Political Ideas vs. Avant gardism
Susan Murray - futurebird@diaryland.com

This essay is not just about two of the most innovative dramatists of the 20th century, it is also about a personal attempt to resolve a ‘artistic conflict of interests.’ As an (aspiring) artist in theatre, I am committed both to the idea of politically meaningful theatre, and to the idea avant gardism.

The conflict of interests falls between the mostly apolitical art work of the avant garde elite and the predominantly conventional dramatic technics used in the work of political activists. When looking at two plays: The Visit by Friedrich Duerrenmatt and Orpheus by Jean Cocteau I was struck by the dichotomy that seems to separate strong political/ideological ideas from leading-edge, theatrical innovation.

At first glance, these two plays indicate that a political playwright must adhere to established dramatic rules in order to communicate clearly, while an avant gardist must focus on the means he chooses for innovation. In The Visit Duerrenmatt makes bold statements about human nature and its interaction with capitalism, but he shys away from total abstraction in theatrical style. In Orpheus Cocteau introduces several proto-postmodern storytelling technics, breaking many of the theatrical conventions of his day, while failing to mention the major political conflicts. Moreover, political writing and new technics of presentation appear to be mutually exclusive.

Still, further investigation proved that each artist was committed, in other ways to, the means of expression less present in his work: a close reading of Orpheus uncovers political meanings and The Visit, in a certain sense, is theatrically innovative. This relationship shows that the gulf between the writing styles of Jean Cocteau and Friedrich Duerrenmatt is not as great as it first seemed. Each writer has focuses his energies on one form of innovation but not to the exclusion of (or out of disregard for) the less developed areas of inventiveness.

In Orpheus Jean Cocteau shatters the conventions of the theatre by layering plot lines, by mocking classical mythology, through self-referentialism, and by connecting his story to the lives of the audience of his day. Sadly, nearly all of Jean Cocteau's plays are apolitical. He has been accused by some critics of ignoring the great problems of his time. However, in reading about this writer, I found not a rich spoiled playboy, but a man with a sensitive political conciseness who was concerned with making bold political statements.

The story of Friedrich Duerrenmatt appears to show the flips side. In The Visit he renders a damming portrait of human nature. He challenges the moral integrity of every sacred institution: law, academia, and the church. Reading Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s work is painful, for he shows people as: selfish, short sighted, foolish and unprincipled. As if all of this (much deserved) battery of mankind was not enough, he also goads us on to laugh a spectacles of greed and warmongering. Unfortunately, Friedrich Duerrenmatt's plays are not the first place to look for innovations in the theatre. His work fits perfectly into the classical five-part structure. His story lines often rest on key plot twists like those used melodramas. Like Auther Miller and Elmer Rice, his work is a variation on the classical plot-driven story. It is peculiar that such an imaginative mind stuck so steadfastly to rapidly aging ideas of what drama should be. However, as with Jean Cocteau, Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s writings on drama quickly reveal a man who was a advocate of theatrical innovation, of expressionism: a crusader for a new theatre.

A paradox exists. Why are the theories and actions of both of these men so disparate from their work? Why, as inventive minds drawn to theatre, did they choose to focus on such different aspects of innovation and outspokenness? The answer to each of these questions lies in the nature of their audiences, the period in history when they wrote, and their source of income while working as dramatists.

The Closet Expressionist

The world is resting in the mirror.
It has a headache.
God is sitting in the middle.
He is asleep.
His hair is white light.
A snake winds itself round His neck.
It strangles.
God is stifled to death.
Friedrich Duerrenmatt, 1943

Friedrich Duerrenmatt was born in 1921 in Konolfingen. He was the only son of a protestant minister. His father expected that Duerrenmatt, too, would become a minister, but like his grandfather, a political activist, Duerrenmatt was interested speaking to more than the church. He wanted to be a painter; to speak to the world. He was taken with the paintings of the early Expressionists and, adopting their style, set out for art school. But, the works of the impressionists were more popular at this time and Friedrich Duerrenmatt's Expressionistic style of painting was not readily accepted. Whether it was the nature of his visual ideas, or lack of ability Friedrich Duerrenmatt gave up painting in his 20s to start working in the theatre. If he could not communicate with a brush he would use the stage instead.

Like many young people who witnessed the second world war as children Friedrich Duerrenmatt came to consider himself an Nihilist (not a view he held for his entire life) He embarked on a dubious and financially strenuous career in the theatre. Often he had trouble paying bills and buying food. His first three plays were hopeless failures, many critics maintain, to this day, that in his early works the young Friedrich Duerrenmatt had not yet mastered the art of writing. Others suggest that he had not managed to pull his style of writing sufficiently far away from all-out expressionism to please the audiences of his day.

It has been argued that Friedrich Duerrenmatt is not a political playwright because his works do not call for, in a Brechtian sense, any specific form of change. But, like Brecht, Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s plays are instructional; they are meant to teach a lesson --and one that is hard to swallow. Because he is not the mouth piece of any one party or ideology, Friedrich Duerrenmatt is, in many ways, a more effective political playwright than his predecessors. He uses a captivating and emotional story to strip away the layers of pretend that protect corrupt institutions from mockery: exposing the flawed and fundamentally weak underbelly that pretends to be the ‘ideological principles’ upholding so many of our institutions.

In 1949 he wrote Romulus The Great and was met with a brief taste of theatrical success. Success for Duerrenmatt meant large numbers of people seeing his shows and healthy ticket sales. In other words, his plays had to have some sort of popular appeal. Romulus The Great and later The Visit were Duerrenmatt’s first plays to faithfully follow the dramatic structure audiences of his day came to expect. The Visit, an even greater success was practically a thriller: part murder mystery, part love story and rife with intrigue. Duerrenmatt integrated ideas that arose from the experience of WWII into his work. Though he found it difficult He once said: “I could imagine a terrify grotesque about WWII, but as yet not a tragedy, because we have not got distance from it.” Despite the idea of keeping distance Friedrich Duerrenmatt managed to work a lot of ideas about the stupidity of war into Romulus The Great. But it is in The Visit he truly drives his thesis home. The play exposes the fact that it is not the war-mad leaders and kings who lead to world destruction, but rather, a plague of ]myopia\ among the people. Had one villager in The Visit had the nerve to speak up, justice might have been served.

It is worth examining The Visit in detail, not only to highlight the ways in which Friedrich Duerrenmatt puts forward a political idea, but to highlight the ways he uses expressionism to do so. As an avant garde source of theatricality, expressionism had proven fruitful for the past 30 years in Europe. expressionism is characterised by artwork that gives light to (or expresses) the inner vision of the artist in order to convey that vision to the audience. If an impressionistic work is portrayed and Expressionistic work is inflicted.

Friedrich Duerrenmatt inflicts his Expressionistic drama through a series of of events that progressively heighten the absurdity of the conflict in order to focus the audience on the moral question of the play. The Visit begins in the small dilapidated town of Gullen (in English something like “dungtwon”) where the officials and towns people anxiously await the return of a now rich former citizen. The first mishap occurs when she arrives unexpectedly early, thus all of the townspeople’s extravagant plans to impress her are thrown into disarray. But, the atmosphere remains fairly plausible . . . until we are introduced to her entourage. They including: two brutish strong-men who carry her around in a sedan chair, a black panther, a subservient 6th husband and two blind unich who speak in riddles.

There is a dream-like quality to the unich twin’s manner of speaking. They are freakish and impossible yet Friedrich Duerrenmatt has created a scenario to justify their existence in the play. Thus, they are not purely Expressionistic elements, but rather traditional comic or dramatic characters with an Expressionistic twist. Details like Claire’s false leg and the symbolic death of the panther (mirroring Anton’s own death) further serve to create a mixture of dream and reality that is at once, disturbing and compelling.

In another notable scene Anton attempts to escape from the village but he is stopped by the towns men. Sine Clair has placed a price on his life (to be awarded to the entire town if he is found dead) every person the community has a interest in his death yet none are willing to take the moral responsibility for it. Paradoxically, in order to prevent him from leaving the town the towns people do nothing to prevent him from leaving. That is, they crowd about him and create a sense of menace that makes their greed and desire for his death apparent. Thoroughly intimidated by the crowd, Anton returns the the village and resolves to await his fate. The his death is imminent. The towns people have begun to spend their reward on credit. The debt and material wealth he sees blossoming about him further seals his destruction. The passiveness of both the townspeople and Anton once the plan is sent in action accentuates nightmarish quality. Still, no single event in the play is truly beyond explanation. The world is bound to rules as rigidly as the plot is bound to structure. As in a good horror flick, we know that eventually the monster will leap from the darkness, but knowing this dose not lower the drama or the stakes. The dramatic question is not “if he will be killed” but rather “when and how will he be killed?” Friedrich Duerrenmatt does not seek to merely suggest a nightmare, but rather he tries to show how real life is nightmarish.

Friedrich Duerrenmatt is not the first name that comes to mind when expressionism in theatre is mentioned. In fact, he might be the last. Many others took far bolder steps into this realm abandoning the rules realism entirely. But in order to serve a popular audience and to make a clear statement about human nature, Friedrich Duerrenmatt resigns to use of mix of theatrical technics.

Friedrich Duerrenmatt considered himself to be a ‘travelling salesman of philosophies’. This self assessment seems quite apt, as a salesman speaks to the general population and dose not have the luxury of frivolous experimentation. It would have been interesting to see what direction Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s work would have taken if, like Jean Cocteau, he had been able to secure patrons and remain independently wealthy and thus able to create work that relied more on introspection and a search of personal meaning rather than popularism. Perhaps under such circumstances his plays might not have been as strong and enduring, but I would like to think that they would have simply been different, more daring, more shocking and less rigid.

It must be said, however, that a small audience of close friends and patrons has its own limitations that will be explored in the next section of the essay.

The Closet Political Activist

Jean Cocteau was born 1889 in Maisons-Laffite to a wealthy upper-middle class family. Showing some artistic ability he studied painting and theatre and as a young man, he quickly became involved with the vibrant Paris art scene. Richard Wagner had published several essays on art:Gesamtkunskwerk (total artwork) in this time and the idea of avant gardism was sweeping Europe. The idea of an “art movement” was still quite new and groups of artists (many close associates of Jean Cocteau) like Picasso, and Stravinsky become taken by the idea of searching, almost scientifically, for superior and vibrant forms of expression.

Politically speaking, at this time the ideas if avant gardism began to take on different characters in different ares of the world. It was easy to apply ideas from Nizchie and Wagner to the human race as well. If we could strive to create a superior art, why not a superior nation? a superior people? Almost as a reaction to this chilling connection Dadaism emerged. It was the anti-art art movement. Dadaism was intended to be an insult to belittle the notion of ‘superior art’ and to end and expunge ideas of progressiveism from the arts. Cocteau’s work is a part of this movement. If his plays seem superficial that is because they are superficial. In contrast to this superficiality, Cocteau picks topics normally reserved for operas and massive romantic paintings for his plays. Myths like Orephus and Oedipus rex were pulled from their dusty shelves in the cannon of European literature and and thrust on to the stage in a clown suit. The mockery is not only intended to make us laugh but also to make us question the sanctity of holy works, to expose the ordinary and the banal in the holy. Cocteau’s plays are ‘art for artists.’ He challenges his peers to ask themselves “Just who do we think we are?” In addition to writing and playing in his works Cocteau also drew cartoons for the allies during WWI he testified at the trial of his fried Jean Gent. His work was forced to remain apolitical due to the pressure of living in France during that period of history, but his actions and the art movement he chose to become a part of indicate a strong political interest.

Cocteau social and political concerns are evident even in his most abstract pieces. To illustrate this, it is worthwhile to examine the ways in which Cocteau destroys the sacred in Orpheus. In the set description Cocteau tells us that the stage should look “as if it were a magicians parlour” this is not only a reference to the side-show like aesthetic of surrealism but also Cocteau’s way of telling the audience how the play is to be viewed. He furthers this sense through his “unplanned” prologue in which the actor playing Orpheus tells the audience that the story is both “a ticklish affair” and a work of acrobatics. Neither of these descriptions fit any of the versions of the tale of Orpheus that had been told to that day. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is part of Greek mythology: a parable of the strength and weakness of love. In Cocteau’s massive parlour show it becomes nothing more than a eye stunning trick.

The deglorification of myth continues as we discover that Orephus, regarded in legend as the greatest poet ever to live, has become something like a performance artist crossed with Gertrude Stein. He is no longer interested in lyricism but rather seemingly meaningless poems tapped out by the hooves of his horse. The character (who is clearly intended to represent Cocteau himself) is an avant gardist. At one point Oprphus says “Someone has to make a scandal, throw a bomb. Someone has to clear the air or we’ll all suffocate. I can’t breathe anymore.” These are not just the words of a half-mad poet on an artistic rampage, but of a generation of artists who felt that some tremendous change needed to occur in the arts to shake it free of institutionalism and rules and to make it the bare slate for free expression where work that might matter to more people than the aristocracy might be born.

Unlike Durrenmatt, Cocteau’s audience consisted of artists and his patrons. He was not forced to rely on masses of tickets sold to be successful. He is consequently less careful in is use of dramatic structure and he indulges in subtile metaphors and even a few “in-jokes” that his small familiar audience would understand. In Cocteau’s work we have exchanged melodrama for complexity. But that complexity should not be mistaken for mere dallying. Cocteau’s political message though, high-flown and meant for the few, it is as serious and bold and Durrenmat’s ideas about human nature. It is as much a call to action as The Visit might be. But it is a call meant for different ears in a different time.

Theatrical Success vs. Patrons

There are few living writers in theatre or in film who have been able to create works with either social-political meaning or critically innovative technics. Modern audiences have seen and heard many different variations on the political and avant gardist themes. It is a challenge to the modern dramatist to, like Durrenmatt and Cocteau, examine the present state of theatre and art and then create a work that poses the dangerous questions. The only thing more dangerous, than dangerous question after all, to be foolish enough not to ask them.

Durrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose and Theory
By Timo Tiusanen
Princetton University Press, 1991

The Ethetic of Jean Cocteau
By Lydia Crowson
University of New Hampshire Press, 1978

Jean Cocteau and the French Scene
French American Foundation, Abbeville Press, 1984

Understanding Fredrich Durrenmatt
By Rodger A. Crockett
US Carolina Press, 1998