by Kenneth J. Northcott
|Essays on Dürrenmatt|
by Kenneth J. Northcott
by Theodore Ziolkowski
by Brian Evenson
Dürrenmatt was born in 1921 in Konolfingen, a small town about thirteen miles from Bern in Switzerland. For Dürrenmatt, Switzerland and things Swiss have a very specific significance and one that he universalizes in much of his dramatic writing. His relationship to his native land is, in a very important and fundamental sense, ambivalent. He loved the physical attributes of the land and the landscape, and clearly the peace of the countryside was important to him, but he was at odds with the narrow-minded mentality of the Swiss people and the political organization and climate of the Swiss nation, which at one point he characterized as claustrophobic. His depiction of the bureaucracy of a small state in Hercules and the Augean Stables is a vivid lampoon of the problems of dealing with the Swiss bureaucracy. Yet, at the same time, he felt that his situation as the citizen of a small, ostensibly neutral state—although (rightly, as it has transpired) he did not feel that the Swiss had been truly neutral in the Second World War—he was in a position to observe, analyze, and criticize the events of the larger world that surrounded him and his native land. This critical analysis of global politics was especially directed at the two superpowers, the United States and the USSR, during the days when the cold war was at its height: views that today in hindsight still seem very percipient and which contain lasting and important universal truths about the political systems at work in the world. His situation in Switzerland also gave him an insight into the hypocrisy and material self-interest that are endemic in politics and political systems.
His intellectual background and training also ensured a varied approach to his depiction of life. Born the son of a pastor, Dürrenmatt made an early study of philosophy at the university, and in December 1943 he was on the point of transferring from the University of Zürich to the University of Bern—where he intended to write a doctoral dissertation on "Kierkegaard and the Tragic"—when he suddenly decided to turn to writing as a career. This decision was perhaps prompted by the chance sight of a memorial to Georg Büchner while Dürrenmatt was walking through Zürich. Büchner, who died in Zürich in 1837 at the age of twenty-six, was the author of the play Woyzeck, whose development of the theme of the antihero characterizes so much modern drama and fictional writing. Dürrenmatt says that Woyzeck had always exerted a tremendous influence upon his writing, and Dürrenmatt himself actually made a redaction of the play (which presents many textual problems). However, although he gave up his formal philosophical studies at this young age, his interest in and knowledge of philosophy continued to play a significant role in his work for the rest of his life.
Dürrenmatt never regarded his plays as finished works but was constantly revising them both in production and on the printed page until 1970, when he completed Achterloo, a mammoth synoptic historical drama, after which he gave up writing plays and confined his theatrical activity to direction and to the revision of his own plays. For just as he regarded life as being in a constant state of flux, so he saw the theater as a reflection of life, ever-changing, never fixed.
Although Dürrenmatt could never be regarded as a formal dramatic theorist of the sort represented by, for instance, Lessing—whom he greatly admired—he has nevertheless left behind a large body of writing about the theater, some of which he wrote in conjunction with his second wife, actress and documentary filmmaker Charlotte Kerr. It may seem paradoxical that, although he was no formal theorist, he should have written so much on the theater and on the theory of productions and staging, but, as I said above, the theater was never static for Dürrenmatt, and what he may see as essential at one moment may be changed radically the next. However, beginning in 1954 in his early essay on "Theater Problems" there are certain fundamental ideas about the writing and staging of plays that remain constant throughout his works. These ideas are developed and deepened in the later work Rollenspiele, in which his second wife keeps a record of a long discussion, extending over more than two years, about a fictive production of Achterloo,. The elements of his work—content, dramatic form, and, most important for him, theatricality—all have to be considered separately as parts of a greater whole, and it was especially the last of these elements that engaged Dürrenmatt after he had ceased writing plays.
What can be said as a generalization about Dürrenmatt's dramatic oeuvre is that, from a dramaturgical point of view, it defies any sort of facile pigeonholing. He himself firmly denies that he belongs to any particular school of dramatic composition: there are elements of the absurd, classical tragedy, and even realism in his works. He says in 1954 that he is not "an existentialist, a nihilist, expressionist or ironist," and had he been writing later on he might well have added "absurdist" to the list. For him the stage is not a place for the working out of theories but a place for experiment, for developing the poetry and essence of the theater. Of course, his characters express opinions, and important ones—he does not, he says, "like writing about fools"—but, unlike many of his predecessors in the German-speaking theatrical tradition, he does not work out a theory of the drama and then write plays to fit it.
This is certainly not to suggest that he is not familiar with the range of dramatic theories from Aristotle to modern times, but for him theory must follow practice, not vice versa. For example, he makes the telling point that it is Greek tragedy that makes the unities possible, not the other way round. Greek tragedy does not require exposition, he says, because the myths upon which the dramatic action is based are the familiar property of the Athenian audience, but this is not true of twentieth-century European drama, where although there is a commonality of experience there is virtually no sharing of a common subject matter, thus making it impossible for the ideal of precision that the unities represent to be achieved in our own time. There are exceptions—Kleist's Broken Jug is an outstanding one—but just because the Aristotelian unities, though perhaps desirable, cannot practically be realized by the modern dramatist, this is no reason for accepting, at the other extreme, Brecht's notion that the theater exists for didactic purposes. Dürrenmatt certainly did not regard himself as being in the Brechtian tradition, though Brecht was a playwright with whom he was frequently compared in the early days. True, there are certain "Brechtian" devices in his plays, but he uses them with a quite different intent. He believed that the theater should serve as a mirror, and, as he rightly says, Brecht is a successful dramatist because the poet Brecht wins out over the polemicist, and in the process the original intent of the drama becomes lost. Nor can he accept the Brechtian idea of the "V" or alienation effect, the demand that the actor constantly remind the audience that they are watching a play—a point of view totally at odds with Dürrenmatt's idea of the theater. "Theater is theater," says Dürrenmatt; "to act as if the audience member believes that theater is reality and that he must be deprived of this belief, is something that I do not understand." Theater, for Dürrenmatt, is its own reality, a theatrical reality, a stage reality that is created by the actor, the props, the decor all of the elements that contribute to the whole of that reality. What the audience does with this reality and what the dramatist does with it are two different, though complementary, things.
Dürrenmatt believes not only that there are no dramatic heroes today—that, indeed, in modern society the dramatic hero has become an impossibility—but also that democracy has no need of, nor any place for, real heroes. Even though the media will try to elevate athletes, winners of minor military actions, or firemen who rescue someone from a burning building into momentary heroes, their life as hero is a short one, and for this reason he calls all but one of his plays "comedies." But "comedy" for Dürrenmatt is a broad term: in comedy the shortcomings of the individual are revealed and are not necessarily treated as "comic." In "Theater Problems" he says on this point, "But the tragic is still possible even if pure tragedy is not"—and here the essential point is that the tragic flaw has taken on a new form in modern society: it is society, not fate, that dooms the protagonist. "We can," he says, "achieve the tragic out of comedy. We can bring it forth as an enlightening moment, as an abyss that suddenly opens; indeed many of Shakespeare's tragedies are really comedies out of which the tragic arises." Again and again in his works this is the central point. Tragedy, he believes, "overcomes aesthetic distance," whereas comedy creates it. The only one of his plays that he does not call a comedy—even his version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is a comedy—is The Visit, and this he calls a tragicomedy, a term to which we will return. Tragedy, he tells us in another place, generally deals with history, whereas comedy treats the present day, though here again he recognizes some exceptions, notably Lessing's Emilia Galotti, a play that he directed. The play is a bourgeois tragedy in which a father is forced to murder his daughter in order to save her from seduction by a petty princeling, and it places the emphasis on the fate of the daughter in the relationship to the prince rather than on the weakness of the princeling's character. One of Dürrenmatt's favorite points of reference for this distinction between tragedy and comedy in classical literature is Aristophanes' The Birds, which he, in company with some other scholars, sees as a satirical treatment of Athenian imperialistic aims and especially of Alcibiades' lack of success in, and recall from, Sicily. Furthermore, in comedy there is no real closure: we are often left with the disturbing sense that nothing has really been solved, that there is no immediately uncomfortable but, in the long run, comfortable, catharsis. In this sense, though Dürrenmatt would probably violently disagree, he does come close to the dramaturgical outlook of Bertolt Brecht, who saw the theater, at least in part, as a stimulus to action, but perhaps the real comparison should be with works of Ionesco, Beckett, and Pinter.
In his work, then, we do find elements of the theater of the absurd, of German classical tragedy, of Greek classical tragedy, and of high comedy, and these may all appear in a single work (notably so in The Visit). That the themes that recur in his dramas are familiar from other aspects of his work is of course apparent. Justice and freedom, evasion of responsibility, guilt by passivity, greed and political decay, the contrast between the small state and the large state are all prominent aspects of what Dürrenmatt calls the dramaturgy of life. His abiding conviction that justice and freedom cannot exist side by side in any human society informs much of what he writes. This is the ground bass of his view of the world during the cold war, and we can still see the truth of it even in the post-cold war era that Dürrenmatt never really got to know. Communism offers justice without freedom; Western plutocratic "democracy" offers freedom without justice. In none of his plays is this more clearly developed than in The Visit and The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.
Central also to Dürrenmatt's dramaturgical views is the idea that the theater cannot exist without exaggeration. There is no place for realism and naturalism in his treatment of dramatic situations, neither in the staging nor in the vocabulary of the piece. If we think of the settings of Hercules; or of the names Loby, Roby, and Toby and the continuing play upon them in The Visit; or the sum of artificial limbs that make up Claire's body in the same play; or even the series of murders in The Physicists, we begin to get some idea of what Dürrenmatt is trying to achieve dramatically and what his sense of exaggeration and the effect of exaggeration is. However, within this exaggeration the dramatist must choose his subject with great care. In the area of staging and decor in general we are made aware of the impact of Dürrenmatt's concern with the visual arts. His stage directions are long and precise, especially in their directions as to the minimalist scenery, which Dürrenmatt saw as essential to his productions; with few exceptions, however, they are not disquisitions on or suggestions about the characters or the dramatic situation, as they are, for instance, in Shaw's work.
Dürrenmatt's best-known play in the English-speaking world is without doubt The Visit. There is also a 1964 film version of the work, but this has been radically changed in best Hollywood style by giving it a happy ending. This change was made after Dürrenmatt had sold the rights, and when he learned of it he said, "I cannot be forced to go and see it"—and he did not. The play was first produced in 1956 and has remained in the repertory ever since. As mentioned above, this is the one of his plays that Dürrenmatt calls a "tragicomedy," which suggests that he views Ill, the leading male protagonist—one hesitates to call him "the hero"—as a tragic figure who is killed by fate, but a fate constructed by fatal human flaws—especially greed—and not a divine "classical" fate. The action of the play takes place in the small fictitious Swiss cathedral town of Güllen—the name means "liquid manure" in the Swiss dialect. When the play opens we face a town in the midst of a deep economic depression, with rampant unemployment and with all of its industry shut down. The opening scene takes place at the railway station, where a group of the local unemployed watch the famous express trains flash through the station at which in happier days they used to stop. They await the visit of Claire Zachanassian (the names Zaharoff, the famous arms dealer of the early part of the century; Onassis, the ship owner; and Gulbenkian, the oil magnate, all resonate in this one name), who was driven from the town many years before with her unborn child, which was fathered by Ill. She is the fateful figure—the wealthiest person in the world—who has come to revenge herself upon her faithless seducer, a small shopkeeper and would-be mayor of the town. The actual plot itself is relatively simple, but Dürrenmatt rapidly establishes certain dramatic themes that are recurrent in his works—first and foremost the idea of justice. Claire has returned to buy justice, to bribe the town into giving her what she sees as the justice that is owing to her. Thus, what is in effect a sordid tale of seduction and self-interest on the part of Ill is magnified into a theatrical reality of unmanageable proportions. But while this exaggeration is growing and we are witnessing the moral collapse of society, we are forced to share in the individual's disgrace, which along with her exile from the town led her into a life of prostitution in Hamburg, a life from which she was "rescued" by a series of extremely wealthy husbands. It is Claire who has ruined the town, but only in order to ruin Ill, for she has cynically gauged the greed of the inhabitants, whose thin veneer of morality is quickly stripped away in the face of material, consumerist temptations. The particular has become the general, for we are forced to face our own consciences and are left to wonder what our reactions would be in the same circumstances. The answer is left open: Ill's death is not a "closure" but rather an invitation to question our own selves.
The threat that hangs over Ill hangs over us all, and this communal fatal guilt makes up the "tragi" part of the tragicomedy. Thus, simple though the plot is, the play itself becomes highly complex in the variety of themes with which it deals. Claire herself is a compilation of prostheses, the result of accidents that have befallen her, so that she is scarcely more than an artificially constructed or reconstructed human being. Fawned upon by her entourage of murderers—purchased from death row in Sing Sing—perjurers, and a dishonest judge, she dismisses one husband after another because she has always nursed the wish to be married in the cathedral of Güllen. Her pet is a panther, in memory of her pet name for Ill in their youth. The whole entourage is a grim comedy, far removed from human reality but tightly woven into the theatrical reality of the piece, which, as Dürrenmatt insists, must not be played with heavy-handed realism, for the comedic values—for example, the linguistic games mentioned above—must be heightened in order to make the final "tragic" ending the more powerful. Indeed, the exaggeratedly grotesque nature of the whole play, with its reiteration of implied threats—the appearance of the coffin and the wreaths, the escape of the panther, the sinister appearance of the eunuchs and the gangsters—calls forth in the audience the sort of angst with which we are familiar from the works of Beckett and Pinter. The ultimate irony of the piece is, of course, that the original petty reason for Ill's desertion of Claire—his decision to marry the shopkeeper's daughter for a small material gain—is now mirrored in the unanimous rejection of Ill by the whole population of the town. Finally, then, revenge is visited upon Ill, but although in a sense Claire can be said to be victorious, on the road to that victory she too has lost all her humanity and has become a physical, moral, and spiritual wreck.
After The Visit, the work that is best-known on the English-speaking stage is The Physicists, of which there were a number of productions immediately following its appearance in English in 1964. The number of productions in the United States has fallen off, even though the central themes of the play—the moral, political, and ethical responsibility of scientists vis-à-vis the atomic bomb—are still very pertinent today. Even though the cold war is over, the potential of the so-called rogue states to develop nuclear weapons still confronts the world with the possibility of a chilling future. The play has been interpreted on a number of different levels, and Whitton in his book on Dürrenmatt's theater suggests that the play is not a political statement but rather a sort of modern morality play. I think this view may be misleading in that, in Dürrenmatt's writing, politics, social responsibility, morality, and ethics are so closely interwoven that it is not possible to draw this sort of distinction.
The play is a reflection on the state of the world—which Dürrenmatt has said resembles a madhouse—in the middle of the twentieth century, and the setting for the play is a private mental hospital in the Swiss mountains. The three physicists who are—or pretend to be—homicidal maniacs have retired from the world to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Once again, Dürrenmatt views the world from the detached point of view of his native Switzerland, so that he can view the lunacies of the arms race, the farcical activities of clandestine intelligence gathering, and the questions of individual and corporate responsibility without becoming parti pris.
The play again begins with a long stage direction, but this time it describes not only the surroundings of the sanitarium but also the state of mind and the backgrounds of both the inmates and the director of the sanitarium, Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, before gradually focusing in upon the actual building in which the sanitarium is located. It was formerly a school for young women and then an institution for a wide variety of persons with a variety of mental illnesses, but now it houses only the three nuclear physicists, each of whom has adopted an historical persona as a cover. Interspersed with this description is Dürrenmatt's statement that in this play he intends to stick to the Aristotelian unities, for, he says, "an action that takes place among madmen requires classical form." The three main protagonists have assumed the personae of three historical persons, Einstein, Newton, and King Solomon, partly as a way to validate their lunacy. Möbius (King Solomon), whose "Unified Theory of Elementary Particles" promises total physical power to its possessor, has decided to abdicate his responsibility and retire from the world under the guise of mental incapacity so that he may hide the results of his researches and save the world from disaster. Beutler (Einstein) and Ernesti (Newton) are CIA and KGB rivals, each of whom is trying to lay his hands on the papers that Möbius has actually destroyed. In the course of their activities each has had to commit murder in order to cover up his intentions, but because of the prestige of the institution and the inmates' feigned, or actual, madness the police will take no action against them.
The ironic twist comes at the end when we learn that the true lunatic is the director, Dr. von Zahnd, who has copied all the papers before their destruction and now, with her consortium of companies, can set out as a megalomaniac to dominate the whole world. It is she who has treated the inmates as puppets who carry out her will: "It's I who decides who my patients think they are," she says. Totally crazed, she will go out to rule the world while the three physicists will be kept imprisoned, responsible in the end for their own incarceration, and finally unable to divorce their assumed personae from their true (or what we think to be true) personae. The damage has been done, and what has been discovered cannot be undone. Once again the threat inherent in the play comes from the grotesqueries of the situations; the world of the physicists is truly the world of the madhouse, a world in which we cannot find a firm resting place, a world that reflects Dürrenmatt's view of the world of the mid-twentieth century.
The next two plays, Romulus the Great and Hercules and the Augean Stables, are more specifically political and satirical in intent—or at least they are more politically founded. They are less well-known to English-speaking audiences, but Romulus deals with one of the central politico-moral themes of Dürrenmatt's thinking: the question of whether a ruler has the right to betray the country he governs in order to save that country from itself and at the same time to assert that the individual must always be of greater importance than the collective state—an almost prophetic anticipation of the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European bloc. In other words, it is a play that deals with what is generally called "treachery" or "treason," where these supposed crimes against the state are used to preserve the individual's human rights. It is in any case a theme of tremendous importance for the whole of the twentieth century and one that will continue to be important in the twenty-first. For many, no doubt, it will appear to be a seditious theme, because we have become immune to the rights of the individual in relation to global corporations as the significance of the "nation" begins to pale. In fact, for Dürrenmatt there would be little or no distinction between the institutions wielding power over the subservient, or indeed between the political systems or ideologies that ride roughshod over the rights of the individual.
Romulus has become emperor in order to preside over what he sees as the dissolution of the Roman Empire, which is in a state of economic and moral decline—the two being, as we see in the play, intertwined. The platitudinous heroics mouthed by Aemilian, the knee-jerk patriotic patrician, give Dürrenmatt the opportunity for an attack upon patriotism and its dangers, which he regards much in the way that Samuel Johnson did: "Patriotism, sir, is the last resort of a scoundrel." Like Hercules, the play is essentially anti- or nonheroic. Romulus freely admits his deceit in accepting the emperorship for the purpose of breaking up the empire, and he welcomes the Teuton ruler, Odoaker, who would gladly restore Romulus as the head of a new empire because he both fears the rivalry of Theoderic, his nephew, and wishes to enhance his own social standing. Jokes abound about the vitality of the Teutons, especially about Caesar Pluck's economic vitality, expressed in his desire to buy the Roman Empire. Pluck is a manufacturer of trousers—a new concept in Roman clothing—and sees in the defeat of the Roman Empire a chance to expand his commercial enterprises, as well as the chance of obtaining some social cachet by marrying the emperor's daughter as a reward for saving the empire.
Romulus has long since recognized that the only hope for the Roman Empire is its disintegration in the face of the Teutonic hordes, who are much more enterprising and vital both politically and commercially. Pluck represents the last hope for the empire (and Dürrenmatt of course makes play with the fact that the last emperor shares a name with one of the founders of Rome). Romulus' dissembling is a foretaste of what will be a much more disastrous form of dissembling in The Physicists. His role as a chicken farmer—perhaps for the Swiss the ultimate ineffectuality of a ruler—provides him with a screen behind which he can achieve his goals. The comic treatment of financial necessity—Romulus' and the empire's bankruptcy; the commercial ventures of Apollyon, the functionary turned art dealer, in his dealings with the empire; and the fortune amassed by Pluck through his sale of trousers—reduces the end of empire to a comic bourgeois interlude while at the same time reflecting the historical truth that the end of Roman Empire did take place with a whimper rather than a bang. Yet, for all this, Dürrenmatt ends the play on a serious note and leaves us with the paradox that both Romulus and Odoaker, the new ruler, have lost out: Romulus because he fears the past, and Odoaker because he fears the future, the Teuton hegemony, and the dehumanizing effects of war. Both are caught up in the inexorable march of history, and both presage the century about which Dürrenmatt is really writing in this "ahistorical historical comedy"—"historical" because it comments upon the state of the world as Dürrenmatt sees it.
Hercules and the Augean Stables is the most pointed satire in the present collection, pointed in that it is directed at the Swiss state, the Swiss state of mind, and those aspects of Swiss life, culture, and politics that Dürrenmatt most dislikes. Yet he has stated that he would not consider it a satire; perhaps we are dealing with a question of definition. Paradoxically, the satirical edge is sharpened by the fact that the satire is not truly biting, but rather reflects a certain laxity of behavior, becoming a sort of satire of what the Swiss would recognize as satire. The central theme of the play is the total inability of a state to get anything done in a communal way because of the stifling effect of the ubiquitous bureaucracy, together with a suggestion of corruption in high places: Augeas has managed to maintain a secret garden while the rest of Elis lies feet deep in dung. Implicit in the whole is a condemnation of the Swiss people's readiness to accept political and social conditions that are, in Dürrenmatt's view, tantamount to the conditions of a voluntary incarceration, where prisoners and guards are one and the same. This is a theme to which Dürrenmatt will return, about thirty years later, in the speech that he made for Václav Havel on the occasion of the latter's receiving the Büchner prize in 1990. The play is of course antiheroic, not just nonheroic: Hercules does not perform his tasks for any heroic reason but because he needs money to live on. Once more we are reminded that there is no place for heroes in the modern age, and certainly not in the agricultural, financially oriented, capitalist democracy that is modern-day Switzerland. In addition, the gods themselves are also reduced to bourgeois beings. The government is faced with the endless dilemma—grown worse in the years since Dürrenmatt wrote the play in 1961—where the pursuit of wealth causes ever-increasing environmental and spiritual pollution and where corporations refuse the funds necessary for the cleaning up that is needed; the excuse is always, as the deputies say, where "time is of the essence . . . caution is doubly warranted." Dürrenmatt repeatedly said that Hercules was the most poetic of his plays, and in the play itself Polybius explains the need for a love interest: "No art without romance, no romance without love, no love without a moonlit night. We are not presenting a realistic play, we're not serving up a didactic play, and we're also going to pass on the theater of the absurd: what we have to offer is a poetic play." The contrast between the subject matter of the play and the claim for its poetic values will not be lost on the audience, but Dürrenmatt also sees the pervasive manure as having a double meaning in its modern setting. It is the accumulated excrement of Elis, but it is also an exploitable economic asset—Egypt, Babylon, and the rest of Greece use Elian dung as fertilizer—so that the state finds itself faced with an insoluble problem: life is no longer possible either with or without the dung. The problem has been created by the inability on the part of the state to find a middle way, and now it is simply too late, for as Dürrenmatt has said, "it is always too soon to do anything and then it is too late." And the state is afraid to dispense with the dung heaps because of what is potentially hidden beneath them: are they hiding national treasures, or is there something even less attractive beneath the potentially valuable dung? But the truly tragic kernel of the play, as Dürrenmatt has himself pointed out, is that the country of Elis (and he has freely admitted that the play is addressed to Switzerland) is unable to act because the help is offered from outside and does not come from a true desire, from within, to clear the country of the dung that is consuming it.
In the remarkable four-volume collection of conversations and interviews with critics, actors, directors, and producers that is the source of most of the statements quoted here, Dürrenmatt has provided us with wide-ranging insight into the way he goes about writing his plays, and this methodological insight is particularly important when we come to consider what is, perhaps, the most challenging of the plays in the present volume. In his remarks about his dramaturgical method, Dürrenmatt tells us that when he begins writing, he does not set out to construct a "well-made" play but begins with the seed of an idea and then lets that seed grow, blossom, and finally take over the work. There is, in other words, no "intentional" guiding principle that informs the composition of the work, and this is, I believe, most clear in the consideration of the fifth play in this volume, The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. It is, incidentally, also a play that Dürrenmatt constantly reworked and which he himself directed on numerous occasions. Although the play is chronologically the first of the five plays to be written, I have left discussion of it for last, partly because it is perhaps the most difficult and complex of the plays represented here, but also because in it Dürrenmatt anticipates much of what he does in his later and more mature writing. A variety of themes in the play will be developed individually at greater length in other plays and inform much of Dürrenmatt's dramaturgy: long soliloquies aimed at the audience and having both a self-revelatory and a narrative function, obsessive ideas, and the dichotomy of communism and religion, or of East and West, both of which lead to disaster. In this clash of East and West, Dürrenmatt sees the true doctrine of Christianity as a doctrine of love, not one that inflicts punishment on the sinner—punishment reflected in the death penalty, 365 of which Mississippi has imposed in his life as a public prosecutor—while the true aim of Marxism is to rule the world without resorting to oppression, not to exercise naked power as the Soviet state does. If Dürrenmatt comes down on the side of Marxism—not the perverted communism of the Soviet Union, but true Marxism—it is because he totally rejects the cruelty of Calvinism. The other constant themes that wind through this play—and will inform much of Dürrenmatt's later work—are a change of persona in order to hide the past and achieve new ends, physical and spiritual decay, the need of the individual to return both physically and mentally to an earlier existence, madness, and a desire to change the world. It must, however, be pointed out that, as with all of Dürrenmatt's theatrical work—and in this of course it differs from his radio plays—in performance and presentation the totality of the work is of the essence.
The setting of the play also reflects a world that is crumbling, and this accelerates in the final scenes, ironically played out against the music of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, until finally all of the main protagonists are dead. Only the quixotic Übelohe is left alive, but he has become a risible character—which, in Dürrenmatt's view, is the fate of all in our imperfect world who hold fast to idealism and truth. Yet for all that, the play is not entirely bleak, for as in all Dürrenmatt's works there is a comic side, and the play acts as a warning rather than as a prophecy of what will happen.
These are in broad outlines the implications of the play, the central theme of the title, the marriage of Mr. Mississippi; the fact that he has only married Anastasia in order to expiate their guilt for the murders that they both committed reflects the punishment meted out to the world for the destruction of truth, freedom, and justice. In approaching this play, as with all of Dürrenmatt's works, the director and the actors have to realize that they are dealing with a work that, as noted above, does not reflect an initial intentionality on the part of the author but was constantly modified, and one in which the chaos of the structure must sustain the chaos of the cosmos that underlies the work. Set as it is, anywhere or nowhere, any attempt at realism is totally at odds with what Dürrenmatt is attempting. In the production of this play, as in all the others, the director must always bear in mind Dürrenmatt's insistence on exaggeration, and perhaps caricature, as being a staple of dramatic theater. The element of chaotic dramaturgy must preclude the actor's taking himself—or the play—too seriously, for only in this way can the full effect of the plays be achieved. It is a challenge, but one that the English-speaking theater should accept and meet.