Dürrenmatt’s “Romulus, the Great”

As Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1950 play “Romulus, the Great” begins, A. D. 476. a messenger arrives with news for the last emperor (of the west)  of the latest calamity in the onward march of the barbarian Teutons. The messenger is told to wait a few hours and then go to the daily session of petitioners for audiences. The chamberlain might then set a date for the messenger to see the emperor. The news seems urgent and the messenger catches the emperor passing from inspecting his hens (egg production is Romulus’s seeming primary interest). Romulus rejects the idea of earth-shaking news that must be conveyed: “News never shakes the world. Only events do that, and once we get news of them, they’re over and done and past altering. New only agitates the world: it’s best to get used to as little news as possible.” (So the emperor does seem like Bush or Trump  in incuriosity and Ashcroft or Sessions in blocking the Freedom of Information Act he is supposed to be enforcing…)

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Romulus’s wife Julia and daughter Rea are conventionally patriotic and concerned about taking decisive action to save the empire, but Romulus tells Julia, “I don’t want to interfere with the course of history, my dear.” Romulus is concerned about food (gourmets pop up frequently in Dürrenmatt writings) and is selling off furnishings (portrait busts) to cover daily expenses at the run-down villa he has not left since being proclaimed emperor.

A merchant building an international conglomerate specializing in new-fangled trousers offers to pay off the barbarians if Romulus will give Rea to him. Romulus is willing to sell the empire, but not his daughter. However, the merchant, Caesar Rupf, knows that the upkeep of empires is more expensive than profitable (a lesson of history lost on the Ivy League graduate currently extending the American Empire).

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The eastern emperor visits from Constantinople with the kind of courtiers who made “Byzantine” an adjective. Rea’s fiancé returns from three years of being misused by Teuton captors. An array of characters want to assassinate the slacker emperor in the third act. He challenges their rationales, taking the role of judge of Rome. After noting that “every state calls itself ‘country’ or ‘nation’ when it is about to commit murder,” he tells his prospective son-in-law, “Rome knew the truth but chose violence. Rome knew humaneness, but chose tyranny…”

And, finally, the barbarians are through the gate and the Teuton chieftain, Odoaker, discusses chickens, ambitions, conquests, tyranny, etc. with the last emperor. Romulus turns out to have a more complex agenda than his courtiers and womenfolk realized. But if there is a leitmotif in Dürrenmatt it is “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray” and both Odoaker’s and Romulus’s very interesting ones are frustrated.

What starts as a farce, and continues with fairly anachronistically modern businessmen and bureaucrats, ends as a philosophical tragedy. The version I once saw on stage (not the translation here, but an adaptation by Gore Vidal whose view of empires is close to Romulus’s) played well, too. Dürrenmatt is certainly a modern bard laying out the perils of hubris, and entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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