“FEELING FOR HUMANITY, gentlemen,” says Claire Zachanassian, “that’s for millionaires. With my resources you buy a world order.” Claire is a stage billionaire — and a woman at that — at a time when there were only a couple of billionaires in the real world. With this female lead, the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–’90) proved at the very outset of his career that he could design spectacularly, with his finger on topics both perennial and timely: ethics and economics, morals and corruption, revenge and justice, hypocrisy, greed, temptation — in short, the whole Pandora’s box of misbehavior that opens when people, money, and power mix.
2021 marks Dürrenmatt’s 100th birthday, with numerous commemorative events taking place in his home country, where he was a towering intellectual figure. Dürrenmatt helped shape the postwar German stage with a dramatic originality and moral seriousness unmatched by contemporaries. His plays lay out human quandaries with painful clarity, mitigated or exacerbated by humor (generally dark), satire (often bitter), and the wit of his dialogues (dry, minimalist, but always quick).
Given that Dürrenmatt had quite close ties to the United States, this may be an appropriate moment to recall a world-class dramatist and ask — a hundred years after his birth, seven decades after he burst onto the global theater scene, three decades after his death in December 1990 — whether his oeuvre still speaks to us and what it has to say. I claim it does and says a lot, and I will support this claim when we move onto the stage of Washington, DC, and the spectacle of January 6, 2021, in the second part of this essay, after a quick Dürrenmatt refresher.
The Visit, whose central character Claire is, premiered in Zürich in 1956. It opened on Broadway two years later and ran for close to 200 performances. In 1959, Dürrenmatt made his first trip to the US, in large part to pick up the New York Drama Critics’ prize for best foreign play. 1964 saw the premiere of a Hollywood movie based on his play (The Visit, directed by Bernhard Wicki), but now with a happy ending; and Sean Penn made another film — The Pledge — based on one of Dürrenmatt’s detective stories, in 2001. In between, Dürrenmatt was awarded an honorary doctorate from Temple University in Philadelphia, another occasion for a US trip in 1969–’70; and his last stay here, also his longest, was his residency at USC in 1981.
The Visit made his name and saved his finances. It shows him at the height of his craft, with Claire his most convincing female stage character, a shrewdly crude, yet grandly noble, older woman whose powers of seduction, being strictly financial, far transcend those of her patched-up body. Anton Schill, Claire’s disloyal beau from years past, is an early example of Dürrenmatt’s “courageous person” who rises to the challenge her wicked offer of economic rescue creates, while the townspeople of Güllen, eyes wide shut, fail miserably and murder him, greedy moral bumblers that they are.
While outside Switzerland Dürrenmatt is best known for his theatrical work — with The Physicists from 1962 another global success, along with a few novels and novellas, often of a detective bent, contributing to his reputation — at home his early radio plays, critical essays, political commentary, and satire make up a significant part of his stature as an artist and public intellectual. Painting was another venue in which he developed and fixed his ideas. He was a multimedia artist avant la lettre. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the son of a Protestant pastor, a deep engagement with the discourses of science and religion further shaped his thinking; and the figures of the minotaur and the labyrinth — key elements in our dramatic layout here — appear repeatedly in his work.
Dürrenmatt’s worldview is marked by binaries and dualisms, paradoxes, satire, and irony. He was deeply shaped by the Cold War — for him an age of fear more than of anger. Realists, he wrote in the afterword to one of his plays, seek the most reasonable social order for humans who, by nature, are unreasonable; but realists fail. And idealists fare no better: positing humans as strictly rational, they design an ideal world order that turns into the most outrageous irrationalism as the incalculable side of human nature inevitably breaks through and wreaks havoc. “Humans as they are do not correspond to humans as they should be,” he writes. He aptly described the messiness and haphazardness of his century as “Wurstelei unseres Jahrhunderts,” the slaughterhouse where the sausage is made. This business has, if anything, only gotten more messy, even dire, in our century, certainly meaner and more spectacular. The growing personalization, flamboyance, and performative nature of politics, notably populist politics and social media, has been often noted. Mediatization has turned politics into spectacle and drama.
Drama, yes — but not tragedy, according to Dürrenmatt. For him, only the comedy remains as the viable theatrical form for our age. His “courageous individual” is the best and most ethical a person can still be in the modern world, generally at the price of their lives. The tragic hero is no longer possible on account of the disproportionality between the forces he can unleash and his moral and ethical capacities. But if not tragedy as a form, Dürrenmatt says, “the tragic is still possible and we can achieve it out of the comedy, as a terrifying moment, a yawning abyss.” We develop it out of the grand comical mess that is our world. “Tragedy presupposes guilt, necessity, measure, clarity, and responsibility.” Nowadays, “there are no more guilty parties, and no one is responsible; no one is at fault, no one wanted things to turn out the way they did. […] Only comedy measures up to us.”
So, with this, let’s step from the biographical and conceptual foyer onto the stage of recent political life in order to demonstrate Dürrenmatt’s contemporary relevance. As a piece of political theater — comical, tragic, farcical, an angry, grotesque spectacle — the events of January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol rise like a scene from a Dürrenmatt play, incidents curiously adumbrated across much of his work. Indeed, his thinking on ethical questions turns out to apply as much now as it did in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
All stage plots need a prehistory, the exposition. In our case, the beginnings lie in the 2016 election campaign for the US presidency. Campaigns are, by their nature, theatrical, in our age directly conceived as media events, but our hero, whom we will call Minotaur, takes this one to a hitherto unknown extreme of performance, in events known as “Trump rallies.” Minotaur needs to feel the crowds in that deep Canettian sense, in their materiality, density, and inherent tendency to spawn radical changes in individual behavior.
In November 2016, with the protagonist elected to the presidency, the play begins in earnest. The scene changes from the Bakhtinian carnival of the rallies to the confines of the capital, the arcane, opaque center of American democracy and political life. Let’s call this space, both in its concrete and symbolic functions, the labyrinth, a signifier that Dürrenmatt mined for meaning all his life. “The labyrinth is a parable and as such ambiguous, like all parables,” he wrote. Speculating why Dedalus built a labyrinth instead of a regular prison to contain the minotaur, Dürrenmatt concluded that the creature possessed such “obviously inexpressible wildness and strength […] that no prison door would have resisted him.” A labyrinth assures both survival and containment. Surprisingly, Dürrenmatt imagines it as open — like the principles of American democracy: “[T]he numerous gates of the labyrinth are open; anybody can stray in and get lost.” It is through its cunning design that it endlessly dissipates and annihilates its inhabitant’s restless energies. Savor that for a minute.
Over the years, Dürrenmatt’s vision of the labyrinth changed and — by 1985, in the short, highly stylized prose text Minotaurus, a Ballad — had become a more constricting enclosure, the walls mirrored glass, throwing the Minotaur endlessly back onto himself. Indeed, he sees only himself, interacts only with himself in a wilderness of mirrors. At the same time, Dürrenmatt increasingly humanizes and psychologizes the minotaur, asking the reader for empathy and compassion.
Minotaur’s four years in the labyrinth are turbulent. He fumes, he rants and raves, he runs against the walls in a rage, not to break out but to destroy the place itself. As he had in fact said he would during his campaign, assigning himself the Herculean task of “draining the swamp.” In his 1963 play Hercules and the Stable of Augeas, Dürrenmatt eerily anticipates the difficulty of the task, humorously depicting through grotesque exaggeration the shipwreck of an individual in the bureaucratic structures of the modern democratic state, with the facelessness and impersonality of its offices, committees, processes, and regulations, its dimly lit corridors of power. Minotaur calls this “the deep state,” but it is nothing more than the nutrient medium for the soft corruption of all bureaucracies.
To his endless frustration, Minotaur fails to wreck the place as, over time, the labyrinth turns into a hall of mirrors, a media feedback loop of television and Twitter. The labyrinth becomes his protective shell that he does not want to leave. So now he fights the return to the outside world, even after he has been given notice on November 3 — or set free, if you wish. But the mood inside the labyrinth darkens. “Aides struggle to contain an angry, isolated president,” writes Reuters. “In the aftermath of the Capitol riot, Trump’s White House became an insular refuge for a self-absorbed leader detached from the people who had rejected him,” notes Politico. Finally, in a last desperate effort to remain, Minotaur entices his people into the labyrinth with him, through the doors of the Capitol. And behold, among the invitees, at the head of the group appears — a minotaur.
The events that unfold and their resonance for the world go far beyond anything even Dürrenmatt’s formidable imagination could have anticipated. Who, for instance, could have imagined that the Black police officer who led the rampaging crowd away from the Senate chamber would be called Eugene Goodman? Who could have thought that an actual minotaur — Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman,” grotesque in the best Dürrenmattian sense — would address “all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists” from the Senate presiding officer’s desk? Theatrically in the Capitol mêlée, more quietly and bureaucratically in the final congressional vote counting, Minotaur’s tenure in the labyrinth ends.
To assess this grand guignol in Dürrenmattian terms, let’s return to November 3. In a democracy, there should be no drama in the transfer of power. The rules are clear: the loser steps down, no heroism is required, not even ironically so. Yet Minotaur, by prevaricating on whether he would accept the outcome or not, had created dramatic tension. What was he going to do? But he also created an opening for himself to step out as a fake version of Dürrenmatt’s “courageous person,” the diminished tragic hero of our time who does the right thing for the greater good — even if it costs him. Yet Minotaur missed this chance as he continued to prevaricate and brought about his own disgrace. Indeed, events followed one of Dürrenmatt’s most famous dicta on the unfolding of dramatic plots: “A story is finished when it has taken its worst possible turn.” This worst turn, he adds, comes by chance; it cannot be planned — it could be the result of an election, for instance. But, you may wonder, what is the worst turn? “The worst turn a story can take is its turn toward comedy.” This is what happened between November 3 and January 6: by the latter date, Minotaur had become a comical figure, when two months earlier he could still have been, although contrivedly so, a “courageous person” by acknowledging his defeat.
What distinguishes the tragic from the comic hero, according to Dürrenmatt in the afterword to his 1973 play The Conformer, is that the former wrecks his ship against the world, while the latter wrecks his against his own character. Dürrenmatt sides with the latter: “To founder against gods and fate is honorable, even if unavoidable; but to founder against the insight that the world of one’s imagination does not correspond to the real world, the quintessential comical situation, deserves greater respect.” This is the modern condition we all face as individuals, the world in which we take or forgo the chance to act ethically, even if in vain. We do it for ourselves as we refuse to abandon ethical behavior in the face of a contingent universe. This credo quia absurdum is as close as Dürrenmatt, the atheist pastor’s son, comes to religion.
Minotaur today is still alive. No one has taken him to task. Why? A last illustration from Dürrenmatt’s oeuvre models this case, too. The Anabaptists was Dürrenmatt’s first staged play, in 1947, although under a different title. It caused a scandal and never caught on, but Dürrenmatt liked to joke that it was the play that made him famous. It is perhaps closest in spirit to our political moment in the US. Set amid the denominational wars of 16th-century Europe, it draws on the brief reign of the Anabaptist movement, a radical eschatological splinter group, in the town of Münster. A siege occurs, the city walls are breached, crowds mill about; the incidents are crass, the language coarse and blasphemous, and the key protagonist, Johann Bockelsohn, is an impostor and hypocrite. Dürrenmatt whoops it all up into the burlesque, grotesque, tragicomic — the first example of his theatrum mundi.
The play turns on a contrast between the mayhem within the city walls and the bishop’s actions outside them. Inside, the contrast is mainly between the demagogue Anabaptist leader Bockelsohn, a former stage actor, and the simpleminded religious zealot Mayor Knipperdollinck, whom Bockelsohn exploits. Foregrounding the political-religious mass hysteria and the uncontrolled power of a despotic leader, the 1947 version directly reflects its historical context of World War II; both Knipperdollinck and Bockelsohn end up broken on the wheel. It is the 1967 version that throws a bright light on our own recent Washington clash of worldviews by highlighting power’s nearly limitless capacity for cynicism. In this second version, Bockelsohn, the rebel leader, remains unpunished. Instead, after his defeat, he is hired into the “media team,” as we might say now — the bishop’s court theater troupe — for his stage skills of lying and rabble-rousing. The victors, appreciating the fundamental homology between acting and politics, recognize themselves in the play-actor, for their own “real” power is no less reliant on illusion. “Bockelson,” Dürrenmatt writes, “is the topic of all power, namely its foundation in theatricality.” We’ll take this as proof of Dürrenmatt’s continued relevance.
Hans J. Rindisbacher is a professor of German and Russian at Pomona College in Claremont, California. His academic interests include Swiss, German, and comparative literature, cultural studies, material culture, art, fashion, and photography. In 2019, he co-edited Writing Switzerland: Culture, History, and Politics in the Work of Peter von Matt.