuel Beckett. This play is a stark and daunting exploration of human cruelty, human tolerance, and human perception.


Works in Literary Context

Wide-Ranging Influences. Durrenmatt’s complex works take inspiration from a multitude of sources: father and grandfather left their imprint on ‘‘the pastor’s boy Fritzli,’’ as he was called by the townspeople, in his intense preoccupation with religion, his conservative cast of mind, and the hard-hitting satire of his plays. The tales his father recounted from classical mythology and the Bible stories his mother told him provided material for many of his major works. And although his early plays such as The Blind Man suffered from philosophical and theological pretension, Durrenmatt took influence from his intensive studies of the works of Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

A Library of Styles. For as many influences as there were on his playwriting, so were there that many styles and genres in which Durrenmatt wrote—including individual and mixes of comedy, murder mystery, spy drama, love story, and intellectual pieces. The Physicists (1963), for instance, incorporates all of these—yet Durrenmatt delivers the work in straightforward language that fits a tight Aristotelian structure still considered the basic plot structure today. As another clever device, he artfully lures his audience into the trap of enjoying what seems to be a heartwarming happy ending, only to show it to be mere wishful thinking and a misperception of the hard truth that events will always take the worst imaginable turn.

Disillusionment and the Decline of Humanity. Like many of the thinkers he studied, and like many authors writing after World War II and the Holocaust, Durrenmatt was concerned with the decline of humanity. Consistently there appear the tones of nihilism—or a belief in nothing—and the accompanying attitudes that suggest despair, anxiety, and hopelessness. In many of Durrenmatt’s plays, the heroic characters actively fight against the worst impulses of the human condition and fail. This is shown in The Visit, where the teacher—the last holdout arguing against the murder of the man who drove off Claire—finally succumbs to the overwhelming greed of the majority. This play has also been read as a response to the pervasive poverty in Europe after the Second World War, and to the U.S. Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Europe—though Durrenmatt himself often warned against reading his characters as symbols, noting, ‘‘Misunderstandings creep in, because people desperately search the hen yard of my drama for the egg of explanation which I steadfastly refuse to lay.’’


Works in Critical Context

Durrenmatt’s most popular plays, especially The Visit (1956) and The Physicists (1962), made him the darling of theater people and critics. But as directing styles changed and texts came to be seen as mere raw material, Durrenmatt began to complain of inadequate performances of his works. He also found reviewers rejecting his work because it seemed uncommitted when compared to the activist message plays and documentaries that began to appear in the late 1960s. Germany in particular experienced a strong surge in literary activism as the ‘‘68ers,’’ the student activists who protested frequently in 1968 for a more just and equitable society, came to dominate the arts world. Several of Durrenmatt’s works held up under the criticism, however. One such play is The Meteor.

The Meteor (1966). A mix of farce and the macabre, the play offers one magnificent role in its central character and several challenging secondary ones: On a seemingly endless hot, sunny midsummer day, visitors climb the stairs to the stuffy garret where Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wolfgang Schwitter starved as a young artist and where he has chosen to try to die after failing to do so in the hospital. He is irritable and says unexpected and hurtful things to those who confront him; it seems that the ‘‘resurrected’’ behave in an unfettered, demonic way, bringing out the worst in others.

Most critics have admired Durrenmatt’s imaginative power, even those who do not know what to make of the final scene: One thought it a failed effort at profundity, others found it anticlimactic, and a few objected to the irreverence toward the Salvation Army. Such criticism was particularly galling to Durrenmatt, who never tired of demonstrating in his plays the severe damage done by ideologies and their true believers. More recently, critic Roger Crockett has suggested in Understanding Friedrich Diirrenmatt that “Durrenmatt’s characters are most often involved in some form of game, and understanding how and why they play is a big part of understanding the author.’’ That Durrenmatt ‘‘has largely been neglected in the English-speaking world in recent years,’’ argues literary scholar Kenneth Northcott, ‘‘reflects a regrettable insularity on the part of the theatrical world of the United States in particular.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Although Durrenmatt’s plays often focus on the darkest parts of human nature, he has pointed out that they are meant to be comedies. Read The Visit. Do you think comedy is an effective way of addressing humanity’s faults? Why or why not? In your opinion, does The Visit succeed as comedy? Support your opinion with examples from the work.

2. In several of his plays, Durrenmatt performs a study of opposites. Consider one or more of his works and identify the opposing forces or characters. How are they different? Where is the tension most obvious? Is one ‘‘side’’ more likeable, or more sympathetic?

3. How does Durrenmatt’s play The Physicists reflect European anxieties during the cold war? Provide a brief description of the cold war in order to better focus your analysis of the play.

4. In an interview conducted by Violet Ketels at Temple University, Durrenmatt recounts how he studied philosophy and theology for ten semesters. In It Is Written, he describes a spiritual crisis. Where in a Durrenmatt work is there evidence of his sense of a god? How does that play reveal his attitudes about that god, and what do these attitudes seem to be?




Crockett, Roger Alan. Understanding Friedrich Diirrenmatt. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Fritzen, Bodo, and Heimy F. Taylor, eds. Friedrich Diirrenmatt: A Collection of Critical Essays. Normal, 111.: Applied Literature Press, 1979.

Wilbert-Collins, Elly. A Bibliography of Four Contemporary German-Swiss Authors: Friedrich Diirrenmatt, Max Frisch, Robert Walser, Albin Zollinger. Bern, Switzerland: Francke, 1967.


Cory, Mark E. ‘‘Shakespeare and Durrenmatt: From Tragedy to Tragicomedy.’’ Comparative Literature 32 (Summer 1981): 253-73.

Ketels, Violet. ‘‘Friedrich Durrenmatt at Temple University: Interview.’’ Journal of Modern Literature 1, no. 1 (1971): 88-108.

Web sites

Books and Writers. Friedrich Durrenmatt (1921-1990). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Der Weg. Friedrich Durrenmatt (in German). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Imagination. Friedrich Durrenmatt. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from