Friedrich Durrenmatt – Swiss satire
I thought I would do a post on Friedrich Dürrenmatt – one of my all time favorite Swiss authors. A playwright and novelist, Dürrenmatt is probably best known in English for his play entitled The Visit and for a novella called The Pledge which was made into a wonderful psychological thriller (2001) with the same title starring Jack Nicholson. His full bibliography is much larger than this and includes another delightful satiric play called The Physicists along with numerous essays, short stories and a few more plays.We like to laugh in my house that my husband wooed me with Dürrenmatt because his writing was some of the first gifts my husband gave me when we first met. But I am eternally grateful that he introduced me to this wonderful writer. Dürrenmatt’s wit is sharp and cutting, his psychological portraits deeply intense and, in general, his works give you quite a lot to think about regarding society, morality and the effects of modernity upon the fragile human creature. But always without a high-handed moral tone. He is a master of comedy and satire.
I have read The Visit several times, each time enjoying it as much as the first, and it’s a book I often pass on to friends and new acquaintances. The play opens with the return of an older woman, Claire, to her hometown. She is wealthy beyond belief (after something like eight marriages to various millionaires) and the villagers and her old friends greet her with a certain greedy awe, knowing they will benefit from her settling among them again. They are not disappointed except the gift of her wealth comes with a heavy price – she asks the villagers to kill her old lover, Albert, and only after the execution of this ‘justice’ will she give all of her money. Of course, at first, everyone claims this is ridiculous, they wouldn’t dream of committing such a horrible act for something as vulgar as money. They promise Albert, who has become an influential business man in the village, that he is absolutely safe and so and so forth. But the days pass and the villagers begin to look around them, at their poverty and slowly, they begin to change their minds. As the story unfolds and the scheming begins, the reader also learns more about Claire and what drove her from the village in the first place and why she’s so interested in revenge. This is a tragi-comedy and some of the best comic moments occur as the villagers begin to buy things on credit, even from Albert’s shop, who knows too well they will have no way to pay him back unless the dastardly deed occurs. The ending must necessarily be tragic but not completely in the way the reader is at first expecting.
A Senegalese film called Hyènes was made in 1992 and is a wonderfully brilliant re-make of The Visit. The film manages to underscore the play’s original themes but against the more starkly impoverished setting of an African village.
The Physicists is a short, dark-humored comedy about murder and intrigue that takes place in a mental institution. The story is about three men, a physicist and two spies who are sane but pretending to be insane to keep the world safe from their work and inventions. The play was written in 1961 and addresses the implications of modern science in an age of nuclear warfare. How Dürrenmatt manages to make this play, with its heavy themes and doomsday predictions, quite a funny piece of literature is a testament to his satiric genius.
Most of Dürrenmatt’s writing, originally written in German, is now available in either French or English.