Max Frisch’s admiration for the playwright Bertolt Brecht was an important stimulus in formulating his own dramatic theories. Frisch disagreed with Brecht’s theories in several ways. Unlike Brecht, Frisch was skeptical that the theater can bring about social and political change, but he did believe that it can change a person’s relationship to the world—it can make him more aware of himself and of the society in which he lives. Frisch was convinced of the power of the theater. In Sketchbook, 1946-1949, Frisch related how he was once sitting unobserved in an empty theater. He saw a workman come onto the stage and grumble. Then an actress walked across the stage and greeted the workman briefly. Because this very humdrum scene took place on the stage, its impact was greater than it would have been in ordinary life. To illustrate how the theater functions, Frisch used the analogy of an empty picture frame. If it is hung on the wall, it focuses a person’s attention on the wall for the first time and forces him to see it. Like the picture frame, the box stage focuses a person’s attention; it points out and demonstrates. Ordinary events are turned into exemplary ones on the stage.
Unlike Brecht, Frisch did not believe that the real world can be portrayed effectively on the stage; the stage can only show models of experience. In an early essay titled “Theater ohne Illusion” (1948; theater without illusion), Frisch praises Thornton Wilder for discarding realistic theater and stressing the theatrical again. According to Frisch, the theater should never try to create the illusion that it is real life on the stage. For this reason, Frisch used many alienation effects to break the suspense and to prevent the audience from thinking that it is seeing a “slice of life.”
In addition, Frisch, unlike Brecht, had no ideology to impart to his audience. His function as a dramatist, he said, is to raise questions, not provide answers. Frisch wanted to make people more aware, to provoke them into finding their own solutions to the problems that he depicted. An example of such provocation can be found in The Firebugs when Biedermann steps out of his role and addresses the members of the audience directly, asking them what they would have done in his place. Although Frisch was not convinced that the theater can bring about social change, he nevertheless thought that the author has a responsibility to address social and political questions. In an interview with Horst Bienek in 1961, Frisch criticized the Theater of the Absurd. If he were a dictator, he said, he would allow only the plays of Eugène Ionesco to be performed. Because such plays are fun to watch, they make the audience forget political conditions in the real world outside the theater. Frisch’s dramas focus mostly on personal questions, but some address social problems such as anti-Semitism and prejudice (Andorra) and the moral weakness of the middle class (The Firebugs). Yet even in those works that deal mostly with the individual, Frisch still criticizes modern society, especially for its hypocrisy and for the limits it places on the individual.
In most of Frisch’s dramas, the quest for identity is a central theme. Frisch believed that most people either invent roles for themselves or else have roles imposed on them by others. Such role-playing prevents people from growing and realizing their potential as human beings—the role reduces them to fixed and known entities, a theme that Frisch develops in particular in Andorra and Don Juan: Or, the Love of Geometry. Frisch shows how difficult it is to escape from roles. Because society wants to preserve the status quo, it is hostile to any notion of change; it expects people to conform to certain socially acceptable roles that consist for the most part of deadening routine. Frisch portrays those who conform to society without any struggle as smug and self-righteous (a good example of such a character is Biedermann in The Firebugs). Most of Frisch’s protagonists fight for the freedom to be themselves, but the social restrictions they confront are often so overwhelming that they are forced to capitulate.
Don Juan had its premiere on May 5, 1953, at the Zurich Schauspielhaus and at the Berlin Schillertheater. Don Juan appears in Frisch’s works for the first time in the play The Chinese Wall, where he protests against his literary portrayal as a seducer. In the play named for him, Don Juan is the polar opposite of the legendary Don Juan. Far from being the seducer, he is actually the seduced. The first three acts show how Don Juan is forced into the role of seducer; the last two, how, like Stiller in the novel I’m Not Stiller, he tries to escape from the image that people have formed of him.
To those familiar with the legend, the picture of Don Juan as the play opens is startling. Don Juan’s father, Tenorio, is worried about his son because, at the age of twenty, he avoids women. To try to remedy this, Tenorio sends Don Juan to a brothel; while there, however, Don Juan plays chess. Frisch’s Don Juan is an intellectual who loves geometry because it is clear, exact, and “manly.” Like Walter Faber in the novel Homo Faber, he distrusts feelings because they are too unpredictable and chaotic. Don Juan’s love of geometry is, however, responsible for his present involvement with Donna Anna. When he is sent to measure the walls of the enemy stronghold in Córdoba, he returns unharmed with the information, is named hero of Córdoba, and is given Donna Anna as his bride. Don Gonzalo, the commander, does not realize that Don Juan has used simple geometry to arrive at the measurements and has not exposed himself to danger.
The play opens on the night before Don Juan is to marry Donna Anna. The erotic festivities of this night stem from a pagan custom that the Christians have adopted. In the original custom, everyone was supposed to wear a mask. Through the power of love, the bride and groom could find each other despite the masks they were wearing. Because there were so many instances of mistaken identity, the custom was changed. Now the bride and groom do not wear masks because love can obviously err. Don Juan is drawn into the stifling eroticism of this night and sleeps with Donna Anna. He does not know that she is his bride because he has not met her before.
Don Juan’s experiences on this night make him suspicious of love. When he suddenly realizes at the wedding ceremony that he has slept with Donna Anna, he refuses to marry her. He cannot promise to be faithful to her because he thinks that people are interchangeable when the biological urge to mate is aroused. The cries of the peacock seeking a mate, which are a motif in the first part, stress this biological nature of love. Like most of Frisch’s intellectuals, Don Juan is basically self-centered. In fact, he holds a grudge against heaven for separating people into two sexes; he protests that the individual alone lacks wholeness.
It is not surprising that Don Juan repudiates love, because the society that surrounds him treats love cynically. Celestina, the brothel owner, turns the prostitute Miranda away because she has fallen in love with Don Juan: Such “sentimentality,” Celestina believes, is bad for business. Don Gonzalo and Donna Elvira, the parents of Donna Anna, supposedly have a model marriage, yet Donna Elvira thinks nothing of deceiving her husband by sleeping with Don Juan. When the captured Arab prince tells Don Gonzalo to take and enjoy his harem, Don Gonzalo curses the seventeen years of faithful marriage that prevent him from enjoying the proffered sensual delights. The only positive concept of love is held, ironically, by the prostitute Miranda, whose love for Don Juan remains constant.
Don Juan’s refusal to marry Donna Anna and the subsequent events give rise to his reputation as a seducer. To help him escape from the family that is thirsting for revenge, Donna Elvira gives Don Juan refuge in her room, where she seduces him. From her, Don Juan goes to Donna Inez. He is curious to see whether she will sleep with him even though she is engaged to his friend Don Roderigo. When she does, this seems to confirm his belief that love is indiscriminate and merely biological. At the end of act 3, Don Juan is surrounded by people whose deaths he has unwittingly caused: His father dies of a heart attack because of his son’s behavior, Donna Anna drowns herself because of Don Juan’s rejection, Don Roderigo kills himself because Don Juan has slept with his fiancé, and Don Juan unintentionally kills Don Gonzalo with his sword.
The fourth act takes place thirteen years later and depicts Don Juan’s descent into Hell, famous from the legend—but with a new twist. It is no longer an example of divine retribution but is actually staged by Don Juan himself to escape from his role as a seducer and from his financial problems. Don Juan seeks to persuade the bishop that his “descent into Hell” will provide the Church with proof of divine justice; the husbands of the seduced wives will have their revenge; and finally, youth will not be corrupted by following Don Juan’s example as a seducer. In return, Don Juan wants the Church to give him a cell in a monastery in which he can devote his time to his beloved geometry. Don Juan invites thirteen of the women he has seduced to witness the event, and arranges for Celestina to play the part of Don Gonzalo’s statue, which comes to life to punish him. Before the company arrives, Miranda, now the widow of the Duke of Ronda, offers Don Juan refuge in her castle, which he abruptly refuses. Don Juan’s plan goes awry because the bishop turns out to be a disguised husband in search of revenge. Even though he reveals Don Juan’s deception, the legend proves stronger than the truth—nobody believes that Don Juan has not been taken off to Hell. In the intermezzo that follows this act, Celestina tries to tell Donna Elvira (who is now a nun) about the role she played in the “descent into Hell,” but Donna Elvira prefers to believe in “miracles.”
In the last act, Don Juan has been forced to accept Miranda’s offer of...
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PEN: You received this year’s Saul Bellow award, PEN’s top honor for American fiction. Are you an admirer of Bellow’s work?
DeLillo: I still have my old paperback copy of Herzog (Fawoett Crest, $0.95), a novel I recall reading with great pleasure. It wasn’t the first Bellow novel I encountered—that was The Victim, whose opening sentence (“On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok.”) seemed a novel in itself, at least to a New Yorker. Bellow was a strong force in our literature, making leaps from one book to the next. He was one of the writers who expanded my sense of the American novel’s range, or, maybe a better word for Bellow—its clutch, its grasp—and it’s a special honor to be awarded a prize that bears his name.
PEN: Is there something about the American novel or fiction that sets it apart from international literature?
DeLillo: There are many kinds of American fiction and I’ve always had special admiration for work that attempts to be equal to the sweep of American experience. Sinclair Lewis called for “a literature worthy of our vastness.” A novelist tends to feel this spread and breadth in his fingertips (or not) and I’ve tried to bring a sense of our strange and dangerous times into my work. I guess I’ve said before that I don’t think my novels could have been written in the culture that existed before the assassination of President Kennedy. I would eventually write about the event itself and have tried, from the beginning, to find a language—an American language—that might carry the ideas and events in my work to their full potential.
PEN: In an interview this past March, you noted that your shift, over the last decade, toward shorter novels had been informed by re-reading several slim but seminal European works of fiction, including Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene. Can you talk a little about the evolution of your work and influences?
DeLillo: A novel determines its own size and shape and I’ve never tried to stretch an idea beyond the frame and structure it seemed to require. (Underworld wanted to be big and I didn’t attempt to stand in the way.) The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time—time and loss. This was not a plan; the novels have simply tended to edge in that direction. Some years ago I had the briefest of exchanges with a professor of philosophy. I raised the subject of time. He said simply, “Time is too difficult.” Yes, time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner. Next book may be a monster. (Or just a collection of short stories.)
PEN: Thanks to e-books, blogs, and social media, writers are arguably using new technology as never before. Stories are written using Twitter, novels as text messages, and there seems to be a reemergence of serial narratives. Do you think technology will have a considerable influence on fiction? Do you think it already has?
DeLillo: The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read. Here’s a stray question (or a metaphysical leap): Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?
PEN: You were brought up Catholic, but religion seems to play a relatively minor role in your work. You tend to turn faith on its head. When you imagined a jihadist behind the September 11 attacks, for example, you emphasized the “blood bond with other men,” as you put it in an interview, rather than his religious beliefs. Do you think about the role religion plays or doesn’t play in your writing? What do you think about the prominence of religion in American politics—or the antagonism toward Islam that has become especially visible in the last few months?
DeLillo: The Latin mass had an odd glamour—all that mystery and tradition. Religion has not been a major element in my work, and for some years now I think the true American religion has been “the American People.” The term quickly developed an aura of sanctity and inviolability. First used mainly by politicians at nominating conventions and in inaugural speeches, the phrase became a mainstay of news broadcasts and other more or less nonpartisan occasions. All the reverence once invested in the name of God was transferred to an entity safely defined as you and me. But do we still exist? Does the phrase still soar over the airwaves? Or are the American People dead and buried? It seems the case, more than ever, that there are only factions, movements, sects, splinter groups, and deeply aggrieved individual voices. The media absorbs it all.
PEN: You have explored paranoia in several books, perhaps most notably in Libra, your novel about the Kennedy assassination. Nowadays, wild claims can “go viral” and become “true” through endless “reporting” on cable news, and the tendency toward paranoia seems stronger than ever in America; many Americans doubt the standing president is a U.S. citizen, for instance. What do you think of today’s information landscape? Do you see it having an effect on free expression? On fiction?
DeLillo: The earlier era of paranoia in this country was based largely on violent events arid on the suspicions that spread concerning the true nature of the particular event, from Dallas to Memphis to Vietnam. Who was behind it, what led to it, what will flow from it? How many shots, how many gunmen, how many wounds on the President’s body? People believed, sometimes justifiably, that they were being lied to by the government or elements within the government. Today, it seems, the virus is self-generated. Distrust and disbelief are centered in a deep need to raise individual discontent to an art form, often with no basis in fact. In many cases, people choose to believe a clear falsehood, about President Obama, for instance, or September 11, or immigrants, or Muslims. These are often symbolic beliefs, usable kinds of fiction, a means of protest rising from political, economic, religious, or racial complaints, or just a lousy life in a dying suburb.
PEN: Can you talk about your involvement with PEN and what it means to defend the rights of writers in the U.S. and around the world? What do you see as the writer’s role or responsibility in the public sphere?
DeLillo: The writer’s role is to sit in a room and write. We can leave it at that. Or we can add that writers have always felt a natural kinship, country to country, language to language. We can know a country through its fiction, often a far more telling means of enlightenment and revelation than any other. The shelves in the room where I’m writing these words are crammed with books by foreign writers. This is work that I’ve been reading and re-reading for decades, title after title forming a stream of warm memories. It’s important to remember that we can also know a country from the writers who are not permitted to publish their work—fiction, nonfiction, journalism—in accord with honest observation and clear conscience. Writers who are subjected to state censorship, threatened with imprisonment or menaced by violent forces in their society clearly merit the support of those of us who enjoy freedom of expression. There are things a writer never takes for granted, like the long life he will need to live in order to write the long novel he is trying to write. Maybe freedom to write belongs at the top of the list, on behalf of those writers who face the grim reality of being enemies of the state.