November 19, 2008

Friedrich Durrenmatt, Plays and Essays

"If we consider how art is practiced these days, we cannot help but notice a conspicuous drive toward purity. The
artist strives toward the purely poetic, the purely lyrical, the purely epic, the purely dramatic. The painter ardently works to
create the pure painting, the musician pure music; and someone even told me that pure radio represents the synthesis
between Dionysos and Logos. What is even more remarkable for our time, which is not otherwise renowned for its purity,
is that each and everyone believes he has found his own unique and therefore the only purity. Each vestal of the arts has,
if you will, her own kind of chastity. Likewise, too numerous to count are all the theories of the theatre, of what is pur theatre,
pure tragedy, pure comedy. There are so many modern theories of the drama, what with each playwright keeping three or
four at hand, that for this reason, if for no other, I am a bit embarrassed to come along now with my own theories. . . "

--p 237, 'Problems of the Theatre'

It amazes me to realize that I've owned this book for several years and only now, when it caught my eye among a jungle thicket of books pilled everywhere, many of them on the floor, stacked in rows a little haphazard (there've been instances of toppling) where a shelf had been, and collapsed under their weight--we had clearners coming and you can't really leave books piled high on a rug that's to be cleaned, not unless you want 'em wetted and shampooed and the rug under them badly cleaned if at all, so I was stacking 'em in the closet, quite a few went into gaps on the other shelves, whatever worked basically but of course I found my fingers tripping over titles and a small pile on top of one shelf forming a to-read list, and finding the one I most wanted to reread was this Durrenmatt collection, what do I discover immediately but that I've never read in all these years the first of its two plays, Romulus the Great? Why would somebody who's an actual Durrenmatt fan overlook for so long such an unconditional masterpiece of the theatre? Sure, if I'd read it ten years ago I might barely have registered the sly theatricall allusions, to Antigone and so on though. . . could hardly have missed the farcical parody of Shakespeare's assassination scene from Julius Caesar--the action after all takes place on the ides of March, 476, but the conspirators against Rome's last Emperor Romulus aren't an organized party of citizens, they come together accidentally, each separately concealing himself and when they do come together with one intent--as Romulus alone anticipated, having planned things so they must--they're scattered at the last minute by a sudden cry: "The Teutons are coming!" (which they are, but not for another twelve hours). Like history itself, the great scenes of epic historical theatre are played the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce. (Romulus has been a completely inactive Emperor, living in retirement on an estate. His great passion has been chicken breeding, and his chickens are all named after predecessors on the Imperial throne. He eats their eggs for breakfast, and when they don't reliably lay any longer, the chickens for dinner. The previous evening it was Caligula.)

I'll stop here describing the play, since you might as well discover its qualities yourself. Don't wait as long to read it as I did.

The other play in this collection is The Visit, though I'm pretty sure from his introduction that the editor Volkmar Sander would have preferred that it be The Physicists:

"Of far greater weight and of comparable stature to The Visit, though not quite so popular. . . is [The Physicists], written in 1962"

Do you get the same feeling I do, that this is an editors indirect protest at an inclusion/exclusion imposed upon him by a publisher? For personal reasons I think it's unfortunate The Physicists wasn't included here, because I've read The Visit more than once, but i've never been able even to find a copy of The Physicists elsewhere. Not only that, the one time it's played in Toronto friends and I missed seeing it because we were too new to the city and couldn't find our way to the theatre 'til well past the first intermission. Bugger.

One of Durrenmatt's great metaphysical satires in detective novel get up, The Judge and His Hangman, is included as well, and two fascinating essays, 'Problems of the Theatre' and 'A Monster Lecture on Justice and Law'.

"We writers are often reproached with the idea that we are nihilistic. Today, of course, there does exist a nihilistic art,
but not every art that seems nihilistic is so. True nihilistic art does not appear to be nihilistic at all; it is usually considered to be
especially humane and supremely worthy of being read by our more mature young people. . . People call nihilistic what is merely
uncomfortable. People are now saying that the artist is supposed to create, not to talk; to give shape to things, not to preach.
Certainly. But it becomes more and more difficult to create 'purely' or however people imagine the creative mind should work.
Mankind today is like a reckless driver racing over faster, ever more heedlessly along the highway. And he does not like it when
the frightened passengers shout: "Watch out," and "There's a stop sign," "Slow down," or "Don't kill that child!" Moreover, the
driver hates it when someone asks who is paying for the car or who's providing the gas and oil for this mad journey, to say
nothing of what happens when he is asked to show his driver's license. After all, unpleasant facts might then come to light. . . "

--pp 259-260, "Problems of the Theatre"

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