Friedrich Dürrenmatt – from Emmental to Broadway
5 January 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Switzerland's greatest authors. Friedrich Dürrenmatt reached an audience of millions with his darkly satirical plays and crime novels, which continue to be read and performed all over the world. He was also a towering moral authority who turned a critical lens on his homeland, and left behind a significant body of paintings which are on public display in beautiful surroundings at the Dürrenmatt Centre in Neuchâtel.
At home in the Emmental and the world
The Swiss playwright and novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the son of the village pastor, was born in Konolfingen in the Emmental, in the canton of Bern, on 5 January 1921. Fritz, as he was known to family and friends alike, had his eyes set on a world beyond the village from an early age. As a young lad, he would go to the train station to watch trains pass by and dream of the places he would visit one day. He was a passionate reader of Greek mythology and by the time he was ten, he was fascinated by astronomy, spending countless hours scanning the night sky with a telescope and drawing astronomical charts.
A painter or a writer?
When Dürrenmatt moved to the nearby city of Bern in 1935, he was torn between dreams of becoming a painter or a writer. On 27 September 41, having just graduated from high school, he wrote his father: "It's not a matter of deciding whether or not I shall become an artist, for that cannot be decided – you become one out of necessity. [...] For me, the problem lies elsewhere. Should I paint or should I write? I feel drawn to both." Although five years later he gave up his philosophy degree to become a writer, he continued to paint and draw for the rest of his life. After his death, an impressive body of drawings and paintings that had been largely unknown to the public was put on display in creative dialogue with his literary oeuvre at a museum (designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta) dedicated to his work: the Centre Dürrenmatt Neuchâtel.
From Zurich to Broadway and Hollywood: Dürrenmatt wins worldwide acclaim
Dürrenmatt achieved international fame not as a painter but as a playwright: his breakthrough came in 1956 with the tragicomedy The Visit, which was premiered at the Zurich Schauspielhaus. Within a few years, the play had made its way to the great stages of Munich, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Prague, Stockholm, New York, Milan, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Beijing. It also inspired several film adaptations, including The Visit (1966), starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn. A few years later, Dürrenmatt repeated his success with the Cold War satire The Physicists, which became long-running hit.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt was extraordinarily successful not only as a playwright but also as the author of morally complex detective thrillers which sold millions of copies and inspired numerous film adaptations, including The Pledge (2003), directed by Sean Penn with Jack Nicholson in the leading role. The pastor's son from Emmental whose linguistic originality and finely tuned ear for the Bernese dialect was evident in all his works, had become an internationally acclaimed author.
The nation's critical conscience: Dürrenmatt and Switzerland
Dürrenmatt often reaffirmed his deep attachment to his origins with witty remarks such as "I like being Swiss" and "The author is not a Communist, but a proud son of the canton of Bern." Yet his patriotism was not uncritical. Although he always professed his love for Switzerland, he was also a thorn in its side: in the post-war years, he was among the first to denounce Switzerland's Second World War refugee policy. Shortly before his death in 1990, he gave a speech to political cultural luminaries at an award ceremony for Czechoslovakian president Václav Havel in which he compared Switzerland to a prison where everyone was both a prisoner and prison warden. He was referring to revelations that during the Cold War, the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service had kept a vast archive of secret files on over 10 per cent of the Swiss population.
Foundation of Swiss Literary Archives
Dürrenmatt considered his critical stance towards his own country to be a civic duty and a civil right, but also saw it as his responsibility to contribute to Swiss cultural policy. Perhaps his most lasting legacy was his decision to bequest his literary estate to the Swiss Confederation, leading to the establishment, at his initiative, of the Swiss Literary Archives as a department of the Swiss National Library in 1991. The Swiss Literary Archives now house the literary estates of over 400 Swiss authors.
The Swiss National Library, the Swiss Literary Archives and the Centre Dürrenmatt Neuchâtel are holding a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of Dürrenmatt's birth.
Dürrenmatt today: timeless myths and visionary ideas
Thirty years after Dürrenmatt's death, his writings and ideas have lost none of their relevance, urgency and impact on contemporary readers and audiences. His stories are modern myths that speak to people not only in Western Europe, but also in countries as far as Senegal and Singapore. They are explorations of the seductive power of money, plans gone awry and life's unpredictability, but also of individual resilience in the face of adversity. Dürrenmatt's foresight also enabled him to anticipate major challenges we are now facing, such as religious-political fundamentalism, artificial intelligence and the risks of new technologies. As one of the characters in his play The Physicist put it: "What has been thought cannot be unthought".
Cover-Image: Friedrich Dürrenmatt at his desk in Neuchâtel, ca. 1960. Photo: Monique Jacot.
Portrait-Image:Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists II (Weltraumpsalm), 1973, collage and mixed media on paper, 102.5 x 71 cm, Centre Dürrenmatt Neuchâtel Collection, © CDN / Swiss Confederation.