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04 March 2016

Tragic Frustration and Comic Fulfilment in Romulus the Great

Tragic Frustration and Comic Fulfilment:
History and Subversion in Dürrenmatt’s ROMULUS THE GREAT

Dürrenmatt subtitles the play ‘a historic comedy without historic basis.’ Although the plot revolves around Romulus, the eponymous protagonist, the play has nothing to do with either the historical Romulus, the founder of Rome or the titular Romulus. Dürrenmatt’s Romulus is the last Roman emperor, whose Rome is preparing to be confronted by the threat of the invading Teutons. Romulus, in reality, is a means behind the playwright’s polemic towards the evolution of a certain theory of dramatic form he was working towards, and the demystification of the concept of history as a construct of mankind’s past.

The work deals with the fall of the Roman empire and the dissolution of the Roman civilisation. The Teutons are invading the empire. The whole of Rome is thirsting for action. Starting at the top of the hierarchy with the Roman patricians, down to the cook, everyone is planning their defence, sharpening their swords and knives to fight for their country. Romulus does not. He is busy farming chickens. On top of his priority is not the defence of his state, but chicken-fancying. Is he a clown or one who deliberately plots the downfall of a kingdom? To him, it is more than the fall of a kingdom. To him, Rome has become a symbol of oppression. Why?

Answering to an accusation by his wife, Julia, that as an emperor, “(he) jeopardises the state” since he “doubts the necessity of the state [sic]” (FP 94), and that he has failed in his duties “as the father of the nation,” he replies: “I don’t doubt the necessity of the state. I merely doubt the necessity of our state. Our state has become a world empire, an institution officially engaged in murder, plunder, suppression, and oppressive taxation at the expense of other people... (FP 94). Having recognised the dispensable nature of the state that lives at the expense of humaneness, he decides to become its judge.

According to Romulus, it is a question of individual freedom or collective bondage. As he says later to his daughter, Rea, “To remain loyal to a human being is greater and much more difficult than to remain loyal to a state” (FP 97). He has spoiled all efforts to save not just the nation, but has decided too, to sink the world culture called the Roman civilisation. Is he a traitor or a courageous human being? This question relates to the topic in consideration directly, for, the playwright raises basic questions: on humanity, the nature of heroism, of patriotism, free-will against the state and the rebelling individual against oppressive establishments. The play subverts the process of history by providing a case study of the unfolding of history. Juxtaposed alongside is the process of time.

Romulus the Great is plotted in four Acts. The First Act opens on the morning of the 15th of March, 476 A.D. - the Ides of March. The Second Act takes place on the same afternoon. The Third Act happens in the night and the Fourth & Final Act the succeeding morning. The action begins with a messenger arriving with reports to the king from the front. The Second Act shows the contrasting approach of the king and the citizens: while Romulus shrugs away any possibility to rescue the empire, the patriots try to organise forces to defend, and to assassinate Romulus. They see their emperor as their first hurdle and enemy, even more than the invading Germans. The Third Act is the scene of farewells on Romulus’ personal front and the assassination bid on the political plane. The Final Act shows the dissolution of the Roman empire, as desired by Romulus, but in a manner not expected by him. Although the end is what Romulus had sought, it does not come in a way he had planned. The place, throughout the span of action is the Emperor’s villa, his palace rooms and the courtyard gardens, all within a single compound. The play is structured to represent the Aristotelian unities of Time, Place and Action. While sticking to the classical construct of Aristotelian tragedy structurally, the play aspires to challenge the classic construct of History. This is where the Dürrenmattian subversion gets into action. In a surprise travesty of conquest of the empire, the play unveils its tragi-comic nature. What seems to be heading towards a tragedy ends up in a no-blood, no-gore ending, befitting a comedy.

The playwright’s intention is obvious: this is a parody of the classical tragedy. There is a king, the clash of interests or conflict, the choric messenger, tragic confrontation, perepeteia and anagnorisis and the fatal flaw; the play, in the course of the Third Act, even teeters on the edge of becoming a genuine tragedy. Romulus’ address of the patriots at the point of assassination reaches heroic heights worthy of a tragic hero at the verge of his fall due to his fatal flaw. Romulus indeed almost achieves his purpose. This is where the tragedy in the play lose itself out. At the verge of being assassinated, he is saved. The patriots are defeated and killed. The Germans prevail. Rome is vanquished, although not through the manner in which Romulus had planned. In spite of its peaceful end, the work goes through vicissitudes of moods ranging from farcical moments of witty one-liners and caustic black-humour, to grotesque and macabre episodes of assassination bids and tragic deaths.

Romulus the Great hovers between a well-made tragicomedy and the tragic form of the twentieth century, the absurd. It exemplifies ‘the coalescing of the genre boundaries in the works of art of the twentieth century, where comedy often mixes with high tragedy and the satire giving way to melodrama,’ as George Brandt explains (cf. Conclusion in Howarth ed.)

In the course of becoming a hybrid form of theatre, Romulus the Great justifies its existence, and vindicates Dürrenmatt’s dramaturgy: the paradoxical nature of things and the impossibility of pure tragedy or pure comedy in the twentieth century. In order to arrive at this point, Dürrenmatt juxtaposes the concepts of delusion and reality, history and time, and used the subversive tool of ritualising an act. This works at different levels in the work. 

First, Dürrenmatt provides a very serious exposition that parallels the opening of classical tragedies. The Captain of the Cavalry enters to deliver the news that the empire’s last line of defence has perished before the barbaric might of the Teutons. The messenger figure, as observed, is a typical choric figure in Attic tragedies. Thus, through this artifice, he creates expectation among the reader/audience. However, in this play, he is not even granted permission to meet the Emperor straightaway. The chamberlains to the Emperor, parodically named Sulphurides and Phosphoridos, insist that usual protocols of meeting an Emperor must be observed before the Messenger even gains a hearing. The bureaucratic process of the governmental machinery is being parodied here, in a bid to reduce the serious tone set at the outset. Dürrenmatt is a Swiss-German and knows very well the Germans’ proverbial love for protocols, paper work and bureaucracy. The reader/audience observes to their surprise that if they were building a routine picture of the playwright’s intent, they have been deluded.

When the Emperor himself enters, all the pomp that surround him are represented. Again, impressions are created, expectation are raised, the paegentry revolving an Emperor’s classical entry are played out. However, instead of concerning himself with the affairs of the state, the Emperor proceeds to enquire about his hens and chickens: those that laid eggs and those that did not. The playwright hints his key intention: to demystify the concept of history; how does he go about it? The hens of the empire are named after the Caesars of the past. Further, Romulus himself is portrayed as a person concerned more about selling the ancient and antique cultural artifacts of the Roman Empire so that he could pay off his cook and his chamberlains, to whom salaries were due. He also orders the destruction of the state archives which contain valuable information on the art of running the government. One can, at this point, in retrospect, see this as a presage of the fall of East German state and the last act of the state machinery: to destroy state archives. However, Dürrenmatt is, of course, alluding to the last act of the Nazi machinery: to destroy documents relating to the Nazi machinery. If the reader/audience assumes that Romulus is an insane person who cannot save his drowning empire, again they are deluded. The attempt here is to give the finishing touches to this deliberate act of dissolving a world empire, a historic civilisation. This act of Romulus prompts the Roman patriots to hatch a plot to assassinate him.

In the Third Act, the climactic Act of the play, there is a grotesque enactment of the assassination, in an apparent parody of the historic assassination of Julius Caesar; all the patriots of Rome, beginning with Emilian, the Emperor’s prospective son-in-law, to the cook are assembled. They grotesquely come tumbling and creeping out of all possible nooks, crannies and corners of Romulus’ bedroom. The question him, upbraid him and force him with arguments into confessing his guilt of having betrayed the empire. Romulus cleverly turns the tables on them with his arguments and makes them feel guilty. Those who came to attack him in the night end up being the one’s who are attacked. As he says: “You thought you were coming to a man who could not defend himself, while I now spring upon you with the claws of truth and grip you with the teeth of justice... You are not accusing me, but I’m accusing you”(FP 105). Suddenly, the listless fool, the chicken-fancying clown of an Emperor transforms into a protagonist worthy of the audience’s sympathy. However, this is too easily becoming a tragedy and Romulus is close to becoming a tragic hero; but Dürrenmatt’s purpose is different. He succeeds in his ruse. If Romulus were to get killed, he would indeed become a tragic hero. History would repeat itself. This is too banal for Dürrenmatt’s credo. According to him,

The world today, as it appears to us, could hardly be encompassed in the form of the historical drama as Schiller wrote it, for the reason alone 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 nomore than incidental, corporeal and easily replaceable expressions of this power... Any small-time crook, petty government official or policeman better represents our world than a senator or president... (FP 31)

Given the above assumption, Romulus, representing the ordinary individual who utilised his opportunity to ascend to the Roman throne, is devoid of tragic greatness. Also, he is a criminal in the eyes of his fellow-Romans for the simple reason that he betrayed his country. To quote Salman Rushdie’s The Courtier here would not be out of context: “The attack of a tactician can be troublesome to meet - that of a strategist even more so. Whereas the tactician’s threats may be unmistakeable, the strategist confuses the issue by keeping things in abeyance. He threatens to threaten” (Rushdie 194). Seen in this light, Romulus’ method behind his mad behaviour becomes clear; he is as dangerous as Hitler or Stalin. Romulus breaks through the confines of the play to become a metaphor. He represents the twentieth century mass-murdering megalomaniacs. In the process of putting an end to an oppressive institution, he is willing not only to surrender and sacrifice himself to the Teutons, but also his subjects and the entire civilisation. He does not deserve a tragic ending of grand proportions. The play then must become a farce, if the playwright must avoid providing Romulus a grand tragic ending. Consequently, Romulus does not achieve his martyrdom. At the moment of the daggers falling on him, someone freakishly shouts, “The Teutons are here” and the assassins take flight to save themselves. Later, we are informed that the boat that they took flight in capsized and they died. Their heroism too is hence rendered a mockery.

Romulus survives. Nevertheless, further humiliation is in store for him, who has calmly accepted his death. He meets the invading Teutons the following morning. He finds to his disappointment that he is not going to be killed. The Teuton chief, Odoaker, too is a chicken-farmer, whose real intention behind the expedition of Rome is to surrender himself and his Teutonic army to he whom Odoaker considers the only human: Romulus. There is only one thing left. The two chiefs decide to act “as if final accounts are being settled on earth” since, even if they decide to end the oppression, Odoaker’s successor would start it. The end of the play shows Romulus being sent into retirement, having dissolved his empire and handed over the reign to Odoaker. The latter, too, would one day be supplanted by his nephew Theodoric, who would become Theodoric the Great in the annals of history. Though Romulus and Odoaker achieve their comic fulfilment, they experience too, a tragic sense of frustration. Their lives have become absurd, their efforts a grotesque parody of good intentions. Romulus had waited to surrender to Odoaker and the latter had come marching to surrender into the former. History is being striped of its meaning. This, however, has taken a long span of time, represented by the arrival of the Teutons, “who have been...coming for the past 500 years,” as one of the characters in the play puts it. 

By creating a fictional and parallel history, by using historic personae to construct an imagined history, Dürrenmatt attempts to subvert history. He shows that “history is meaningless repetition... For Dürrenmatt, the flow of historic time is synonymous with human misery. History is suffering” (Joseph Federico in Moshe Lazar ed. 19,20). If this must be validated, the historical time and accuracy must be taken out of the context, by giving it a sense of timelessness. Dürrenmatt does this by placing a historical context within the temporary boundaries of the stage. As Federico quotes Eugen Fink, “(a) play is ‘an eminent manifestation of human freedom. And ‘in the autonomy of the play action there appears a possibility of human timelessness in time” (Federico in Moshe Lazar ed. 20-21).

A play is ahistorical. “Through play, one can escape, at least temporarily, the compulsion and implacability of historical time” (Federico 21). To conclude,
Romulus the Great is a play where the theme of justice is treated as a paradox in which betrayal becomes the only virtue, where victims turn out to be their hangmen, and where potential tragedy is turned into a farce by mock-heroic parody... (Innes 110)
The play, through its as if play at the end, deprives all efforts at serious attempts by making the act of heroism a redundant ritual. 

List of Abbreviations:
  • FP - Four Plays

  1. Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. Romulus the Great (trans. Gerhard Nellhaus) in Four  Plays. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964.
  2. _______________________. Problems of the Theater (trans. Gerhard Nellhaus) in  Four Plays. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964.
  3. Federico, Joseph A.  “Time, Play and the Terror of History in Dramatic Works by  Dürrenmatt” in Play Dürrenmatt ed. Moshe Lazar. Malibu, CA: Undena  Publications, 1983.
  4. Howarth, W.D. (Aut. & ed.) Comic Drama: The European Heritage. London:  Methuen, 1978.
  5. Innes, Christopher D. Modern German Drama. Cambridge: CUP, 1979.
  6. Rushdie, Salman. “The Courtier” from East, West. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
  7. Steer, Alun. “Delusion and Reality in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Romulus the Great.”  Journal of European Studies, 18,4,72 (Dec. 1988): 233-251

- Krishna Kumar. S, Research Scholar, 
Dept of English, University of Madras,