Tag Archives: Friedrich Dürrenmat

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).


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

The Judge and His Hangman

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) is most famous in the English-speaking world for his play “The Visit” (which was messed up and supplied a happy ending in a 1964 movie version with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn), and two other very dark comedies, “Romulus the Great” and “The Physicists.” In the German-speaking world, Dürrenmatt is better known for his “anti-detective” novels, the third of which, was recently adapted brilliantly in English (already having been filmed in German) as “The Pledge,” one of the few movies based on the work of a major writer that I think was improved in adapting.

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The first of his detective novels, Der Richter und sein Henker, originally published in 1950 (and translated into English in 1954 as The Judge and His Hangman), was filmed in 1975  as “The End of the Game” (from a screenplay credited to Dürrenmatt and Maxmilian Schell; actor Schell directed director Martin Ritt as the main character in it, Jon Voight as his assistant, Robert Shaw as the arch-villain, and Jacqueline Bissett as the romantic interest for most everyone, including Donald Sutherland whose character is already dead at the movie’s start). The movie is intriguing but more than a little murky, even though Dürrenmatt himself plays a part in the film in whom the two detectives consult.


The novel(la) begins with a rural constable finding a policemam from Bern, Switzerland’s capital, shot in a car with its engine still running. The passenger door is unlocked and the constable pushes the corpse over, put a hat on him, and drives the dead policeman’s car to Bern police headquarters. The dead policeman, whose name is Schmied was a promising younger detective and the partner of an ailing senior detective named Barlach (whose insistence in working his own way to the irritation of his nominal boss is reminiscent of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, as is his concern with justice more than with law). Barlach goes to the dead man’s flat and takes away a folder with notes on an investigation about which Barlach’s superior know nothing. In investigating Gastmann, a long-time nemesis of Barlach, a very rich and well-connected industrialist who has returned to where he grew up, Schmied had been attending weekly parties Gastmann threw. The parties brought together artists (including the novelist whom Dürrenmatt plays in the movie), high-ranking members of the party in power in Switzerland, and trade staff from an embassy. (The political/economic connections are MIA from the movie.)


Barlach is an interesting character, whose insides are literally eating him up. Before surgery and its risks, he wants to finish the job of bringing down Gastmann. The complexity of his plan is only apparent at the end, and I certainly do not want to spoil its ingenuity.

In general, Dürrenmatt’s detective novels “show that the ordinary detective story’s belief in rationality is itself irrational” and in much of his writing for the stage, too “reality is unfathomable and defies calculation.” Planning in Dürrenmatt generally runs aground on unexpected coincidences (for instance, the well-planned trap in “The Pledge” or the asylum sought in “The Physicists”). Elsewhere, he wrote, “The more human beings proceed according to plan, the more effectively they may be hit be coincidence,” and took Oedipus as the archetype of being struck by what he (and his parents) were trying to avoid. Barlach is an exception. He has been foiled for decades, but has become flexible in adapting what happens.

The book is splendid and very lucid a detective story, with a long-ago crime that was nihilistic in the Leopold/Loeb/acte gratuite sense. It also includes a high level of reflexivity, with a novelist who is fascinated by someone who might do anything and how the philosophical matters (as well as a discussion of goumet meals between the novelist and Barlach) are entirely lost on the ambitious new assistant with whom Barlach must work (and whose name is German for “chance”). The novelist says he is a kind of policeman, too, though without any state power. “It’s my job as much as it is yours to keep a sharp eye on people.” Barlach understands what he means and already knows that Gastmann is capable of murder, whether or not he killed the policeman.


©2018. Stephen O. Murray