By Peter Royston

"Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the course of events. We are all collectively guilty...Comedy alone gets at our problems."

Born January 5, 1921 in Konolfingen, Switzerland, Friedrich Durrenmatt bore an interesting and telling background: his father, Reinhold, was a Protestant minister, his grandfather Ulrich, was a behind-the-scenes man in Swiss politics and a well-known satirist. These different threads would meet in the young playwright and thinker.

In 1941, he began serious study at universities in Zurich and Bern, burying himself in literature and philosophy. In his writing, he took justice as his tool, always taking it to its logical extreme. He thought that writers must look at life with a harsh, merciless clarity.

He was always working and reworking his writing, even years after writing it. He called this "reeducating" his work. He said, "The stage is always the author's teacher, and he can learn from it."

At 26 years old, his first play, As It Is Written, premiered to great controversy. The story of the play revolves around a grotesque battle between a sensation-craving cynic and a religious fanatic who takes Scripture literally, all while the city they live in is under siege. The idea behind the play is one he continued to use in his future work: taking an idea to its logical, usually awful, final extreme. By taking "the last shall be first and the first shall be last" literally and trying to create heaven on earth, the city dooms itself. In As It Is Written, we also see a theme he uses again in The Visit: the Church showing its weakness when confronted with a true moral question.

The play's opening night in April, 1947 caused fights and protests in the audience, which must have caused Durrenmatt some satisfaction. As he said, "I am a Protestant. I protest."

In this first play, the work of a young man, Durrenmatt was greatly influenced by the bare "epic" stage techniques of Bertolt Brecht and Thornton Wilder. He included many sensational effects, scene changes, and written "titles" flashed before each scene. In his later plays, he would put more trust in his words. Still, As It Is Written shows suggestions of the power to come.

His first major success was the play Romulus The Great. Set in the year 476 A.D., the play explores the last days of the Roman Empire, presided over, and brought about by its last Emperor.

In the play, Romulus hates Rome. The Empire is shown to be totally degraded and corrupt; the first scene shows the court of Rome like a barnyard with chickens flying about. Romulus is the only one who can see the real state of the world. As one character says, "An organization as immense as the Roman Empire simply cannot totally collapse."

Romulus sees the truth and works to bring the Empire to its logical conclusion: destruction. In this, we see the breakdown of order - the chaos that lies just below the surface of our everyday lives.

His serene sense of justice gives Romulus his heroism. We see this self-knowledge in Alfred lll in The Visit. As Murray Peppard writes in his book Friedrich Durrenmatt, "In all of Durrenmatt's mature works, serenity of soul is typically coupled with the acceptance of death and an insight into the fundamental, if inscrutable, justice of the world order...Characteristic is the victim's smile of joy in anticipation of final fulfillment." Or as Romulus says, "Never was I more composed, never was I more serene, now that everything is over."

The Visit

"Feeling for humanity, gentlemen, is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order."

Der Besuch der alten Dame ("The Visit of the Old Lady") premiered in Zurich in 1956, when Durrenmatt was 35. It was such a success that productions sprang up in England and America over the next two years.

Durrenmatt called this story "A Tragic Comedy." More than any other of his plays, this story of an old lady who returns home to wreak an exact and merciless vengeance on her former lover intimately joins comedy and tragedy to support each other in nearly every scene.

The play really has three major characters: the old lady, Claire Zachanassian; her former lover and object of her ruthless justice, Alfred lll; and the people of the town of Gullen, who make up a kind of composite representation of society itself. Through these characters, Durrenmatt is able to give the audience a darkly comic, breathless, and in the end, unanswerable debate about the nature of justice, redemption and community.

Claire is a hodgepodge of patched-together artificial limbs, held together only by her hate. Since her betrayal at the hands of lll and the people of Gullen, she has spent her life in a single-minded vengeance. Her justice is god-like. Across all of Europe, she pursues the two men who lied about her in court like a fury; they are castrated and made her slaves. Durrenmatt compares her to an ancient idol. She is like the statue of Justice - eternal, something out of myth. When the townspeople first refuse her offer of a billion marks for the life of Alfred lll, she says quietly, "I'll wait," and you can imagine her waiting centuries.

Amazingly, we find ourselves cheering her on; as the play begins, she is the only character who speaks the unadorned truth. In The Visit, characters use language to hide their real intentions. As Durrenmatt writes, "Today man lives in a world which he knows less than we assume. He has lost his image and has become a victim of images." In The Visit, he puts the preconceptions that get us through day-to-day life under the microscope.

Although Durrenmatt decried symbolism ("Misunderstandings creep in, because people desperately search the hen yard of my drama for the egg of explanation which I steadfastly refuse to lay."), it is hard not to see the poverty of Europe during the Depression and the slow growth of fascism in-between the lines in The Visit. With the ashes of World War II still in their mouths, the people of Europe in the 1950's faced the growing Cold War and the shadow of the atomic bomb. The question of how a man can hold on to his ideals in the face of grinding poverty was still a strong one. Many saw Claire Zachanassian as a symbol of that desperate fear, but Durrenmatt was steadfast: "Claire Zachanassian represents neither justice nor the Marshall Plan, nor the apocalypse; let her be just that which she is, namely the richest woman in the world who is enabled by her money to act like the heroine of a Greek tragedy, absolutely, cruelly, perhaps like Medea..."

Durrenmatt wrote about the town of Gullen (meaning "excrement" in Swiss), "It is a community which slowly yields to temptation...yet this yielding must be understandable. The temptation is too great, the poverty is too bitter. (The Visit) is a malicious play, but just for that reason, it must be presented without anger and in the most humane way, with sadness yet with humor, for nothing hurts this comedy that ends tragically than brutal seriousness."

Durrenmatt uses the people of the town to show the weakness of authority, the disorder just beneath the civilization's order. When the people of Gullen begin to buy expensive items on credit, lll panics, and goes for help to his Family, the Government (the Mayor), the Law (the police chief) and the Church (the minister). He is rebuffed at every turn. Even the teacher, representing Intellectualism, sees what is happening but is too weak to fight it.

With no where to turn, lll takes responsibility for his crime. He achieves the serenity and acceptance that Durrenmatt saw as the pinnacle of human heroism. He gains stature in our eyes through this transformation. He can reject the city's offer to commit suicide; the town, too, must be made to face its responsibility. In The Visit, lll is the only character who changes and grows. Claire is sterile in everything but her need for revenge; the people of Gullen do nothing but reveal their true, rotten selves. Only lll has the epiphany of self-knowledge that Durrenmatt prized so highly.

At the end of the play, with lll dead at the town's feet and Claire's check in the Mayor's hand, "order" and "community" are restored, but now the audience knows these ideas are grotesquely false. As Peppard writes, "In the closing scene, the townspeople appear as much slaves as they did at the beginning; if at first they were victims of poverty, they are now the captives of prosperity. Only lll has found freedom, and he has attained it only by a withdrawal from the community into death."

In The Visit, Durrenmatt writes a classical tragedy for the 20th century, a modern answer to ancient questions of honor, loyalty and community. When The Visit was written, the world was on the brink of disaster, and every town was a Gullen. He wrote that in the 20th century because "we no longer find tragic heroes, but only tragedies staged by world butchers and carried out by meat-grinding machines...power today is only minimally visible, since like an iceberg the largest part is sunk in faceless abstraction...Today's state has become impossible to survey, anonymous and bureaucratic...genuinely representative people are lacking and the tragic heroes have no name."

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