Thoughts Prompted by Romulus
Because my interest has waned, I’m not going to read either play (though a comparison between the two would be a profitable exercise for the right playwright). Both exist in a single volume, but I also have Dürrenmatt’s in a compendium with The Visit, two essays and a novel. His essay “Problems of the Theater” posed many problems, and offered solutions. I like the questions; the answers maybe not so much.
He begins with an echo of that thought I’ve heard frequently about the artist in regards to scholarship.
The artist indeed has no need of scholarship. Scholarship derives its laws from what already exists; otherwise it would not be scholarship. But the laws thus established have no value for the artist, even when they are true. The artist cannot accept a law he has not discovered for himself. If he cannot find such a law, even scholarship cannot help him with one it has established; and when the artist does find one, then it does not matter whether scholarship discovered it or not. But scholarship, thus denied, stands behind the artist like a threatening ogre, ready to leap forth whenever the artist wants to talk about art.
“Contemporary theater,” writes Dürrenmatt,
is two things at once: on the one hand, it is a museum, while on the other an experimental field where each play confronts the author with new challenges, new questions of style. Today style is no longer a common property, but something highly private, an individual decision. We have no style, only styles, to describe the situation in art today in a nutshell. For contemporary art is a series of experiments, nothing more nor less, just like all of our modern world.
If there are only styles, then it follows that we have only theories of the art and the practice of the theater, but no longer one dramaturgy. We now have Brecht’s and Eliot’s, Claudel’s and that of Frisch or of Hochwälder: each individual has his own ideas.
Broadly, Dürrenmatt argues that pure tragedy is not possible in our modern age:
Schiller wrote as he did because the world in which he lived could still be mirrored in the world his writing created, a world he could build as an historian. But just barely. For was not Napoleon perhaps the last hero in the old sense? The world today as it appears to us can hardly be encompassed in the form of the historical drama as Schiller wrote it, for the simple reason that we no longer have any tragic heroes, but only vast tragedies staged by world butchers and produced by slaughtering machines. Hitler and Stalin cannot be made into Wallensteins. Their power was so enormous that they themselves were no more than incidental, corporeal, and easily replaceable expressions of this power; and the misfortune associated with the former and to a considerable extent also with the latter is too vast, too complex, too horrible, too mechanical, and usually simply too devoid of all sense. Wallenstein’s power can still be envisioned; power as we know it today can only be seen in its smallest part for, like an iceberg, the largest part is submerged anonymity and abstraction. Schiller’s drama presupposes a world that the eye can take in, that takes for granted genuine actions of the state, just as Greek tragedy did. The modern state, however, cannot be envisioned, for it has become anonymous and bureaucratic; and not only in Moscow and Washington, but even in Berne as well. Actions of state today have become post-hoc satiric dramas that follow the tragedies previously executed in secret. There are no true representatives, and the tragic heroes are nameless. Any small-time crook, petty government official, or policeman better represents our world than a senator or president. Today art can only embrace the victims, if it can reach men at all; it can no longer come close to the mighty. Creon’s secretaries close Antigone’s case. The state has lost its physical reality, and just as physics can now cope with the world only in mathematical formulas, so the state can only be expressed in statistics. Power today becomes visible, material, only when it explodes as in the atom bomb, in this marvelous mushroom that rises and spreads immaculate as the sun and in which mass murder and beauty have become one. The atom bomb can no longer be reproduced artistically, since it is mass produced. In its face all man’s art that would recreate it must fail, since it is itself a creation of man. Two mirrors that reflect one another remain empty.
To rewrite such a history in a creatively literary manner would now be a tautology, a repetition by means that are not suitable or fitting, a mere illustration of scholarly insights; in short, it would be the very thing science often claims literature to be. It was possible for Shakespeare to base his Caesar upon Plutarch, for the Roman was not an historian in our sense of the word but a storyteller, the author of brief historical sketches. Had Shakespeare read Mommsen he could not have written his Caesar, because he would of necessity have lost the supremacy over his materials.
Dürrenmatt seems to understand well the mechanisms of comedy:
The means by which comedy creates distance is the conceit. Tragedy is without conceit. This is why there are few tragedies whose subjects were invented. By this I do not mean to imply that the ancient tragedians lacked inventive ideas, as is sometimes the case today, but that the marvel of their art was that they had no need of these inventions, of conceits. That makes all the difference. Aristophanes, on the other hand, lived by conceits. The stuff of his plays is not myths but inventions, which take place not in the past but in the present. They drop into their world like bombshells, which, by creating huge craters, transform the present into the comic and at the same time into the visible. This, of course, does not mean that drama today can only be comical. Tragedy and comedy are but formal concepts, dramatic attitudes, figments of the aesthetic imagination, which can embrace one and the same thing.
Dürrenmatt adds that “Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility. In the Punch-and-Judy show of our century, in this backsliding of the white race, there are neither guilty nor responsible individuals anymore.” I am not quite sure what he is implying (in a political sense) about “backsliding”, but he seems to have pressed an early finger upon a hallmark of our time: the lack of guilt and of responsibility (perhaps in its extreme American manifestation ushered in by the “teflon president” helming the state).
Dürrenmatt’s essay is from 1954; in 1966, introducing his edition of Romulus, Gore Vidal discussed the state of contemporary American theater:
For some fifty years naturalism has dominated our prose and dramatic literature. It is essential to naturalist doctrine that literature to be good must be “true” and to be true it must, finally, be the author’s experience worked out literally. Now naturalism has many merits, but in our time most of those merits have become demerits. In the interest of a superficial honesty our plays grow more and more meager in content. It is not thought quite honest to use the imagination... assuming the playwright has any... nor is it thought truthful to transcend the limits of one’s own personal experience of the world which, for a mid-century American playwright, is apt to be limited.
Plays about what happened last summer... and how much was drunk and how the marriage went wrong and what the wise psychoanalyst said, and so on toward total boredom.
It is not surprising, of all the several plays I had seen that fortnight (of a previous blog post), I found Euripides and Vidal’s Romulus more satisfying in their scope—never mind the failures of execution—than all of Mamet’s excellences. His play was surely a continuation of the American tradition which includes Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. Vidal’s comedy—which I referred to as more camp than comedy—yet attempted so much more, something so broad as the collapse of an empire, which put him—an interloper—more in league with the Greeks than with Mamet. The play might have been a critical failure—that is for scholars and critics to determine—but as a dramatic production it was refreshing.