Remarks and an interview
Friedrich Dürrenmatt received an honorary degree from Temple University in 1969. On the same evening as he was awarded the degree, a production of his play The Meteor was staged at Temple. This page includes his acceptance remarks and an interview conducted by Violet Ketels, who was (and is) a professor in the English department at Temple. Ketels also contributed some introductory notes to the texts. These texts were first published in Journal of Modern Literature I (1970): 89–108 and are reprinted here with permission.
Introductory notes by Violet Ketels
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Swiss playwright and novelist, visited Temple University recently to accept his first honorary degree and to witness the American premiere production of his play The Meteor. Both events were part of an interdisciplinary conference, God and Man in Contemporary Literature, sponsored by the departments of English, Religion and Theater at Temple. The Doctor of Literature degree was conferred by Dr. Paul Anderson, President of the University, on November 14, 1969, in a special convocation on the stage of the Tomlinson Theater against the background of the set for the performance of The Meteor which immediately followed.
The play is a metaphor for Dürrenmatt’s view that the world is “something monstrous, a riddle of misfortunes which must be accepted but before which one must not capitulate.” It deals irreverently with two theological premises: Christian resurrection and salvation by grace. Its central character, Wolfgang Schwitter, is an intense, wild figure, an aging writer, winner of the Nobel Prize. Savagely disgusted with life, he rages across the stage like an exhausted Hemingway, longing for death, unable to die or to stay dead, while the characters about him, who want to stay alive, keep dying. Drunken, lecherous, mean, he displays the range of venality possible for a human being who no longer fears any consequences, his rage deepening the longer he is denied the release of death. The Meteor violates conventional dramaturgy. In so doing it finds a form congruent with its theme. It has no plot. It is not an action, but an event, a happening, designed to reflect the monstrously paradoxical nature of life which, in Dürrenmatt’s eyes, is brutal, blind, brief and accidental.
In discussing his dramaturgy Dürrenmatt uses the term “verschlüsselt” to describe certain of his characters, implying they are constructions, riddles, coded messages that have to be deciphered. The interviewer is tempted to apply the same term to Dürrenmatt’s conversation. In interviews he is often enigmatic and oblique. At times he answers not the question put by the interviewer, but an opposite, unasked question. Nevertheless, what seem at first to be evasions or non-sequiturs are simply the expression of the fact that Dürrenmatt has several life patterns, and that he verbalizes their interconnections readily. He is an existentialist at times, a Marxist at others. He is a Swiss bourgeois and a violent Swiss revolutionary. In King John he writes as a Marxist; in The Meteor as a Bernese Christian.
In the course of a week-long stay at Temple University, Dürrenmatt talked genially and tirelessly. Out of the series of tapes which record his visit, an interview was distilled. It is, in a sense, a “verschlüsselt” interview. Although all of Dürrenmatt’s remarks were made by him, they did not necessarily occur in the order they appear here. Sometimes two comments on the same subject, made at different times, are combined to gain coherence. Still the interview captures something of the willful eccentricity of Dürrenmatt’s personality as well as his dialectical approach to ideas and art. His German is cryptic, staccato, tending to series of short clauses, or simple sentences. The interpenetration in his thinking of Christian, Kierkegaardian, and Marxist strains is explicit in many of his responses. They are the seminal ideas he plays with in his dramas, and he frequently repeats mention of them. His idiosyncratic interpretations of them lie behind the ambiguities in his plays.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I thank Temple University of Philadelphia for the honor of the Doctor of Literature degree which has been given to me tonight. My academic career has thereby been successfully completed. I broke it off unsuccessfully twenty-three years ago in order to write my first piece instead of a dissertation with the title, “The Tragic in Kierkegaard,” not actually because I thought it better to write total nonsense than partial nonsense, but because I came to believe that one can think not only in philosophy, but also on the stage.
I left the university without having finished my studies, and my first drama created a scandal. I still thrive on this happy start: the audience, instead of yawning, booed. For twenty-three years I have been a writer and I have done all those things an author has to do in order to feed his family: I wrote mystery stories, cabaret pieces, radio plays, dramas for the theater, and because I was mostly misunderstood I became famous, which means I made money. Now I stand before you on the stage of the Tomlinson Theater, an honorary doctor. I do not even mind being in costume, for I feel academically rehabilitated. I am before you as a stand-in for all those writers of comedies who did not receive honorary doctorates because in their times there was no Temple University yet in Philadelphia: the Aristophanes, the Shakespeares, the Molières, the Nestroys, even though I feel, compared to them, like a lizard who receives the honorary doctorate in order to honor the dinosaurs.
From the complicated construction of my sentences you can hear that I am a German-speaking author; from my modesty that I am Swiss. The Swiss, to be sure, citizen of a small nation, is modest only in a theoretical way: he feels like a cat which perchance got into a tiger’s cage and does not know if he is going to be petted or eaten.
The Swiss intellectual, into which you have converted me by giving me an honorary doctorate, faces the United States ambiguously. On the one hand he is afraid of the American military and industrial world power, just as he is afraid of any world power; on the other hand, he admires the self-criticism which America, unlike the other world powers, always is able to generate, thus inspiring its citizens to action. Today America is revolutionary, not Russia. As in America fewer and fewer Swiss, with the exception of the generals, understand the meaning of the war in Vietnam, or actually of war at all.
Peace is the problem, not war; war pushes the problems of peace aside, instead of solving them.
My relationship to American literature is not very solid, simply because I seldom read literature and I seldom go to the theater since I produce literature myself and write and direct theater pieces myself. The most profound impression of American literature was made on me by Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom,” Mark Twain’s “Cannibalism in the Cars,” and by that scene in Moby Dick in which a sailor descends into the corpse of a long-dead whale in order to get out of his stomach the ambergris so important to the beauty of our women. These three stories represent for me the basic human situations which man faces time and time again, as in Homer’s Odyssey, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. To penetrate the basic human predicament is more important than to fly to the moon, which is nothing but an escape from the earth and thereby an escape from man. Literature arrests man, makes him its subject, just as physics makes nature its subject. Hence it is irrelevant today in which language literature is written: literature belongs to all human kind. American literature influences European literature, and vice versa; each literature influences the other.
Anyway, Moby Dick is the only fat novel I ever finished reading to the very end. I close with the expression of my opinion that your Thornton Wilder is one of the greatest contemporary authors.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you.
Ketels: Herr Dürrenmatt, the Temple University community is very excited about the premiere performance of The Meteor tonight. It’s a bit late to talk about staging, but what do you expect?
Dürrenmatt: In my opinion we played The Meteor correctly in Zurich, in that we staged it not with the emphasis on spirit, but on flesh; hence we brought out the characters, in a style that was almost comedian-like, not at all solemn, and that made people mad. And everywhere that it was played solemnly it left the audience unmoved.
K: Yet you struggle in it with theological questions.
D: I would say I struggle with a theological fact: the resurrection. The church in Zurich was shocked because it was confronted with a problem it didn’t expect.
K: Christian resurrection as a subject for comedy.
D: And at the end the Salvation Army comes. They are the Christians, and they accept the miracle of Schwitter’s rising from the dead without question as being the great salvation. That’s Billy Graham.
K: Naturally the church didn’t like that. But you are always in trouble with the establishment, Herr Dürrenmatt [. . .] You are very critical of social institutions, of the state. You have in mind a radical questioning of the whole basis of society.
D: Through the theater the dramatist tries to change the social reality of man.
K: Isn’t that the purpose of the lehrstück, or the documentary type of drama?
D: A documentary is critical. But a documentary drama is always fiction. The first documentary drama is The Persians by Aeschylus. I write only comedies.
K: You think comedies fulfill the critical function best?
D: They fulfill it best, yes.
K: But what is the difference between documentary drama and comedy if you say both are critical and both fulfill the critical functions?
D: Here is the difference. If Hochhuth wrote a documentary on the concentration camps, he would show the torture. I would not. People wouldn’t believe it, anyhow. I would show the concentration camp guards singing Christmas songs and praying.
K: Your method then is oblique, paradoxical.
D: Dialectical. I show the other side.
K: Were you influenced by Brecht in that? What do you think of his work?
D: It is embarrassing for one playwright to talk about another.
K: I don’t want you to talk about the quality of his writing, but I want your reaction to what he writes about.
D: Playwrighting. You see yourself in a line. You see all that has been and think it through again.
K: You mentioned Aeschylus. And in some of your comedies—in the political accent of plays like King John—you have something in common with Aristophanes.
D: Aristophanes I like. Shakespeare. I like to adapt Shakespeare. I did Titus Andronicus. And after all Shakespeare never wrote an original play. I like to take old plays and adapt them.
K: You told the Temple students your version of Romeo and Juliet. They were amused. How would you change it?
D: I would leave the whole drama as it is with one scene added. Verona, like all Italian towns of the Renaissance, is a city of bankers. The Capulets and the Montagues are two banking families in economic conflict. Because of that they hate each other. The love between Romeo and Juliet is dangerous. A marriage between them would combine these two banking families. There is a third party, the Prince, and he doesn’t want that. After all, marriage was insoluble at that time. So, in my new scene the prince goes to confession to the priest. He tells Brother Lorenzo that he has bad thoughts. He would like to kill Juliet, but he is too much of a Christian. He knows he mustn’t do that. If it could be done, however, he would give to Brother Lorenzo a magnificent new church. Brother Lorenzo understands this as the chance of his life-time. Therefore, the priest will see to the poisoning of Juliet and the killing of Romeo. The prince then can become the great moralist, naming the alliance of banking families as immoral and unchristian.
K: You add one scene and change the entire play!
D: Shakespeare’s plots are sometimes weak, just clothesline to hang beautiful verse on. I prefer tightly structured pieces.
K: You also adapted Strindberg’s Dance of Death. I read the reviews of the world premiere in Basel. It was so successful that performances followed immediately in Rome, Kiel, Wuppertal and Dubrovnik!
D: In Play Strindberg I change the play into a boxing match between the man and his wife. The stage is a boxing arena, a round playing area surrounded by darkness. I play it in twelve rounds. Each one begins with a stroke of the gong. The characters who don’t have anything to say go and wait on the bench in the dark for their next scene.
K: When I talked to your director last summer—Düggelin—I had just seen the Olivier production of Dance of Death in London. It was a very chilling performance. Horrifying. But Düggelin said your version takes out all the plush, all the trimmings, all the class tragedy and simply shows the brutal reality of life without taking a position. To make people think, he said. Think about marriage. About the social situation.
D: I also experiment with time. I speed up the clock. Shorten the hours. The last six rounds are played in six minutes.
K: Who wins the fight?
D: Nobody wins. It’s a three-way battle. In Strindberg the outsider is a Christian who is ruined by the couple. I make him a gangster.
K: But you are deeply interested in theological questions. You bring them into many of your plays. Is that because you are the son of a Protestant minister?
D: At the university I studied philosophy and theology. Ten semesters of philosophy.
K: Then how did you become a playwright?
D: First I wanted to become a painter. But I didn’t paint much better than Nyffenschwander.
K: The character in The Meteor who can’t paint at all? But your friend Hans Noll told me that some of your work is very good indeed.
D: After the painting and the philosophy I decided comedy would be it.
K: Why comedy? Why not tragedy?
D: Because only comedy is possible in the world today.
K: Why is that?
D: In the old plays—Shakespeare, Schiller, the Greeks—the powerful are always the tragic figures. Their power could be envisioned by the audience. But today power is too enormous, too automatic. We cannot see it anymore. So the powerful are the terrible clowns among men. They are anonymous, inhuman. We see them only from a distance.
K: They are inhuman because we can’t recognize them, identify with them?
D: They are inhuman because they are so powerful and because their power separates them from other men.
K: I think I understand. Recently in some business with an ambassador, we made a faux pas. The ambassador was offended. In trying to make amends we spoke to the wife of an attachè who told us quite cynically that if we address an ambassador as ambassador we have to play the political game, which meant treat him by special rules, differently from other men.
D: A very famous actress wanted to see me once. I refused to see her. She tried for three weeks.
K: To quote you: “The robe of a king is the most elevated clown costume we know.”
D: Democracy cannot take authoritarian power seriously. When we cannot have personal responsibility, personal guilt, we cannot have tragedy.
K: What you are establishing is an inevitable connection between drama and politics. You posed the question once of whether there can be two dramaturgies: one for the powerful, which would have to be comedy, and one for the victims. Can we have a tragedy of the victims?
D: It is also inhuman to be a victim.
K: In other words, the human and the tragic are contingent on freedom. Is it no longer relevant to speak of the human, then? In Theaterprobleme you write that the world is “something monstrous, a riddle of misfortunes.” Is that a political statement? What can we do about it?
D: Man ought to be free. But first he has to find out that he is a victim. And the function of the theater is to show that, to show man that the only action that makes sense is an action toward freedom.
K: The polarization between the powerful and their victims is the social reality you want drama to represent. That can be represented only by comedy in a world like ours.
D: I have just finished a book. The Dramaturgy of Politics.
K: I read an excerpt from it in which you say reality is analyzed in comedy.
D: No. In the comedy man sees himself on the stage. He is analyzed.
K: But not in the scientific sense.
D: No. Theater is not so serious. Theater is play, and as play it can be useful.
K: You use certain technical terms in your book. “Dramaturgical thinking.” What is that?
D: Dramaturgical thinking can look at the paradox, the inner tension of reality.
K: And the more paradoxically the theater presents reality the better.
D: Dramaturgical thinking is like dialectical thinking, but it does not have any specific ideology. That is why it can show the paradox of life.
K: You oppose political dialectic thought and dramaturgical dialectic thought in a fascinating analogy to a chess game.
D: The political dialectic tries to teach a method. In the chess game that would be the method by which white always wins. Dramaturgic dialectic represents the chess game in which it doesn’t matter which side wins—the white or the black. Or even if it ends in checkmate. Only the playing counts. The dramatic theme of the beginning, the way the final moves work out.
K: You don’t give any blueprints in your dramas, any way for the individual to respond.
D: I can force no individual into any way. The individual must find the answer himself. I can only be something of a midwife.
K: You use the word comic, yet your comedies are often very brutal. They make us laugh, but in a bitter way.
D: Comedy and tragedy, they are old concepts. A comedy is funny and a tragedy is sad. . . . These are old concepts which have long ago become useless. The theater piece is like a soccer ball. First one side is up, then the other, depending on how you hold it. First a play is tragic and then it’s comic. I call a piece comedy in the old sense of Dante’s Divine Comedy: comedy is simply play and the awareness that it is simply play, that it is not divine, that it generates a feeling of alienation: that lies in the nature of theater itself. I call these things comedy.
K: It’s really not comedy then, but something new.
D: I call my play simply theater piece. And to that belongs fun and laughter and anything you wish. Tragedy is a much too narrowly conceived form. Strictly speaking, tragedy could only exist in classic periods. In the history of the theater opera developed out of tragedy. All the rest of the theater developed from comedy. The medieval mysteries, the Easter and Lenten plays, were in this sense comedies. The plays of Aristophanes and Plautus, these were the earlier forms of comedies. Aristophanes uses the dialectic method whereas tragedy presupposes a definite religion, a tragic religion.
K: Some say you only show the dark side of man’s reality.
D: I show the courageous side of life, the good side of life, the love.
K: In characters like Übelohe, Akki, Romulus. But certainly the good are in the minority in your plays.
D: I think dialectically and I have coined the phrase: a story is only told to the end when it has taken the worst possible turn.
K: I am not sure I understand your use of the term “dialectic.” Does that mean that there is no relationship of cause and effect in your plays?
D: There is only a dialectical relationship. Marx and Hegel to the contrary, real dialectic consists in a dialectical contrast between the general and the particular.
K: Or between the logical and the existential. You mean you must describe reality in contradictory stories, or from two different points of view?
D: That is the only way I can tell the story of the world.
K: When you oppose the general and the particular in drama, you are really talking about the social and the individual.
D: There are two ways to write drama today, as there are two ways to do nuclear physics: either describe society or describe the individual. The whole political mess today is the result of the problem of the relations between the individual and society.
K: We have to function in society, so the two have to come together.
D: The contemporary problem is that man is a paradoxical being. I base that on the fact that man is the only being which creates concepts. Man creates two types of concepts: existential ones and logical ones. In the existential concepts he abstracts himself from the logical ones. In the existential I am alone, I am I, and as an individual I feel myself to be the absolute center of things. I have my life: I must die. I can feel only myself. I cannot feel the other. Out of the general concept of man I cannot come to myself. There I am a man among other men. There I am a mass concept.
K: But how do you get from yourself to the other?
D: The only force which can understand the other is love.
K: But love is a kind of miracle, isn’t it? Like grace.
D: No, I don’t think so. It is an expansion of the existential concept. That is the “we.” Man expands from the self, to the friend, to the woman. Man expands and creates what I call emotional reality or individual reality or existential reality.
K: That sounds Sartrian.
D: I regret Sartre’s existentialism because it is seeming existentialism, because he opposes Being and Nothingness. The Nothingness doesn’t exist. Nothingness is a pure fiction. With Nothingness you can do nothing. It is metaphysics. Null or Zero is a real term. For example, you can have zero in the bank.
K: How do you define the existential?
D: What I take as existential is the immediate consciousness of every man that he exists, that he has a life, that he must die. Those are tangible evidences. The logical evidences—what you know by logic—are deductions which man makes from experience.
K: How would you deal with the concept of Being?
D: In logic the concept of Being doesn’t exist. Certainly not in the opposites Being and Nothingness. Heidegger and Sartre are for me between two worlds.
K: Between the old metaphysical world and what?
D: And the philosophy which knows you can’t talk about non-Being in logical terms. Being is not a pure concept; it is a word that comes out of my own experience of life.
K: Out of the existential reality, which gives us the “we.” But Hegel says the “we,” the “other,” threatens man’s subjectivity.
D: That is the dilemma in which man finds himself. When he expands and creates the other, he thereby also creates the enemy. For example, he sees the enemy in the other race or in another people. Then he personifies the institution. He no longer calls the state simply the state, but the fatherland.
K: You equate the existential, the emotional and the individual, but then you suggest the danger as well as the advantage of expanding the existential and the individual into the general.
D: Yes. Those are the psychic and emotional realities that man has.
K: In the terms of your dialectic then, something else exists in tension with the individual and the existential.
D: I would put Marxism next to the existential. Marxism, which tries to define the reasonable man from the point of view of the general. Marxism is the attempt, which starts from Hegel, to proceed from the general to the existential. And Marx had an ingenious thought—to introduce an emotional “we”—the exploited class. But this is only a beginning. Marxism never succeeded in taking out the existential. It never accepted in its system the existential realities and problems of society.
K: By existential you mean individual.
D: The Marxist would say he who reckons with the individual is a bourgeois.
K: You disagree with that.
D: I would say the system which doesn’t reckon with the individual is a church. The whole Marxist system came to the same thing which Christianity reached with its theology: it built a church.
K: So we’re back to theology! We have all the verboten subjects now: politics, the church, Marxism. And they are all interwoven in your plays.
D: Christianity has an advantage over the logical concept which
Marx sets forth. It is that Christianity sees man more realistically: not as good, but rather, as Kant says, as radically evil, as man who must transform himself.
K: Now I see the Kantian connection with your earlier remark that man is the only being who creates concepts. Kant uses the word transforms in the same way. Man transforms himself into a moral being by creating a noumenal world where he is governed not by laws, but by the concept of laws.
D: And, on the other hand, Marxism claims that man is evil only because he lives in an evil society.
K: But the social order, after all, evolves out of man, as Hegel has shown.
D: That is why the necessary corrective to Marxism is Christianity. Marxism is abstract; Christianity is concrete. At the same time I believe that Christianity today has a chance only if it turns revolutionary.
K: Christianity and Marxism have a dialectical relationship.
D: One important difference between Marxism and Christianity lies in that the Marxist believes he can change the problems of the world by changing the order of society.
K: You disagree?
D: It is just as naive as the faith of the western society, of the capitalistic order, that man can change the world by a little bit of piety. What is at stake is whether or not man succeeds in being better, and not whether he succeeds at living better. However, that statement makes sense only after I create a society worthy of man.
K: You want to change the character of man, not the condition of man.
D: The accusation which some of the modern Marxists make against Christianity today is very interesting. They claim that Christianity has betrayed Marxism, that Christianity alone can lead Marxism. Only by way of complicated detours can Marxism push forward to a result: for example, it can reach the concept of the classes, but it never really reaches the individual. To use a modern simile from science, I would say that I regard Christianity as nuclear physics, whereas Marxism would be general physics, and up until now there still has been no connection between the two. Marxism can only become meaningful through Christianity.
K: How do you define Christianity?
D: For me a Christian is a man who sees the world as it is, who is despairing, but for that reason, is not despairing.
K: That sounds like the definition of the existential hero. The Camus figure with the Kierkegaardian idea that when a man sees the absurdity of life then he begins to live. But even though a man sees the world realistically, does he have free will? If he is groping in life, can he decide not to despair?
D: That is a deceptive question which came into fashion with Sartre. Sartre understands existentialism logically, not existentially. He constructs an antithesis which does not exist. That is no real antinomy: Being and Nothing. Being excludes non-being. Death is not non-being. Death is the end of life. And man knows that he must die and that is his tragedy. What we call the resurrection in the improper logical sense is, as far as I’m concerned, the reconciliation with life and, at the same time, with death—the necessity to accept both.
K: When I talked with you last summer you said that the real scandal in Christianity is not the cross, but the resurrection. I begin to understand your meaning. It is one of the provocative theological ideals you deal with in The Meteor.
D: When the play was performed in Zurich, I had a long argument about that with several ministers. They protested against the play. But it’s true. The cross is no longer a symbol. Many worse things happen. For instance in Vietnam. Or if you think that in Brazil two million Indians were slaughtered. The cross can only be understood as a scandal historically speaking, because it was formerly a symbol of shame. But not anymore. Today it has become a symbol of the opposite.
K: Always you come back to the paradox, to a dialectic.
D: One of the most important books which exists for me is a book by a Russian Jew who studied mathematics in Zurich and who became a professor in Quebec where he died at a very young age. His name was Alexander Wittenberg. As his dissertation he wrote a book about thinking in concepts. In his book he analyzed mathematics and he showed that each logical system ends automatically in a paradox. I am against the expression, “The world is absurd.” I say only that the world is paradox.
K: We have to accept paradox as a description of the world.
D: Yes. I would say when theology recognizes the paradox of trying to render logically what only exists existentially, then a new theology is possible. I would say parallel to this: we can only describe nature by describing it with construed concepts, with mathematics. These are the natural laws. The question is only which aspect of mathematics is applicable to nature. Many are not.
K: Again you evoke Kierkegaard. He speaks of the paradox of Incarnation, that Christianity has to be grasped “by virtue of the absurd.” It is not reasonably graspable.
D: Yes. The topmost level of thought is mathematics. But even in mathematics many things take place which are conscious fictions which I create. I act as if there is a figure with which I could measure a circle. The figure Pi. In reality this number is infinite. It is never precise. That is an example of the dialectic process: that I do something which doesn’t work.
K: Are you saying that theology is a conscious fiction? I know of your personal spiritual crisis. You wrote about it in It Is Written. Apparently you gave up all traditional belief. But nevertheless you seem to have a strong sense of God. How do you conceive God? As a Deus, a Prime Mover?
D: That is a difficult question. First of all, God can’t be proved, can he? For me God is really, in a logical sense, a construction. He is necessary as, for example, a zero or a number or a point, and the infinite or the finite. These are all concepts which occur in mathematics, and “God” really means nothing more than that the world has some meaning. But the meaning can exist only outside the world. Only outside the world can the meaning of the world be determined. Man is within the world and therefore cannot comprehend its meaning.
K: “God,” then, or religion is a pragmatic adjustment, a reconciliation to make what is bearable. Like grace, but with a paradox of faith in it.
D: There is, of course, a historical development of the idea of God which arises from the fact that man does not understand nature, or that man sees in lightning a divine event, or that man believes in demons, but now we are in a scientific age and therefore we understand God as a construction. We construct concepts, and the decisive thing is that existentially we don’t know what to do with such a God. And then we have Christianity and Christianity is a big revolution insofar as it defines God anew.
K: In other words, God is an existential phenomenon.
D: And a god one can make sense out of existentially is Christ. For me the essential element in Christianity is the realization that God is in every man.
K: But, as Kierkegaard said, that notion is an offense to reason. Non-rational.
D: The ancient attempt to transpose existential concepts into logical concepts, as for instance Mary and the immaculate conception, arguments about the trinity, these are outdated, uninteresting. God is a construction. Christ is existential. He is the God in my brother, in my neighbor. Christianity is essentially an existential question. What science has helped us to understand is that numbers and figures are constructions of the mind. God is too. But Christ exists. In my neighbor. In man.
K: Faith then for you is not a matter of accepting the idea of a miracle.
D: The question in relation to the Bible and other writings of faith is which aspects of these documents are existential statements. The Sermon on the Mount is an existential statement.
K: In traditional theology the miracle was used to prove God.
D: The question now is: Can modern man experience miracles at all anymore?
K: That is the question you explore through Schwitter, who keeps rising from the dead in The Meteor.
D: Yes. Schwitter interprets the miracle as his inability to die; hence as a failing. He always comes back to life. He interprets what happens to him as part of dying. He makes a logical misinterpretation of what happens from his own perspective.
K: He can’t believe he is resurrected.
D: Like Barth I would say: belief is grace. A man who does not believe he is resurrected, you cannot prove to that man he was dead, because of course he’s alive. Even though he himself experiences this miracle, still he doesn’t believe. That is the exaggerated dialectical situation in The Meteor.
K: The critics, for the most part, explain it by saying Schwitter only appears to be dead. They take the same view as the doctor in the play.
D: The doctor has twice already issued a death certificate and he really wants to kill Schwitter again, to carve him to pieces. Then he has to admit he’s alive. That is equally grotesque. Faced with a miracle, science also becomes grotesque.
K: Schwitter is an intense, wild character, an unlikely subject for grace. Perhaps that is the trouble.
D: It is not a solemn role. It was not a solemn old literary historian who died. That would be completely meaningless. No, Schwitter is a dying Hemingway, or someone like that. He also had innumerable marriages. He is no bourgeois figure, no Thomas Mann. He is a drunk and a rake and whatever you like. One of the funniest comments I have heard in reference to Schwitter was in a discussion when someone accused me of being incredible because such an unworthy man would not receive the grace of God. As if grace were granted according to human certificates of moral conduct. That’s a really smug theology.
K: Then it is important above everything that Schwitter not be played as a bourgeois.
D: No, not at all bourgeois. This grace is given to the non-bourgeois who works himself up into an obsession with death. Grace is given to the most grotesque object. That is the most strongly expressed dialectic idea the play has theologically.
K: Your point, then, is that Christianity is not at all bound to a bourgeois conception.
D: Not at all. There is no Christian state.
K: Schwitter raises another problem, one that is not only theological, but also literary and dramatic. That is that no really heroic figure is possible today.
D: Are there any ideal figures anyway? I think the essential thing in Christianity is that man recognizes himself as a sinner. Picture what the Crusades were: one of the most hideous of phenomena. Picture what Byzantium was: a horrible empire. Recently I read the new history of the popes by Haller. There one sees how the Catholic church developed. Out of the early church which had no martyrs. Then the church divided itself into the martyrs who did not sacrifice to the emperor and the larger part which did. I don’t think the emperor himself believed he was a god. The larger group was repudiated by the church and out of this rejected group the Roman papacy was developed.
K: Isn’t that the Protestant bias that would be difficult to justify historically?
D: It is grotesque. The Roman Catholics never had a legitimate claim to being the original church. Rome developed out of a splinter group cut off from the original church.
K: Putting together what you have said: The church evolved from the group that sold out. Therefore the piety of such a church is suspect.
D: Yes. Above all, we’ve made a cult out of Christianity. To go to church is the act of a cult and with that the Christian has done his duty.
K: You make the antithesis Kierkegaard makes between authentic Christianity, genuine faith, and Christendom, the institutionalized form which is watered down—bingo games in the church hall, that kind of thing.
D: Yes. I have a connection with Farner, an important leader of the communist ideology. The man is deeply concerned with Christianity and for this reason: that authentic Christianity did not create a total image of man. It takes man realistically, as just what he is, while communism, by idealizing man, comes to the same [wrong] conclusion as the idealistic western bourgeois Christianity. There are many people who realize that Christianity is an existential question and not a matter of cult.
K: When you have faith, then, it is essentially faith in man. People only have each other.
D: Yes. In a certain sense I can claim that Christ was the first conscious atheist. I am much influenced in philosophy by Kant. There is no possibility of a metaphysic.
K: That is the Critique of Pure Reason. You can make equally good cases pro and con for the major metaphysical questions. In other words there are logical limits to our knowledge of the noumenal world.
K: And you follow Kant to the conclusion that although man can’t prove God logically, he must postulate him as a basis for morality?
D: One has to destroy metaphysics to make room for faith.
K: That is Kant’s conclusion in the Critique of Practical Reason.
D: It is a very revolutionary statement. Metaphysics in the classical sense, in the sense of Aquinas and Leibnitz—any metaphysic was the attempt to make a statement about existential matters by means of logic, and Kant denies that you can do that.
K: There is no proof of the existence of God.
D: The whole miracle is absolutely useless because the logical thinking man will always interpret the miracle as a non-miracle.
K: May I put the case concretely in relation to The Meteor? In that you say that even when a miracle happens—granting the absurd possibility of a miracle—modern man is incapable of acknowledging it, so ingrained is his rationalistic approach to life. We insist that the supernatural is not possible. So the whole problem of the supernatural is for you obsolete, an eighteenth-century theological question.
D: What is theology seen from a contemporary perspective? I studied logic and the theory of knowledge. My conclusion is that theology is purely existential.
K: There is no metaphysic possible. Is there a chance for an ethic?
D: The classic text on this is the critique which Kierkegaard wrote about Hegel. Kierkegaard attacks Hegel for trying to construct an ethic out of the general, out of logic. For Kierkegaard marriage is more important than the state.
K: While in Hegel marriage would be merely the thesis leading to the synthesis which is the state. Hegel moves from the particular to the general.
D: We know today from the new logic that that is not the case. Kant recognized this.
K: But the heart of the Kantian ethic is the general, isn’t it? The universalizability of an action is what makes it ethical. The maxim of the act is a general test.
D: There is a late work by Kant in which there is a magnificent statement: The tragic thing about life is that the “Not,” misery, alone can make man do what he could do better by reason.
K: Then our real error is to think we are reasonable. If we were, would that give us better lives?
D: No. Man doesn’t shine in happiness—there he becomes content—but in the catastrophe. Jesus spoke only to the whore and the lowly.
K: You use that kind of paradox, reversal of values, in your plays. The only character who can communicate with Schwitter in The Meteor is Frau Nomsen, the aged prostitute.
D: She can speak to him because she has absolutely no illusions. She represents man without any fiction. The counterpart of Schwitter. She sees the world as it is.
K: The brutal reality of deception, betrayal, denial—the truth spoken by the lowliest character in the play. Similarly with the bastard in King John. He is real.
K: You put the individual above the general. Yet you are a political man. The theater in Basel, where you were advocatus diaboli, had a strong political accent.
D: Yes. I am co-editor of a newspaper and it is political. I speak politically. But it is also the duty of a man to be an individual.
K: Do you think the two are always in conflict with each other?
D: No. I believe there doesn’t need to be a conflict. Nuclear physics is not in conflict with general physics. It’s just that, beginning with a certain number, different laws apply. For instance, the law of Avogadro applies only when you have several trillion molecules in a container. If only ten were in it the law wouldn’t apply. When a man is alone on an island the problem of justice doesn’t pose itself.
K: The two sides of a paradox are not necessarily in conflict, but can exist side by side.
D: When I am alone with my wife, we are not in conflict with each other. The problem of justice doesn’t exist there.
K: You mean that problems do not arise in the marriage relationship, in the family?
D: The problem of justice doesn’t arise.
K: I would have to argue that. Do you know the plays of Georges Michelle, a Parisian playwright, protègè of Sartre? He deals precisely with the topic that preoccupies you: the division between the powerful and their victims in contemporary society, but he does it in the context of the family.
D: The problems change when it comes to the general. Because of the population explosion we get quite different social laws. The more people there are, the more the question of justice has to be examined. In earlier times when there were fewer people the problem of freedom posed itself more insistently. The question as to how a free society can be just is the question for the world today.
K: Freedom then, by your definition, is an existential concept: therefore an individual problem.
D: And justice is a logical concept.
K: Therefore a general, social one. That is a Marxist view, isn’t it?
D: What is essential in freedom is the freedom of the spirit. What man has to claim above all is the freedom of the spirit. That is his right.
K: But what is the bridge, the connection between the two: freedom and justice?
D: Well, first we have to admit that politics is incapable of solving the problem. The individual has to yield up a huge amount of freedom. We can have large houses now, but when the world population becomes much larger we shall all have to live in extremely small rooms. As in science we must learn to choose, among the different methods, which apply in individual cases.
K: The choice is possible.
D: Only in an existential sense. We must take steps to make society just, and we must take such steps as only we can take, personally, in order to make ourselves free.
K: Is that why in your drama and in the Basler Theater, as I learned when I talked with the director, you insist that you do not have an ideology, a social program. Düggelin said the purpose of the theater was to make the spectator think, not to give him the catharsis of a false solution, but to stir him to question what he has for a long time taken for granted.
D: Yes. The general can never reach the individual. It is an empty phrase to say I love a peasant in China as I love myself because I don’t even know this peasant in China. I cannot love one as myself whom I do not know.
K: But you can love your wife. I am still troubled that you dismiss the problem of justice in relation to one other person or in the family. It seems to me there too justice is necessary.
D: There are two kinds of love: romantic love and hard love.
K: What is hard love?
D: Love that doesn’t want to change the other person, but that permits him to be what he is.
K: Even if he’s unjust?
D: The problem of justice is harder the more people you have. The complicated problems of mass and crowd only begin with large numbers.
K: You link Christianity and Marxism in your consideration of this problem. Does the one complete the other’s possibilities?
D: Marxism can only become meaningful through Christianity rightly understood.
K: What is “rightly understood”? Are you talking about the Swiss democratic version of protestantism?
D: Christianity as a revolution rightly sees the danger for man in his aggression. The emotional tendency to create the “other,” who expands to the hated race, the Scapegoat, and ultimately leads man to fight. For Christianity the conquest of aggression is the task. Love is the highest good. One must stop constructing an enemy.
K: This construction of an enemy is an expansion of the emotional beyond its creative expression into a hostile form. That ties in with your point about numbers and the general. Different laws apply. The results are different.
D: Yes. Fascism is politics which leans exclusively on emotions.
K: Emotions whipped up in the general population, hence destructive emotions.
D: Marxism seeks to create a just world-order, but it cannot change man. The communist dogma, theoretical Marxism, tries to destroy emotion.
K: On the individual level.
D: And because it cannot change man it slides thereby into Fascism. We have today in Eastern Europe something like a Fascist communism.
K: You seem to see a close relationship between the Communism of the East and right-wing capitalism. You see them both as fascistic, denying freedom, exploiting the individual.
D: When only freedom is present without the idea of justice, then you have Fascism. The personification of the state. The emotional state which calls itself the Fatherland, the Homeland. It can be called Switzerland or America. But you don’t call it the administration. In Vietnam it is the administration which conducts the war. It is very difficult to die for an administration.
K: In other words, men in war die deceived emotionally to the belief that they are dying for something important— the Homeland.
D: What is a nation? We are having a great political discussion in Switzerland just now. Many people say one has to believe in a state. That is totally impossible. The state is merely a function. A function which makes it easier for human beings to live together. One cannot believe in a function. One has to examine it critically.
K: We should see the state as a function. You wrote recently of the need for a new critical love for the state viewed as function to replace the old emotional love for the fatherland. You said that the theater is the podium for such a critique. Theater has a political mission in a democracy.
D: Theater is a test of whether or not democracy can function.
K: Yet when you contrast theater in the democracies in the west with theater in Eastern Europe, you give theater in the east the advantage. At least subsidized theater.
D: For people in the east the theater is the last platform for freedom. For the Poles, for instance. I believe the Polish theater is the strongest in the world today. The audience is an absolutely political public which understands theater politically. A public which understands all as being directed against the regime. There theater is revolution.
K: Many of your pieces are played in Poland, are they not? I read that you are the favorite living foreign dramatist by a considerable margin in Poland.
D: Yes, but many that were played are now prohibited. The outbreaks in Poland which led to a Stalinist reactionary policy with the anti-intellectualism and the anti-Semitism of the government began with the banning of a particular theater piece. One of my greatest successes was really only played well in Poland.
K: An Angel Comes to Babylon.
D: And this piece, typically for the time of the re-Stalinization, was prohibited simultaneously by the Communists and the church.
K: But it was restored to production.
D: Yes, because the director argued that it was uneconomical not to play it. It was a very expensive production. It was in Warsaw and the skyscraper which Stalin gave to Poland was projected onto the stage as the Tower of Babylon.
K: A strike against the regime.
D: Poland is in a very bad situation. Everything is being destroyed.
K: What of Grotowski and his Lab Theater?
D: Grotowski is different. Grotowski is not in the revolution. But the great directors are—like Erwin Axer. In the east the state makes demands on the theater.
K: But you say that is true in the west, too.
D: That is the point, of course. The demands of the state on the theater are all alike. The Fascists, the Communists, the Capitalists—it’s all the same.
K: You mean they all impose certain requirements on the theater? Force it to support the establishment?
D: It does not really matter what the particular requirements are. It all comes to the same thing in the end if the state interferes at all.
K: Still, in the east you say they have an advantage because the requirements are clear. They have a specific ideology that everybody recognizes. That is one of your paradoxes.
D: Theater in the east has a political public which sees things politically. The public knows the state controls the theater, so they read what is in the plays as being against the state.
K: Therefore theater in the east is a protest against the tyranny of the state, while with us—
D: We think we have freedom, but actually many different forces in a democracy make demands on the theater which are not so easy to identify. The middle class demands middle-class values, for example.
K: In your recent plays you show much more interest in politics. King John is a purely political play, a play about power. You change Shakespeare so that the play turns on the renunciation of power by the bastard son. He represents what you stand for. He goes back to the people. In a way he’s the Christian—the simple man, the holy fool. The man who is absurd or insane almost, because he hopes to improve the human lot. Like Grotowski’s Kordian or Übelohe in The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.
D: For me Übelohe is the Christian.
K: He reminds me of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith. He’s not a tragic hero in the old sense. We can’t understand him as we can Agammemnon, because there isn’t any logic and precedent in his ethical decisions.
D: Kierkegaard himself supplies the image for Übelohe. Kierkegaard was a ridiculous figure. One day Kierkegaard met this journalist on the street and asked, “Why do you do that?” And this made such an impression on the journalist that he left Denmark and no one knows what became of him. Kierkegaard was a hunchback and the greatest test for a Christian—Paul wrote this—is ridiculousness. To be a martyr is nothing to being made ridiculous.
K: Do you mean to affirm it is good to live in spite of being ridiculous?
D: No, that he endures ridiculousness. And behind Übelohe, as behind all the characters in Mississippi, are verschlüsselte figures, figures which need to be deciphered.
K: What precisely does verschlüsselte figures mean?
D: There is such a thing as a constructed figure. That means, one which conceals a fool: an exaggerated, parodic figure.
K: Now you use fool in its negative, ordinary sense.
D: Such a figure is Mississippi. Mississippi is a parodic figure, in the sense that he is an absolute conservative. He wants to go back to the world of three thousand years ago. The Marxist, St. Claude, is a tragic figure. He is the genuine Marxist, who sees Marxism nowhere realized, and who is therefore killed, as all genuine Marxists are killed by those who merely pretend to be Marxists. He is a tragic and real figure. Mississippi is a comic and unreal figure.
K: In The Meteor I suppose the doctor and the minister are the two comic figures.
D: I don’t see the minister as comic. He is an honest, believing minister, who works hard and who experiences a miracle. Not at all a comic character. A minister who was never before able to experience a miracle so it was difficult for him to preach miracles. The minister is not a comic, but rather a genuinely moving figure.
K: And the doctor?
D: The doctor is terribly angry about the catastrophe that has befallen him, that Schwitter continues to live. He is troubled about his reputation, shocked at how healthy Schwitter is. The comedy of the play lies in the doctor; the tragic figure is Muheim. He is the gangster who does not believe in anything but his marriage, his wife. Through a mistake in identity—a completely meaningless turn of fate which makes him doubt his wife’s fidelity—he becomes the tragic figure. Nyffenschwander, the incompetent painter, is the weak figure in the play. His wife leaves him because she experiences for the first time, by Schwitter’s death, what life is.
K: And Schwitter? Do you see him as a tragic figure?
D: Yes. Schwitter is the modern man. A storyteller who deals in fictions and has to admit to Frau Nomsen he could never stand the truth. To this man something happened as to Hamlet. Something from the world beyond. A Christian paradox. He dies. He comes back to life again.
K: What is the analogy to Hamlet?
D: Hamlet is one of my beloved pieces. Hamlet has much in common with The Meteor. Hamlet is an intellectual. He has studied in Wittenberg and comes back and then a ghost appears to him.
K: Wittenberg is not coincidental?
D: Hamlet is a Protestant. The spirit tells Hamlet he is his father, murdered by his uncle. Hamlet doesn’t know whether this message from the world beyond is the truth or phony. He drives himself to madness, not from weakness of character, but out of his love of finding truth. He wants to act, but when he sees the murderer praying he cannot kill him. If he does, the murdered will go to heaven while his father is in hell. That is really very amusing when you think of it. At the end of the play all the characters who were worrying about confession are killed—in duels, by poisoning—and swept off to hell unshriven.
K: Do you think Hamlet is a good piece?
D: A masterpiece, but it is for a private art collection. Something you look at, but not the intricate chess game. It is easier to stage Hamlet than The Meteor.
K: The chess game again! In your discussion of adaptation problems in King John, you say the analogy to chess is not perfectly valid since the moves of the persons in a play are dependent on their characters. They are not fixed as in a chess game.
D: When the character changes the logic of play changes. Even if they start from the same place, a knight can behave like a bishop.
K: Was that the principle behind your King John?
D: At first I changed the characters very little, but as I worked I changed them more and more. In the end I changed all the characters to some degree.
K: Why did you change the relationship between King John and the bastard so radically?
D: That was necessary. You cannot simply put history on the stage. It is only the raw material. In my play I had to change the emphasis to something more contemporary.
K: In this case you revise to show your political view. The powerful man is not the hero anymore. You make John a better character, but still he solves his problem by following the advice of the bastard.
D: To put old texts on the stage now, they have to be in relationship to the tensions of the present.
K: You imply by that not only social and political attitudes, but form too.
D: Each piece has to find its proper artistic form. That is very important.
K: Is that why the staging of some of your plays has disappointed you?
D: The London production of The Meteor did not take it seriously. They made it like Anouilh, which is just a thin line on which the play turns. It can easily become a farce.
K: On the whole, even though you say your comedies show reality, you do not intend them to be staged realistically. Not in the literal sense.
D: English theater tends very much to naturalism. They played The Visit more realistically than impressionistically. That is the real distinction between the German theater and the English. Even in Milan one of the great directors put a railway track across the stage. That was a mistaken attempt at neo-realism.
K: And the Broadway production?
D: Magnificently performed, but it was too romantic, too realistic. The old woman wasn’t vicious enough. She didn’t have a wooden leg. In my script I wanted men to play trees. They left that out because it was too offensive, too childish. That was wrong. For me drama is above all structure. That means I have to compose it the way a composer structures a symphony. Shakespeare’s King John is just a rapidly written Elizabethan piece. It is like a good beginning in a chess game, but then there are lots of wrong moves. There are good and bad pieces by Shakespeare. There are bad pieces by me and good pieces. The composed pieces are very difficult to stage. The clothesline pieces are easier. We see Hamlet with as little precision as we see Faust. Goethe had written a Faust that is a work of genius. And that is the Urfaust. And the entire well-known Faust is a disaster. In my opinion there are two great revolutionary pieces in world literature: Goethe’s Urfaust and Büchner’s Woyzeck.
K: One of your friends told us not to talk too much about The Meteor. He was afraid you would rewrite it. Why do you rewrite so much?
D: Because I see my pieces often and in each production one sees one’s mistakes. When you write a play, you are like a painter when he paints. And if you step back you see here there has to be a spot of red. You can only describe a piece when you’ve learned from performance what’s wrong and what’s right about it. You only have a distance from a piece when it’s performed.
K: Can’t that happen in rehearsal?
D: If you have money as Brecht did and a year-long rehearsal period, then that can happen. But we can at most rehearse ten weeks. I have just rewritten a new version of The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.
K: What did you change?
D: The history of the theater is mostly a history of miscasting. The play, written in 1952, was performed by a chamber group in Munich. That was the great time of the chamber plays. It was a super-performance. But the main role was performed by Nikisch, who was about 45. She was very delicate-with something of a Bergner-like quality. Since then Anastasia has always been played by an older woman. I, however, see her actually as a very young woman, almost a Lolita. And the men are old. They are all men with an incredible past. Like Mississippi and the Communists. They are 50 or 55. The only young man is Übelohe, who is about 35.
K: But what did you change?
D: I constructed very exactly. The decisive thing about the stage setting was this: in the center I have a revolving stage. On it I have a table and two chairs. Also a plinth with a Venus de Milo. Outside the revolving stage I have a couch. The whole stage is draped in black. In the background are black curtains one can rapidly draw aside. There one sees two different landscapes, the one southerly, the other northerly. And the curtains are opened just once. In the new version I make changes to take the piece back to Aristophanes. The whole play is in the technique of Aristophanes.
K: You have been very generous, Herr Dürrenmatt. We thank you. Temple University is proud to be conferring on you your first honorary degree, that is, the first you have been willing to accept. I enjoyed your joke about that, by the way.
D: Twenty-five years ago I was working on my Ph.D. on Kierkegaard. But I didn’t finish the dissertation. They asked me why I didn’t finish it and get my doctorate. I told them I would wait for an honorary doctorate. So now my academic career is complete. I thank you for that. I’m sorry I talked so much.
K: One more question. Is The Meteor autobiographical?
D: Well, I haven’t had four wives.