Swiss playwright, novelist, and critic.
Born at Konolfingen, in the canton of Bern, Dürrenmatt studied literature, philosophy, and science at the universities of Zürich and Bern. After first working as a graphic artist, he became theatre critic for a Zürich weekly. His first three plays were inspired by historical subjects: Es steht geschrieben (1947), set during the Anabaptist government of Münster (1534–36); Der Blinde (1948), set in the period of the Thirty Years War; and Romulus der Grosse (1949; translated as Romulus the Great, 1964), a political satire set at the end of the Roman empire. These plays, the first of which is clearly indebted to Brecht, were not performed outside Switzerland. By the time he had gained an international reputation in the mid-1950s, Dürrenmatt had developed an original view of ‘tragic comedy’ that inspires his mature work and is set forth in the essays in Theater-probleme (1955; translated as Problems of the Theatre, 1958). Given the circumstances of modern experience, Dürrenmatt argued that tragedy was no longer possible. A grotesque comic element enters into the ordinary modern man's isolated confrontation with impersonal powers (money, technology, etc.) over which he has no control.
Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi (1952; translated as The Marriage of Mr Mississippi, 1964) concerns the impossibility of reforming human nature and was the first of Dürrenmatt's plays to be produced outside Switzerland. After the modern morality play Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon (1953; translated as An Angel Comes to Babylon, 1964), Dürrenmatt produced his most famous and successful play, Der Besuch der alten Dame (1956; translated as The Visit, 1958), on the irresistible power of money to corrupt. (The immensely rich old woman of the title returns to her native village and bribes the villagers to murder her former lover.) Destructive technology in Die Physiker (1962; translated as The Physicists, 1963) ends in the control of an insane doctor after three famous and presumably sane physicists hide themselves in an asylum. Dürrenmatt also wrote a number of radio plays, short stories, and detective novels, for example Das Versprechen (1958; translated as The Pledge, 1959). He continued writing until his death, his last works including the plays Achterloo (1983) and Achterloo IV (1988) and the novels Minotaurus (1985; translated as Minotaur) and Der Auftrag (1988; translated as The Assignment).