Friedrich Durrenmatt
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Dürrenmatt’s Essays


by Brian Evenson

Essays on Dürrenmatt
Dürrenmatt’s Drama
by Kenneth J. Northcott
Dürrenmatt’s Fiction
by Theodore Ziolkowski
Dürrenmatt’s Essays
by Brian Evenson
In America, Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt is known primarily as a dramatist, as the author of plays such as The Visit, The Physicists, and The Meteor. His plays show him to have been influenced by, but not beholden to, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Büchner, August Strindberg, Thornton Wilder, expressionism, and absurdist drama, among other things. Indeed, Dürrenmatt’s drama draws from a number of distinct traditions without ever committing fully to any given one.

Dürrenmatt is secondarily known as a writer of both serious and detective fiction, often producing work that combines generic and literary concerns. One of his novels that straddles the line between genre and serious fiction, The Pledge (1958), was recently made into a movie. The Pledge is perhaps Dürrenmatt’s most impressive prose work. It has many of the satisfactions of a detective novel, but in addition it avoids the easy complacencies of the genre: in it, the detective figure concocts an impressive and clever scheme for trapping a child killer, but chance gets in the way, making a neat resolution impossible. Subtitled by Dürrenmatt "Requiem for the Detective Novel," The Pledge appropriates the form for literary effect. The result is a groundbreaking genre bender that puts Dürrenmatt on par with Alain Robbe-Grillet (The Erasers) and anticipates the work of Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) as well as the neo-noir novels of writers such as Laird Hunt (The Impossibly), Marie Redonnet (Nevermore), and Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn), not to mention David Lynch’s and Dennis Potter’s work in film.

I begin with Dürrenmatt’s drama and fiction because the generic flexibility Dürrenmatt uses masterfully in both forms shapes his essays as well. Just as his drama and fiction resist generic strictures and structures, so too do his essays refuse to fit neatly into traditional essay forms. They draw on other forms, establishing an odd relationship to philosophy and fiction. These are not the polite essays that fit snugly into the acceptable limitations of the form; instead, these are essays that refuse, in some very basic ways, to be treated as essays.

In America, Dürrenmatt is virtually unknown as an essayist. Only two of the ten essays gathered in this volume have had much circulation here. "Theater Problems" was initially published in America as "Problems of the Theater" in a volume of four Dürrenmatt plays by Grove Press in 1965; it was reprinted in 1982 in Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Plays and Essays. Perhaps not surprisingly, his most published essay is also the essay most focused on the theater, the essay most obviously subsidiary to his dramatic art. The other previously available essay, "Monster Lecture on Justice and Law," is a long meditation on the relation of justice and mercy. It is perhaps Dürrenmatt’s most comprehensive attempt to work up a synthesis of political notions and philosophical ideas, but it has received a great deal less attention than "Theater Problems."

The essays gathered here span the majority of Dürrenmatt’s writing life. "Theater Problems" is the oldest essay in the volume, written in 1954 and 1955, and the latest essays in the volume were published in 1990, the year of Dürrenmatt’s death. Some of the essays are seemingly informal, as if transcribed versions of spoken lectures (which in fact several were), and come across as almost effortless meditations. Others, such as "The Winter War in Tibet," seem more akin to short stories than to essays, and recall some of Alexander Kluge’s texts’ ability to vacillate between the fictional and the real. Sometimes Dürrenmatt uses the essay to work through philosophical and poetic concerns that come to full fruition in his drama or his stories. Sometimes as well the political concerns that are submerged but always present in his drama are allowed to come to the fore. Even those essays that initially seem to be preceding in a straightforward fashion undergo odd and startling swerves as they approach their conclusion, with Dürrenmatt in their last few pages radically transforming our sense of the essay as a whole. For Dürrenmatt the essay form is much more fluid and open-ended than it is for most writers; indeed, he is one of the few real innovators of essayistic form.

Before speaking in some detail about the essays themselves it makes sense to speak of the original context from which half of these essays came. In 1981, Dürrenmatt published Stoffe I-III (translatable as "subject matter" or "material"), a single volume consisting of three sections: The Winter War in Tibet (Der Winterkrieg in Tibet), Lunar Eclipse (Mondfinsternis), and The Rebel (Der Rebell). Only the first of these is included here, and only part of that—"The Winter War in Tibet" is the longest and most extended narrative from a series of very different texts gathered in the section of the same name. Almost a decade later, in 1990, Dürrenmatt published a second Stoffe volume: Turmbau: Stoffe IV-IX (Tower Building: Subject Matter IV-IX; the tower in question is the Tower of Babel). This volume consists of six chapters, with portions of four of them reproduced here as "The Bridge," "Automobile and Railroad Nations," "The Brain," and "Vinter."

Initially this seems straightforward enough: essays and narratives taken from two volumes that gathered together essays and narratives. Where it becomes complicated is in Dürrenmatt’s own sense of what Stoffe amounted to. Dürrenmatt considered Stoffe to be an autobiography of sorts, but an autobiography that has really very little interest in portraying Dürrenmatt’s actual life. As Roger Crockett suggests, Dürrenmatt "considers his life as too privileged, measured against the fate of millions, to be worthy of narration. When he nevertheless writes about himself, it is not to give the history of his life, but rather the history of his subject matter—in particular that which he has never published. ’By outlining these especially, I am groping my way back in the development of my thought processes as though following an animal’s track, and that which I scare up from the brush is my life.’"

In other words, Stoffe is an autobiography that is hardly an autobiography at all. All the autobiographical elements of the two volumes are there not for their own sake, not as a record of Dürrenmatt’s life, but as a provocation, as an attempt to use autobiography to get somewhere else, to understand the creative process. The narratives that are generated from this transformative process are thus sometimes quite a great distance from actual life; indeed, quite often they read like pieces of fiction. But it is a fiction that, in the original German context, makes promises of connection between life and autobiography, which has been gathered together as a way of defining and presenting Dürrenmatt himself. It is this idiosyncrasy, above all, that helps to explain the oddness of many of these essays.

But, at the same time, it is hardly a satisfying explanation to state that the reason some of these essays read more like stories than essays is that they were originally part of an autobiography that didn’t read like an autobiography and wasn’t exactly autobiographical in purpose. Such a statement makes it feel as if one is trapped in Dürrenmatt’s play The Physicists, a play in which actual physicists are pretending to be madmen who are pretending to be historical physicists. Nothing is what it seems. You might say that these essays are pretending to be stories that are in turn pretending to be biography that are in turn pretending to be essays.

The choice of organization of the ten essays gathered in this volume in Joel Agee’s masterful translation is somewhat eccentric, as is perhaps most appropriate to essays of this type, which are eccentrically composed as well. They are not arranged chronologically, or alphabetically, or even thematically; instead one moves from an essay that relies on fiction to a more philosophical essay to a speech to notes, and back and forth, the resulting order offering a quite satisfyingly varied read, which is perhaps best approached here in the specifics of individual essays rather than through generalities.

The Winter War in Tibet

The longest essay in the volume, "The Winter War in Tibet" is also the most complex. From the essay’s beginning, which declares, "I am a soldier of fortune and I am proud of it," the reader is forced to ask, "To what extent can this really be classified as an essay?" The action is dramatic; the situation described is postapocalyptic and fictionalized. The piece is narrated by a soldier of fortune who first fights in the mountains of Tibet and then, after the destruction of the world by nuclear war, continues to fight in a labyrinth of tunnels found underneath the mountains. He fights "in the name of the Administration" against "the enemy." As the narrative progresses, neither he nor anyone else seems quite sure why they are still fighting or even who is fighting, and since both sides wear the same white uniforms anyone is a potential enemy. While belief in God or in an immortal soul is optional, "doubt in the existence of an enemy must never be allowed to arise in the mind of a mercenary, for the simple reason that it will kill him." One cannot ask who the enemy is, for to do so is to sow the seeds of doubt. As the war continues, its parameters become increasingly vague until all any mercenary has to hold on to is the hope that there might be some meaning behind the war. Mercenaries, to stay sane, begin to imagine what this meaning might be, and then begin to insist on the reality of their imaginings. Soon, in addition to fighting the enemy, the mercenaries are at odds with one another, at odds with those who see the war as having a different meaning. Mercenaries form sects and murder other mercenaries. Even the mercenary who narrates this tale owes his rise in power to the killing of his own commander when the latter shows doubts about the existence of an actual enemy.

Soon, wounded, the narrator has been transformed into a sort of wheelchair-bound cyborg equipped with a prosthetic machine-gun arm. With a steel stylus on his other prosthetic arm he has been scratching his thoughts into the rock walls of the tunnels below the mountains. He writes, trying to describe the nature of the Administration. He quickly rejects, in his search for understanding, the laws of dialectical materialism and causality; he sees justice and injustice as "merely aesthetic concepts." Instead, he chooses to understand the state in terms of natural laws, comparing the life of the state to the stages of a sun’s life.

As the piece reaches its end, the narrator finds himself alone in the dark, his wheelchair gone, dragging himself along the wall. It is only then that he can ask himself who the enemy is, and his imagination offers him an updated version of Plato’s cave: the enemy are the shadows on a cave wall, and ricocheting bullets fired at them become their attacks. What has seemed throughout the narrative to be an exterior space is now revealed as potentially an interior or allegorical one.

The piece recalls two other German-language postapocalyptic works: Alexander Kluge’s Learning Process with a Deadly Outcome and Arno Schmidt’s Afternoon of a Faun. It is both a scathing indictment of the arms race and a strong statement about the meaninglessness of war, but the political opinions it offers are couched in fictionalized experience. In its exploration of tunnels, the narrative toys with the notion of the labyrinth that will surface in some of Dürrenmatt’s other work. His reworking of Plato’s notion of the cave is not dissimilar to Josè Saramago’s reworking of Plato in The Cave. Indeed, Dürrenmatt’s attitudes in general are not unlike Saramago’s, with both writers setting themselves up in an adversarial relation to established orders—Saramago to Catholicism and the Portuguese government, Dürrenmatt to Switzerland and abstract systems.

At one point the narrator suggests, "no matter what a human being describes, he always describes himself." Perhaps this sentence can be seen as an indication of why Dürrenmatt included "The Winter War in Tibet" as part of his ostensible autobiography Stoffe: there is no writing, according to this rubric, that is not biographical. Certainly when taken in context of the other very different pieces that originally surrounded it in Stoffe, this appears to be the case. At the same time, the narrator also suggests that "Without taking the risk of fictions, the path to knowledge cannot be trodden." Perhaps, then, "The Winter War in Tibet" can be read as an essay about fiction’s importance to knowledge. At the end of "The Winter War in Tibet," Dürrenmatt allows a second narrative voice, sporadically present elsewhere in the text, to call into question all that has come before, suggesting the possibility that the narrative has not been entirely what it seems, and calling into question not only the narrative but, like Plato, what we ourselves perceive as the real world.

The Bridge

Taken from the second volume of Stoffe, "The Bridge" provides a series of permutations for a given situation involving a young student named F.D. (the initials obviously are Dürrenmatt’s own) who staggers drunk across Kirchenfeld Bridge on October 15, 1943, as a meteor falls. Depending on minor changes and the role of chance, F.D. either is struck by the meteor, is narrowly missed by it, doesn’t notice it at all, and so on. Indeed, Dürrenmatt offers thirteen different F.D.s, using the circumstances and development of each as a way of thinking not only about the relationship of chance to events but also about what he calls "the dialectic of belief," about the way in which reason and truth are connected to belief. The essay might be compared to Robert Coover’s short fiction, particularly "The Elevator" and "The Babysitter," in which Coover offers several sometimes mutually exclusive versions of the same event.

However, what begins as an exercise in permutation becomes near the end something entirely different. In the last pages of the essay, Dürrenmatt works his way through possible F.D.s to a discussion of the arms race, its logic and illogic, sliding from the possibilities for a given individual to the fear that motivates armament and rearmament. By looking at thirteen versions of his fictionalized self, Dürrenmatt develops an interplay between reason and belief so as to apply this interplay to something completely separate from him. His conclusions come unexpectedly as he works through one seemingly theoretical problem only to arrive at a larger tangible one.

In a sense, then, the majority of the story is a setup for the last two pages. Yet, at the same time, that setup, because of the exuberance with which Dürrenmatt approaches it, becomes a good part of the point of the essay. On the one hand we are lulled by it, engaged in it in a way that allows his later argument to get beneath our defenses in a way it might not otherwise. On the other hand, the different permutations of F.D. are finally a great deal more memorable than the brief political comments that they spark.

Switzerland—A Prison: A Speech for Václav Havel

"Switzerland—A Prison" was a speech originally delivered in 1990 for Václav Havel, the absurdist dramatist who had become the president of Czechoslovakia. It is written directly to Havel, as if a letter, and in its salutation appeals to him first as "Dear Mr. President" and then as "Dear Václav Havel." Dürrenmatt used the occasion of Havel’s visit to Switzerland to question the politics of his own nation. He quotes Havel’s notions of what an ideal republic should be—"A republic of universally educated men and women"—and then goes on to suggest that many Swiss believe that Havel’s dream republic is precisely the place where they live. Not surprisingly, considering the adversarial relation Dürrenmatt always had to his own country, Dürrenmatt disagrees. As he says in his "Monster Lecture on Justice and Law," "I love the Swiss and I love having it out with them." For Dürrenmatt, the Swiss, through their neutrality, have taken refuge in a prison: "Because there was mayhem outside the prison and because only in prison can they be safe from attack, the Swiss feel free, freer than other people, free as prisoners in the prison of their neutrality. There is only one problem for this prison, namely that of proving that it is not a prison but a bulwark of freedom, since seen from outside, a prison is a prison."

A cross between a letter and a polemical address, "Switzerland—A Prison" was delivered in the year of Dürrenmatt’s own death. Despite some of its rhetorical strengths, it is in some respects the most strident of Dürrenmatt’s essays. It is less provocative and apropos for readers in America—whose foreign politics have tended toward overt meddling and control rather than neutrality—than for the Swiss.

Monster Lecture on Justice and Law, with a Helvetian Interlude

"Monster Lecture on Justice and Law, with a Helvetian Interlude," subtitled "A Minor Dramaturgy of Politics," was, like "Switzerland—A Prison," originally a spoken address that Dürrenmatt later expanded. It was first delivered in 1968 at the invitation of members of the University of Mainz’s law faculty, and was published in expanded form the following year. Dürrenmatt begins with a parable in which the Prophet Mohammad hides on a hill to observe what initially appears to be an amoral sequence of events, a sequence that, with Allah’s guidance, he comes to realize is a moral sequence in which justice is meted out evenly and fairly. As Dürrenmatt continues, however, he begins to put pressure on the story, replacing certain elements, reconsidering how the story changes when, for instance, one replaces the Prophet Mohammad with a scientist. Indeed, as he tries to make the parable relevant to the contemporary world, more and more changes are needed; what seems relevant and even obvious to the Prophet simply won’t fly in either a communist or a capitalist society.

Dürrenmatt goes on to critique both communism and capitalism as respectively a "good shepherd game" and a "wolf game." In the most basic version of the capitalist wolf game, people prey on other people just as wolves prey on lambs. As society develops and begins to enforce rules and codes of behavior, the game becomes more complex, with physical prey being replaced by potential profit and property. In the communist good shepherd game, on the other hand, the assumption is not that man is an "intelligent wolf" but rather an "intelligent lamb" and will act in harmony with other humans. Where it becomes complicated for Dürrenmatt is in the way both games eventually end up employing each other’s moves, and in the way that "in both games the state has become too powerful." Dürrenmatt takes both communism and capitalism to task for what he sees as their institutionalized and ratified hypocrisy. Indeed, through either system individuals become paradoxical, strung between two conceptions of themselves that do not coincide, the first concept moving from society to the individual, the second from the individual to society. "Ideologies," suggests Dürrenmatt, "are the cosmetics of power," and desire for power is ultimately the basis of both games.

Sentences from America

"Sentences from America" was originally published in 1970 as a very short volume. It consists of ninety-one numbered sections that chronicle a trip Dürrenmatt took to this side of the Atlantic to accept an honorary doctorate at Temple University. It chronicles his travels in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Jamaica.

About two-thirds of the way through, the essay undergoes a shift, largely forgoing local color and descriptions of the trip (including Dürrenmatt’s loss of all his money in Puerto Rico) in favor of a comparison of the Soviet Union to the United States, in which he gives his impressions of both places. The United States, he suggests, "could be compared with imperial Rome when it had become a world power but found itself embroiled in increasingly difficult domestic problems, while the Soviet Union is looking more and more like the Eastern Roman Empire, which was a totalistic state and installed Christianity as an ideology." He speaks of America’s glorification of the gangster, but suggests at the same time that America is "increasingly susceptible to every kind of fascism." At once a travel book and a political essay, "Sentences from America" weaves elements of both genres together to create an original and provocative whole.

Theater Problems

"Theater Problems" is based on a lecture Dürrenmatt first gave in 1954. In it, he talks quite candidly and openly about the role of the playwright, speaks about his method, critiques Bertolt Brecht (whose theory and plays, he feels, don’t always correspond—and the plays are better for that), speaks of contemporary theater, and suggests that "art in our day consists of experiments, no more and no less, like today’s world itself." Dürrenmatt defines himself as a playwright who is not a "representative of any particular movement in the theater, or any particular dramatic technique." He is not "an existentialist, a nihilist, an expressionist, or an ironist, or whatever labels get stuck on the jars in which literary critics keep their preserves." For Dürrenmatt, the stage is "not a field for theories" but rather "an instrument." On contemporary theatrical performance, Dürrenmatt is scathing. He criticizes it for being in large part a museum in which past plays are displayed, with actors functioning as "civil servants." He also speaks in passing about some of his own plays and the problems he saw them posing as they were being written, and speaks at some length about An Angel Comes to Babylon, his most recent stage play at the time.

The last few lines of the piece are unexpected, with Dürrenmatt coming down in praise of lightness and considering the possibility of making literature where it is least expected and least noticed, but apart from that "Theater Problems" is the most straightforward, academic, and traditional of the essays gathered in this volume. Though written before many of Dürrenmatt’s most masterful plays, "Theater Problems" remains Dürrenmatt’s most sustained and comprehensive statement on theater; it does a great deal to illuminate the drama collected in volume 1.

Automobile and Railroad Nations

"Automobile and Railroad Nations," like "The Winter War in Tibet," has the liveliness of a work of fiction. It functions as a carefully elaborated conceit. Beginning with the statement "Political systems differ primarily depending on whether they are subject to the patronage of freedom or of justice," the essay picks up some of the ideas of Dürrenmatt’s "Monster Lecture," approaching capitalism and communism through a set of metaphors. For Dürrenmatt, a political system that holds freedom to be its central principle (capitalism) can be compared to a social order that opts for the automobile, while one that holds justice as its central principle (communism) is like a society that holds "that only the railroad is just." "Automobile and Railroad Nations" is a tale of two states, one of which allows only automobiles and the other only railroads. Through the story Dürrenmatt pursues the difficulty of having a society that enforces only one sort of transportation, in the end suggesting that automobiles and trains, like justice and freedom, function best together, not mutually exclusively.

Though there is a point to be made—namely, that "Freedom and justice are complementary concepts" infeasible without one another—the satisfactions of the essay come in Dürrenmatt’s ability to pursue the metaphor in a lively and convincing fashion to its farthest possible extension, to create from that metaphor an absurd but fully rendered world.

The Brain

"The Brain" poses a problem: what can a pure brain without the stimulus of an external world teach itself to think? Like the end of "The Winter War in Tibet," which proposes a notion of the world analogous to Plato’s cave, "The Brain" proposes an imagined world, one that, upon reflection, is meant to inform notions of our own world.

With great care, Dürrenmatt attempts to consider the way in which a brain under such conditions would develop, what it might, eventually, become capable of envisioning. At first the brain can only feel itself. Since it contains nothing, it will "feel that it feels nothing." "In the beginning," suggests Dürrenmatt, rewriting the opening lines of Genesis, "there will be dread, pure horror." But gradually, from this horror, thought itself will begin to develop and alongside it a notion of time. Very slowly, everything else will fall into place.

Nine-tenths of the piece focuses on this "everything else," offering a meticulous playing out of the details of the brain’s imagining, with the brain finally envisioning all of human history up to the twentieth century. Indeed, the brain seems poised to reimagine all of human history, to be able to reproduce all that reality has given us. Yet, in the last few pages there is a sudden swerve, toward considering the unthinkable, toward what is unthinkable—the unthinkable in this case being very specific twentieth-century atrocities. "It is unthinkable," suggests Dürrenmatt, "and what is unthinkable is also not possible, because it makes no sense." He thus leaves the reader in a paradoxical dilemma; if "the foundation of [our world’s] being as it is or as it could be, lies or would lie within us, regardless of whether we are real or imagined," then how can such things even exist?


"Vinter" is a prose narrative very similar to a story, and indeed is often referred to in criticism as a work of fiction. It concerns a wanted man named Vinter who journeys to the capital of his country on assignment to kill the prime minister. Composed of short simple sentences, the piece resembles Dürrenmatt’s early story "The Sausage." Although published late in Dürrenmatt’s career it has the feel of his early fiction, and it was perhaps a reworking of a narrative that had been earlier abandoned.

After shooting the prime minister, Vinter hides out in a basement full of rats, escaping upstairs and lapsing into unconsciousness. When he awakens he finds himself in silk pajamas in a nice bed. Going onto the street he asks to be arrested for shooting the prime minister, but nobody will listen to him. Instead, he is treated as if he were a prince. What began for him as merely a "business arrangement" quickly becomes something else. Even though wanted posters with his picture are hanging everywhere and even though he confesses to the crime, he is allowed to go free. Eventually he learns that the population at large has paid for him to kill the prime minister. "Vinter" is absurd, with Vinter trapped in a world he struggles to understand, rewarded when he should be punished, trapped in the belief that everyone understands what is going on except for him. In the end, the frustration of the experience destroys him. As an absurdist work, of all the essays this one comes closest to capturing the feel of some of Dürrenmatt’s drama.

The Traveler’s Standpoint

The volume begins with the longest essay and ends with the shortest. The final essay gathered here is "The Traveler’s Standpoint," a short essay that originally was included as a portion of an afterword to Dürrenmatt’s late and not-yet-translated play The Collaborator (Der Mitmacher). The collaborator of the play is "Doc," a doctor who has invented a method of dissolving corpses so that they can be disposed of as sewage. He works for a syndicate of gangsters run by "Boss," and he is paid little: he does the job both for the pleasure he receives from his own invention and out of a kind of personal despair. He is in love with Ann, who turns out to be Boss’s mistress. When "Cop" takes over the syndicate and gives Boss a raise, Boss gets jealous and kills Ann. By the end of the play Ann, Boss, and Cop are all dead, with Doc left alone with his machine and their bodies, doomed to work hopelessly on for the syndicate. While the play makes a strong statement against intellectuals’ willingness to collaborate with the organizations that they should instead be actively working against, the play as a whole is stilted and cynical. It is far from being among Dürrenmatt’s best, and seems in several important respects to recycle other plays, in particular The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.

"The Traveler’s Standpoint" does not deal with the specifics of the play. Instead, like "Theater Problems," "The Traveler’s Standpoint" gives insight into Dürrenmatt’s notions of himself as an artist and playwright. In the essay, Dürrenmatt describes his aesthetic position as "the traveler’s standpoint" and suggests that "what I believe depends on the moment." He offers a hypothetical reader who keeps trying to question him, to pin him down about his beliefs, his political views and so on. But for Dürrenmatt the important thing seems to be to keep moving, to travel and see where traveling takes you. Indeed, one of the things that makes Dürrenmatt such an intriguing writer is his unwillingness to latch on to any one school, any one set of ideas.


All in all, this collection of essays is intriguing in that the essays shift, change, and experiment. Dürrenmatt speaks candidly, and sometimes bluntly, about politics and aesthetics, but he often gets caught up in the drama of the situations, which, in a lesser essayist, would serve only as illustrations. In addition, he demonstrates the way in which an essay can develop into a kind of hybrid form. Joel Agee’s translations are respectful of both Dürrenmatt’s intent and his syntax, and they show that Dürrenmatt has real strengths as a writer of imaginative nonfiction as well as of fiction and drama. He at once anticipates developments in current American creative nonfiction and surpasses them. With this final volume, American readers are finally given a full sense of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s intergeneric range.