The Visit Summary
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.
Claire Wascher leaves Güllen in disgrace forty-five years before the action begins. Now rich, she announces her intention to return to her impoverished native town. The townspeople, who hope that she might wish to help them out of the poverty they have endured for years, await her return with considerable anticipation. They hope that Claire’s emotional tie to Alfred Ill, her former lover, will induce her to be financially generous to her former town; Alfred Ill knows that if she makes the expected gift he will be a sure victor in the next mayoral contest. As the townspeople, who serve the function the chorus does in classical Greek plays, await Claire’s arrival, they are a model of community cohesiveness and congeniality. Poor as they are, they are united by the seemingly indestructible bonds that traditionally hold tightly knit communities together.
Claire arrives amid much celebration. She greets the townspeople and Alfred Ill, amused by their transparent cordiality. At a festive banquet she makes it clear that they are correct in their assumption: She is prepared to give the town a gift of 500 million marks. As with most large gifts, however, this one carries a stipulation.
Claire left Güllen forty-five years earlier after naming Alfred Ill in a paternity suit; he denied responsibility for her pregnancy and prevailed by bribing two witnesses to give false evidence. Claire was driven out of Güllen by its upstanding, self-righteous citizens, and after she left, Alfred Ill married a well-to-do woman who set him up in a business. Claire went to Hamburg, where she was forced to become a prostitute before eventually marrying the multimillionaire Armenian oil tycoon Zachanassian and becoming rich. Zachanassian, whose name she keeps despite many subsequent marriages, left her the bulk of her fortune.
Claire now dangles the dazzling prospect of the huge sum of money before the townspeople on the condition that they right the wrong they and Alfred Ill inflicted on her and her child, who lived for only one year: She will make the gift in return for the murder of her...
(The entire section is 915 words.)