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|Written by||Friedrich Dürrenmatt|
An enormously wealthy woman returns to her hometown with a dreadful bargain: She wants the townspeople to kill the man who jilted her in exchange for enough money to revitalize the town.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (March 2012)|
The story opens with the town of Güllen (which literally means "to manure") preparing for the arrival of famed billionaire Claire Zachanassian, who grew up there. Güllen has fallen on hard times, and the townspeople hope that Claire will provide them with much-needed funds. Alfred Ill, the owner of Güllen's general store and the most popular man in town, was Claire's lover when they were young, and agrees with the mayor that the task of convincing her to make a donation should fall to him. Claire arrives, accompanied by two henchmen, her husband, a butler, and two blind eunuchs, along with a casket, a caged black panther, and various pieces of luggage. She begins a flirtatious exchange with Ill, who pretends to find her as delightful as ever, even though they are now both in their sixties and significantly overweight. Claire draws Alfred Ill's attention to her prosthetic leg and artificial hand.
After settling into the Golden Apostle Hotel, Claire joins the rest of the town, who have gathered outside for a homecoming celebration. Claire takes the opportunity to announce that she will make a huge donation, half for the town and half to be shared among the families. The townspeople are overjoyed, but their happiness is dampened when Claire's butler steps forward to reveal her condition for the donation. The butler was once the Lord Chief Justice of Güllen, and had heard the paternity suit that Claire had brought against Alfred Ill in 1910. In the suit, Alfred Ill produced two false witnesses (who have since been transformed into Claire's eunuchs), and the court ruled in his favor. Alfred Ill went on to marry Mathilde, who owned the general store. Claire, meanwhile, moved to Hamburg and became a prostitute; her child died after one year. Her donation is conditional on someone's killing Alfred Ill. The mayor refuses and the town seems aghast, but Claire says that she will wait.
As time passes, Alfred Ill becomes increasingly paranoid as he sees everyone purchasing especially costly items on credit in his shop. Alfred Ill visits the police officer and the mayor, who in turn have bought new expensive items, and dismiss his concerns. He then visits the priest, who attempts to calm him until the new church bells chime, at which point the priest admits they have been paid off and advises Alfred Ill to flee. Claire then receives the news that her black panther has been killed, and she has a dirge played in its memory.
Alfred Ill heads to the railway station to escape, but finds that the entire town is gathered there. They ask him where he is going, and he says that he is planning to move to Australia. They wish him well, again assuring him that he has nothing to fear in Güllen, but Ill grows increasingly nervous nonetheless. The train arrives, but he decides not to board, believing that someone will stop him anyway. Paralyzed, he collapses in the crowd, crying, "I'm lost!"
Claire weds a new husband in the Güllen cathedral. The doctor and the schoolmaster go to see her and explain that the townspeople have run up considerable debt since her arrival. The schoolmaster begs her to abandon her desire for vengeance and help the town out of the goodness of her heart. She reveals to them that she already actually owns all the properties in town, and that she is the reason the businesses have been shut down.
In the meantime, Alfred Ill has been pacing the room above the general store, his terror growing as the townspeople buy more and more expensive products on credit. Having received word of Claire's imminent wedding, reporters are everywhere, and they enter the store to interview Alfred Ill. The schoolmaster, drunk, tries to inform the press about Claire's proposal, but the townspeople stop him. After the confusion has cleared, the schoolmaster and Alfred Ill have an honest discussion. The schoolmaster explains that he is certain that Alfred Ill will be killed and admits that he will ultimately join the ranks of the murderers. Alfred Ill calmly states that he has accepted his guilt and acknowledges that the town's suffering is his fault. The schoolmaster leaves, and Alfred Ill is confronted by the mayor, who asks whether Alfred Ill will accept the town's judgment at that evening's meeting. Alfred Ill says that he will. The mayor then suggests that Alfred Ill make things easier on everyone and shoot himself, but Alfred Ill refuses, insisting that the town must go through the process of judging and killing him.
Alfred Ill goes for a ride in his son's newly purchased car, accompanied by his wife and daughter, both of whom are wearing new outfits. Alfred Ill says that he is going for a walk in the woods before heading to the town meeting. His family continues on to the movie theater. In the woods, Alfred Ill comes across Claire, who is walking with her newest husband. Claire tells Alfred Ill that she never stopped loving him, but that over time her love has grown into something monstrous.
The town meeting is flooded with press, and the town publicly announces acceptance of Claire's donation. The inhabitants then go through the formality of a vote, which is unanimous, and the mayor states that they have Alfred Ill to thank for their newfound wealth. The doors are locked and the lights dimmed. The priest crosses Alfred Ill, and he is killed by a townsman. Just as a reporter reappears in the auditorium, the doctor announces that Alfred Ill has died of a heart attack. The reporters gather and declare that Alfred Ill has died of joy. Claire examines the body, gives the mayor his cheque, and leaves the town with Alfred Ill's body in the casket that she brought with her when she arrived.
||This section possibly contains original research. (March 2012)|
The author often emphasized that The Visit is intended first and foremost as a comedy. However, it is difficult to ignore the serious, dark points being made about human nature throughout the play. The use of unsettling humour was popular among German-language authors of this period as a method of pointing out concerns they considered important.
The main theme is that money corrupts even the most morally strong people.
Women did not achieve full suffrage in Switzerland until 1971 (in one canton until 1990), along with neighboring Liechtenstein, the only European country to limit women's voting rights at the time. Women still lacked voting rights when the author refashioned the play as an opera libretto for Gottfried von Einem (premiered 1971). The sham vote at the end, where Claire has no say, followed by the false ascription of the town's new wealth to Ill, highlights this injustice in Swiss society. Symbolically, Claire lacks a hand and foot – tools to control her destiny. She has been thrown by men into prostitution against her will.
"The Visit" raises the question of the corruptibility of justice by asking whether it can be bought in return for material wealth. As a young man, Ill himself bought "justice" at Claire's expense by presenting false witnesses during the paternity suit that she brought against him. The result, for Claire, was a life that she would never have chosen for herself and one causing her now to seek revenge.
When Claire visits the town, she offers an extraordinary monetary gift—but only on the condition that the town rectifies its past failure by putting Ill to death. In her mind, Claire equates Ill's punishment with "justice". The drama of the play unfolds as a kind of "proof" of Claire's assertion: that everything, including justice, can be bought.
In the past, Claire has purchased justice many times. Boby the butler, for instance, was previously a judge in Güllen, but ultimately opted out of the profession in order to enter into Claire's personal service. The salary, he explains to the town, was so high that he couldn't refuse her. This foreshadows the town's experience with Claire's conditional gift: the gift is so generous that the sacrifice of personal and collective dignity is not too high a price to pay in return.
In an ironic inversion of Claire's decree, Claire has rescued the characters Roby and Toby, former American gangsters who had been sentenced to death in the electric chair. She purchases each man's life, thus proving that her wealth can be used to alter the very essence of the American justice system.
It is important to note that the political institutions helpful in fashioning and enforcing an idea of "justice" in society are corrupted and rendered passive in "The Visit".
Prostitution is expressed in a number of different ways throughout the play. In the wake of her failed paternity suit, Claire became a prostitute and fell into a degraded state in which she lived outside of societal norms. She was branded a corrupt woman and learned an intense lesson about the sexual marketplace: male sexual desires can be satisfied in exchange for wealth. In other words, sex can be purchased. The ability to purchase sex is a physical manifestation of power and presses the one whose favors are purchased into a corrupted, degraded state. For Claire's first husband, the elderly Armenian billionaire from whom Claire inherited her fortune, wealth was exchanged for a beautiful, young wife, that is, wealth enabled him to acquire sex.
Now that Claire has risen out of her prostituted state, she attempts to turn the world into her own, personal "brothel", as she announces to the doctor and the schoolteacher at the beginning of the third act. Once, she was a prostitute, an outcast; now, she is the opposite: she hovers above society in a mythic, almost goddess-like position by imposing her own "rule of law" to exact her own idea of "justice" on the town of Guellen. She employs the lessons that she learned in the sexual marketplace: all objects of desire can be bought, if one has the money.
The rule of law
The "rule of law" is what governs society; it lends order and shape to a culture by tending to the idea of "justice". The rule of law is something to which all citizens of a society submit, and it is generally understood to be imposed on the citizens by the citizens via governing bodies and the political system. Claire, however, arrives in the town of Guellen and immediately imposes her own personal version of "the rule of law". She interrupts the usual judicial process, and forces the townspeople to satisfy her personal desire for vengeance.
In the first act, the audience learns from the Priest that there is no capital punishment in Switzerland. Claire's gift, however, is conditional upon the townspeople's willingness to apply capital punishment to Ill. The townspeople collectively keep Claire's decree a secret, implying that they intend to eventually carry it out. Claire's personal, almost tyrannical "rule of law" has the effect of a secret extrajudicial proceeding. The question is whether the result of such a proceeding can ever fairly demonstrate "justice", given that the process lacks accountability and occurs outside of the generally accepted laws. For Claire, however, "justice" in the ideal - that is, legal - sense is not really the issue. Her idea of justice has been conflated by her desire for personal vengeance.
Vengeance as justice
Claire's notion of justice has been transformed into the frighteningly powerful force of vengeance. "An eye for an eye" becomes Claire's guiding principle: Ill forced her into a life that she did not choose, and in return she forces Ill into a situation that ultimately results in his death. Ill states early on in the play that Claire was formerly a lover of justice; now, however, having suffered injustice herself, she has little faith in the judicial process. Just as her love for Ill changed into something monstrous, her love of justice became a strangling fixation on personal revenge.
The fates of Koby and Loby illustrate Claire's view of justice. She tracks down both of Ill's false witnesses on the opposite ends of the earth. Roby and Toby, her employees, blind the two men and castrate them. Claire sentences Ill to an existence characterized by suffering and fear. Ultimately, the death that Claire selects for Ill is one inspired by the same material desires that drove her former lover to betray her in the first place.
Even though Claire purchases amnesty for Roby and Toby in a kind of divine gesture of forgiveness, she is nevertheless incapable of forgiveness when it comes to Ill and the injustices he committed against her when he denied her paternity claim and married Matilda. The townspeople of Guellen also refuse to forgive Ill for the collective suffering his initial actions against Claire have caused them. Neither Ill's wife Matilda nor his children are willing to forgive him or offer him their support and protection. The drama implies that perhaps the only figure capable of forgiveness is Ill himself: by recognizing his own guilt and understanding both Claire's motivations and the motivations of the townspeople, Ill accepts his fate. He genially proposes a drive in his son's new car with the entire family, and sits in Konrad's Village Wood to share a few last, intimate words with Claire. He then submits respectfully to the judgment of the town, and in the end preserves an idealized image of himself in his own heart. The troubling aspect of the drama, however, is that the ideal dies with him; it is not an image that the townspeople honor, or even see.
The events in the drama unfold in a cold, logical manner that leads to a predictable outcome. Given the initial presentation of Guellen, Claire's power, the history between Claire and Ill, and the nature of Claire's decree, Ill's death appears almost inevitable. Just as Boby the Butler explains that he became Claire's employee because of the high salary she offered him, the townspeople convince themselves that Claire's offer is, in fact, impossible to refuse. The townspeople could have stood by their initial reaction to Claire's decree and preserved their dignity, but Dürrenmatt offers a cold perspective on human nature by demonstrating how Ill's death was, given the circumstances, the only possible outcome.
The townspeople of Guellen engage in a powerful process of rationalization before deciding to kill Ill. Throughout the play, they consistently – though never explicitly – justify meeting the conditions of Claire's gift. At first, they are repulsed by the idea of sacrificing a popular local figure's life in exchange for wealth and prosperity, but as their subconscious desires are fed by the slow rise in their standard of living, and once it becomes clear that Ill is the cause of the town's suffering, the townspeople come to the decision that it is just, fair, and reasonable to kill Ill. By slaying Ill, they will both appease a powerful figure and restore the town's well-being.
Dehumanization versus humanism
Claire's peculiar habit of giving each of her husbands (except for the first) and each of her employees rhyming nicknames suggests that she is systematically dehumanizing everyone around her. In a technique that recalls the Biblical "naming" of animals, Claire renames each member of her entourage, thereby relegating each to a status far beneath her own and illustrating her relative power.
Claire's physical artificiality (as evidenced by her prosthetic leg and her ivory hand) reinforces the idea that Claire is "unkillable"; not quite human. As a prostitute, her status was not much higher than that of an animal; now, she has risen to the status of a god. Claire's identity raises the question of what is fundamentally human. Dürrenmatt expresses humanist ideals using the history of the town of Guellen and the character of the schoolteacher. These values, while sincere, have little stamina in the face of someone as wealthy and powerful as Claire. In other words, Dürrenmatt appears to believe that as society becomes increasingly capitalistic, humanist ideals are very unlikely to survive.
Like "justice", romantic love is another ideal that Dürrenmatt exposes as weak in the face of market forces. Ill had initially chosen to marry Matilda for material gain rather than to marry Claire. Claire's idea of love is further sullied by her exposure to men's sexual appetites during the time she spends working as a prostitute. Claire's marriage to an elderly millionaire only reinforces what she has already learned: sexual relationships have little to do with romantic love. This belief leads Claire to cycle through a comical string of marriages, suggesting the essential emptiness of the institution. In "The Visit", husbands are treated as little more than consumer goods.
Stereotypical romantic love in the story exists in a pastoral setting. Claire and Ill conducted their romance in the idyllic, nostalgic locales of Petersen's Barn and Konrad's Village Wood: perfect symbols for the beauty and innocence of their youthful infatuation.
Over time, however, Claire's love for Ill grew into an evil, monstrous thing. Filled with rage, Claire demands her own version of justice: revenge. Dürrenmatt reveals how deeply perverted her love has become with Claire's conditional gift to the town; ultimately, however, what she wishes is to take Ill away with her to an island in the Mediterranean Sea where they will be able to spend all eternity together. Her desire is romantic, but simultaneously monstrous.
The second act positions Claire and Ill in a perverse reconstruction of Shakespeare's famous balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. In this scene, however, Claire stands on the balcony of her hotel with her newest husband, gazing out over the town, while Ill manages the general store below. The scene is no longer an expression of young love: here, the woman looks down on the man from high above more like a tyrannical queen than a lover.
The Visit is a popular production to attend for German language students, as it is considered one of the keystones of twentieth century German-language literature. The play is also often used as a text for those taking German as a foreign language.
The original 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt was adapted for American audiences by Maurice Valency. Its first Broadway theatre production, in 1958, was directed by Peter Brook and starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
The play was adapted as an opera libretto by the author and set to music by composer Gottfried von Einem, entitled Der Besuch der alten Dame and translated as The Visit of the Old Lady, and was first performed in 1971.
In 1976 "The Visit" was adapted for Lebanese National Television "Tele Liban" (the only broadcasting station in Lebanon at that time) as the full sixth episode of the hit TV series "Allo Hayeti ألو حياتي" directed for TV by Antoine Remi أنطوان ريمي, and Starring Hind Abi Al Lamaa هند أبي اللمع as Claire (or Clara as called in the Lebanese production) and Abdel Majeed Majzoob عبد المجيد مجذوب as her lover Alfred, Layla Karam, Philip Akiki (as the Mayor) and Elias Rizk (as the teacher). This production made Friedrich Dürrenmatt known to the Lebanese public as well as to the Arabic viewers.
Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn starred in a much-altered film adaptation, also called The Visit, directed by Bernhard Wicki, in 1964. A significant alteration is in the ending. Just as Alfred Ill (Serge Miller in the movie) is about to be executed on the trumped-up charges the town has created, the billionairess stops the execution. She declares that she will give the money to the town as pledged. Her revenge on Miller is that now, as she declares, he must live in the town amongst the people who would have executed him on false charges for money.
A fairly faithful musical The Visit, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Terrence McNally, received its first production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, starring Chita Rivera and John McMartin in 2001. That production was choreographed by Ann Reinking and directed by Frank Galati. The musical was revised and played from May 13-June 22, 2008, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in a production once again starring Rivera, this time with George Hearn. It received glowing reviews from the critics.
The Chilean telenovela Romané loosely use some elements of the plot in the script. It gives the story a slightly happier ending, though; the main characters aren't fully reconciled, but they manage to sort out their differences before Jovanka, the Claire equivalent, leaves the town.
The Visit of the Old Lady (Vana daami viisit, 2006) is a faithful, dark adaption for TV from Estonian theatrical veterans Roman Baskin (director), Ita Ever (Claire) and Aarne Üskula (Ill). Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, substitutes for Guellen.
A second musical adaptation, starring Pia Douwes and Uwe Kroeger, premièred at the Thun musical festival in Switzerland in the summer of 2013. It opens, with the same two leads, at the Ronacher Theatre, Vienna, in February 2014.
The following plays utilize a dramaturgical structure similar to The Visit: