Theater Commentary: Dating Dürrenmatt

When should a play be labeled dated and consigned to the junk heap of time? No playwright is safe from the charge of being called passé: one reviewer’s breath of fresh air from the past is another’s antiquated wheeze.

By Bill Marx

Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt –dated like a fox?

Nicholas Hytner, Director of London’s National Theater, speculates that in fifty years or so the poetry of Shakespeare will be too arcane for audiences to follow comfortably. Some critics have dismissed Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett as geriatrics; dramatists such as W. Somerset Maugham, once labeled terminally cobwebbed, return to fashion.

“Dated” is a slippery concept, such as decadence. Both are inevitably wedded to the merry-go-round of fashion. Perhaps that is why dated plays are good box office: aging theater audiences like to be transported into an entertainingly snug past. At least that would explain some of the choices theaters make about the plays they produce.

For most critics, dated means old-fashioned, a script whose language, central issues, and dramaturgy are stuck firmly in the period in which the text was written. Sometimes the charge is leveled because critics want to show how “with it” they are. It is also a quick way to kick a script to the curb. But a critic should keep an open mind – or at the very least come up with convincing reasons for saying a script no longer has anything fresh to offer.

The current case in point are the reviews of the Williamstown Theater Festival production (closed) of Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, a 1962 satire aimed at issues of nuclear proliferation and mutually assured destruction. Terry Byrne of the Boston Globe puts Dürrenmatt’s play, which she calls a “cold war polemic,” into the same category as hula hoops:

“Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Physicists” feels painfully dated. In a world in which improvised explosive devices generate more fear than the atomic bomb, a play about preventing knowledge from getting into the wrong hands seems out of synch. Set in 1962, this darkly comic drama lacks the intensity of Durrenmatt’s better-known “The Visit,” and it gets tangled in overwrought plot twists. But the Williamstown Theatre Festival production delivers a sudden jolt of energy halfway through the second act, due in large part to the sheer force of will of the three leading players.”

Given current apocalyptic fears in the Middle East, Byrne’s objection feels out of synch. If Iran develops a nuclear bomb then neighboring states, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, threaten to establish their own atomic bomb-making facilities. I assume WTF produced the play because it touched on nuclear proliferation.

Friedrich Durrenmatt

Byrne may have a case to make about the WTF production and the script’s structural problems. Years ago I saw The Physicists in an awkward production at the Kettlebowl in Jamaica Plain and came away feeling that it proffered a clumsy marriage of convoluted farce and end-of-the-world politics. But I also felt that a better production might have found what critic Kenneth Tynan admired in the script: “Dürrenmatt plays on our nerves and through them reaches our brains, using the techniques of detective fiction to convey an apocalyptic message: the effect is of a Hitchcock turned prophet.”

I reread The Physicists this weekend and it has as much if not more connection to reality as most of the scripts produced on local stages, such as an upcoming revival of Man of La Mancha, a product of the 1960s that is far more dated than Dürrenmatt’s play.

Other critics went in different directions. Michael Eck of the Albany Times Union thinks The Physicists is dated as well, but he doesn’t bother to say why. He likes the script and the production, so the retro element doesn’t matter because “with a little work on the patron’s part its messages can be easily translated to today.” Jeffrey Borak of the Berkshire Eagle thinks the director has a “lean, clear understanding of the issues that are at stake in the play, which was written in 1962 in the waning days of the Cold War, but whose arguments seem chillingly current.”

Over at EDGE Boston, Berkshire-based dramatist J. Peter Bergman contributed an incoherent, grammatically tenuous rave (“Psychiatry is an intrigue that confounds authorities and authoritarianism is the control mechanism of science.”) For historians of blurbs, Bergman provides one of the most deliciously horrible sales pitches I have read in months. Here is his final paragraph:

“There aren’t many opportunities to see The Physicists. It has a limited run here, and should be seen by anyone interested in the stretching of the mind through laughter, concepts and ideals. An unusual summer offering, it must not be spurned.”

“An Unusual Summer Offering…It Must Not Be Spurned!” It would have been a hoot if WTF had put that in their ads.

John Heffernan as Möbius in the 2012 Donmar Warehouse production of THE PHYSICISTS. Photograph: Johan Persson

Dürrenmatt is known here primarily for his play The Visit, though his crime novels, such as The Pledge, have a following, partly because they have been made into films in Europe and America. Dürrenmatt’s mordant intellectual comedies revolve around such challenging issues as the incompatibility of guilt and power, freedom and justice. Many critics slot him as a follower of Brecht, but his wry application of the Theater of the Absurd suggests that his dour didacticism is liberally spiced with the sunnier anarchy of surrealism. Few of his plays have been produced in the Boston area, even at colleges. There are encouraging signs of interest in his work: The University of Chicago has recently published three volumes of Dürrenmatt’s writings in new translations: Volume 1, Plays, Volume 2, Fictions, Volume 3, Essays.

Kenneth J. Northcott’s informative, if unnecessarily dense, introduction to Dürrenmatt’s dramas is worth slogging through at U of Chicago’s blog.

In his essay, “Chat about Criticism in Front of the Press,” which is not included in the U of Chicago volumes, Dürrenmatt makes some perceptive observations about the ironies of theater reviewing. (The piece is in a hard-to-get collection Writings on the Theater and Drama.)

Here is one of my favorite passages:

“The native dramatist forgets himself like a child in his game, he takes the theater as a form of reality and his own phrases for truths. The self-conscious dramatist knows that theatre can never be anything else but theatre, a fragile parable, to be thought out repeatedly anew, for the trends of reality. This knowledge is his irony. Corresponding to it there should be the irony of the critic who realizes the questionability of all criticism, but often there can only be found a cynicism which wishes to solve a difficult problem in an easy way by making premature judgments in order to run away from the necessity of having to think things out.”

When it came to whether The Physicists is dated, some critics took the easy way out.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Rohan Kamicheril on September 2, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    Great post! I linked to it on our blog at Words Without Borders and thought I’d drop you a line to let you know.

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