Tankred Dorst studied at the University of Munich, where he became interested in marionettes and “illusionary theatre,” in which reality is seen as merely another role to be played.
Dorst’s earliest plays are experiments with these forms. His 1960 drama Gesellschaft im Herbst (Party in Autumn), about a crafty businessman who fools the owner of an ancestral castle into thinking that the castle holds buried treasure, is a satire on contemporary German society’s obsession with romantic myths. During the mid- to late 1960s, Dorst introduced a number of foreign works to the German theatre and translated or adapted plays by Thomas Dekker, Denis Diderot, Molière, and Sean O’Casey, among others.
Dorst’s transformation into a political writer occurred with his 1968 play Toller, a drama based on the life of the writer Ernst Toller that examines the relationship between literature and politics. In the 1970s he began to collaborate with Ursula Ehler, his wife, on a series of plays and novels. Most important is the Merz cycle, chronicling the life of a middle-class German family during the 20th century and using a variety of forms—including stage plays, radio and television drama, and novels. He returned to his original interest in mythology and fantasy with Merlin, oder das wüste Land (1981; Merlin: Or, the Wasteland), an epic 10-hour takeoff on the Arthurian myths. Dorst and Ehler’s subsequent works, such as Ich, Feuerbach (1986; I, Feuerbach), are concerned with the artist’s struggle to exist amid political chaos. In 1990 he and Ehler published a collection of plays based on fairy tales and myths. Later plays include Die Legende vom armen Heinrich (1997; The Legend of Poor Heinrich) and Die Freude am Leben (2002; The Joy of Life).