Friedrich Dürrenmatt on the sorrows of the large state (1959)

In Europe, one often hears that the main difference between American and European theater consists in the fact that America’s great dramatists write realistically, even naturalistically, in contrast to the Europeans who are abstract, more speculative, who in short constitute the avant-garde. Admittedly this is a very sweeping judgment, but it is a judgment one often hears. In Europe, American theater is denounced as conservative, accused of ultimately doing no more than European accused of ultimately doing no more than European theatre did before it in the time of Henrick Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Anton Chekhov; meanwhile, European theatre is accused of getting bogged down in experiments, losing touch with reality, and, what is worse, with the audience.

It can’t be denied that this view has a certain basis in truth. There is no doubt that future literary scholars will gain a much more vivid picture of contemporary America from contemporary American plays than of Europe from European plays; on the other hand, European plays will clearly offer more information about our contemporary philosophy, or rather non-philosophy, our doubts and our difficulties.  But to postulate the superiority of European over American literature on this basis is not only wrong but dilettantish. The contrast which begins to emerge here is of quite a different nature. Just as today only two great powers remain—unfortunately, and not all to the world’s benefit—today, now that one of those great powers has ceased to play an important role in contemporary literature, there is only one great power that produces literature, significant literature, namely American literature, as against the literature of small states.

My hunch about this may surprise you. My hunch is that the differences between American and European drama consist in the fact that a dramatist who belongs to a great power will behave very differently, aspire to a different theater, a very different theatrical style than a dramatist from a small state. If true, this distinction is much more important than one might at first believe. American theater as a result of America’s great power assumes an almost tragic position at the moment when we understand it as an attempt to see itself to keep from losing itself. Every giant power by nature grows to become uncanny, inhuman, abstract, whether or not it wants to, independent of its aspirations, of its will; instills fear, outwardly, through its sheer presence, posing a threat without meaning to through the sheer possibility of rape inherent in it; isolates itself, grows lonely; but inwardly too, along with the feelings of power and freedom it instills in its citizens, it inspires the sense of being faced with something uncontrollable, impersonal, arbitrary, fateful, faceless, indeed blind in its fury…

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–1990) was a Swiss writer and dramatist, author of The Pledge and The Visit, among other works. Isabel Fargo Cole is a US-born, Berlin-based translator. She is the founder and co-editor of No Man’s Land, an online magazine for new German literature in English.

This essay will appear this December in Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Selected Essays, from Seagull Books. Seagull continues to amaze us, making the search for a world culture seem alive and well by producing bracing and beautiful new books that we can’t believe we haven’t always had.


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Photo: Dürrenmatt reading Erich Kästner’s Die Kleine Freiheit
(The Little Freedom), ca 1952. From the Centre Dürrenmatt Neuchatel



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