Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Visit takes place in a semi-realistic setting in a European town during the 1950's. A woman named Claire Zachanassian, a former resident of the town (called Güllen) who has achieved great wealth, returns one day and makes the startling offer that she will pay a huge sum of money to the townspeople if they will murder her former lover. This man, Alfred Ill (or Anton Schill in the English version of the play) is now the proprietor of the general store and is a respected townsperson. But in their youth he had gotten Claire pregnant and then jilted her. At first the townspeople appear to be horrified by Claire's offer, but because they desperately need the money, they ultimately accept the offer: Ill is murdered, Claire hands over a check for "a billion" and then leaves the town, having accomplished her purpose.

Though there is a fantasy-like air about the play, it contains references to contemporaneous events and people and can be seen as a parable not just about human nature, but about modern Europe. Claire's quest for vengeance, Ill's past behavior, and the corruptibility of the townspeople are all symbolic in some way of the horrors of war and genocide in the twentieth century. Also, the title of the play in German is Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit of the Old Woman). In some ways it is a meditation on the aging process and the transient nature of human hopes, which are corrupted and destroyed when our youth has passed.

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Themes