The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Visit begins at the train station in Gullen, a shabby and impoverished town somewhere in Central Europe. As trains speed by, the townspeople recall happier days, when trains stopped and celebrities visited. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Claire Zachanassian, a local girl who left the town forty-five years earlier as the penniless Clara Wascher and who has since become fabulously wealthy. The townspeople hope that, as have other places and charities, Gullen will be the recipient of Claire’s philanthropy. With the help of Alfred Ill, the only person who remembers her (for he had been her lover), the town is preparing a festive welcoming home for what they hope is their salvation.

Suddenly, an express train screeches to a halt, and Madame Zachanassian descends upon the town. Claire has pulled the train’s emergency cord, and she, after imperiously bribing the conductor to overlook her action, summarily dismisses the train and its many reporters. She looks over the faces of the greeting townspeople but does not recognize Ill, who, like she, has grown old and ugly. He calls to her, and they speak of earlier days when she called him her black panther. The town’s hastily devised reception is presented, to the amusement of Claire, who makes bizarre and grotesque comments to the assemblage. She is then carried off in a sedan chair by two large bodyguards whom she identifies as condemned American criminals whom she has purchased. She is accompanied by her eighty-year-old butler, two blind, castrated old men, a black panther, and a coffin.

As she leaves, the townspeople again marvel at her wealth. They are confident that Ill will be able to win a substantial grant from the woman for them. He will most assuredly be their next mayor. The scene shifts to the forest of Konradsweil (four Gulleners symbolically portray the forest), where Alfred and Claire reminisce about a long-ago love. Claire tells Ill of the method of her success, that a millionaire fell in love with her when she was in a whorehouse in Hamburg. He was killed in a plane crash, but she had survived, for she was indestructible. She then promises Ill that she intends to offer the town millions of marks, which will bring prosperity to it again.

The scene changes to a festive banquet where Claire makes her announcement. She is prepared to offer the town a gift of 500 million marks, with an additional 500 million marks to be divided among the townspeople. There is a condition: She wants justice. She then tells her story. She presents her butler, who introduces himself as the former magistrate of Gullen. He had once tried a bastardy case wherein Alfred Ill had been accused of fathering the child of Clara Wascher. Ill had produced two witnesses who swore that they, too, had slept with Clara and that it was impossible for her to say who the father was. Claire then introduces her castrati, who identify themselves first as those witnesses and second as perjurers.

Claire continues her story, describing the poor, pregnant...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Dürrenmatt’s primary dramatic device is subtlety. The Visit is enjoyable at a superficial level, but it becomes an outstanding play when studied carefully. Only rarely is Dürrenmatt’s language usage overt. His choice of Gullen for the name of the town is comedic, for Gullen in Swiss dialect means “liquid cow manure” (which would not normally be obvious to the American viewer). The choice of Dummermuth (stupid mind) as the mayor’s wife’s maiden name is overtly humorous, for she was the best student in her class. Such overtness is infrequent. For the viewer or reader to comprehend more fully the messages of the play, an understanding of Dürrenmatt’s language and style is necessary. He uses irony, oblique references, and wordplay to illustrate, to veil, or to imply. Dürrenmatt cleverly couples language style with other nuances to convey his messages. For example, virtually all the new shoes worn by the Gulleners are yellow in color, the color of deceit. The black panther, the coffin, the eunuchs, forest scenes in which trees are played by townspeople, and others—all combine to suggest rather than to clarify absolutely.

When language and nuances are coupled with complex dramatic style, the play becomes even more fascinating. Minor characters are linked together to set mood or to imply concepts. The teacher and the pastor are not evil, but are weak; the mayor and the policeman are officious and without principle; Ill’s family is simply stupid and selfish, but not bad. The townspeople themselves, however, are the critical element. From the beginning of the play to the end, they serve as a Greek chorus. In act 1 they are buffoons, waiting for the train, each speaking mechanically and ending the others’ thoughts. Later, while Ill and Claire talk, townspeople are used as the forest backdrop, and they act out prancing deer and trees. In act 2 they become more deadly, as they gradually turn against Ill. They become more inhuman, while Ill grows in humanity. Dürrenmatt’s pace of action is critical here, for he allows Ill to act against the group but at a pace that heightens the action. In the final act, the facelessness and inhumanity of the group are emphasized by the ritual killing of Ill. To Dürrenmatt, such inhumanity is a tragic characteristic of the modern era.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bogard, Travis, and William Oliver, eds. Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Adolf D. Klarmann’s contribution, “Friedrich Dürrenmatt and the Tragic Sense of Comedy,” remains one of the most significant appraisals of the playwright.

Hammer, Carl, ed. Studies in German Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963. Includes F. E. Coenen’s extended essay on modern German theater, which makes interesting observations about Dürrenmatt and places him within the broad context of recent German drama.

Heilmann, Robert B. “The Lure of the Demonic: James and Dürrenmatt.” Comparative Literature 13 (1961): 346-357. One of the most insightful comparative articles on Henry James and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, this essay will help readers to understand some of the origins of The Visit.

Peppard, Murray B. Friedrich Dürrenmatt. New York: Twayne, 1969. Peppard’s analysis of The Visit is penetrating and sensitive. Peppard provides an excellent overview of the play, comments on elements of its composition, and interprets it in understandable terms. Perhaps the best source for those just beginning to read Dürrenmatt.

Shaw, LeRoy, ed. The German Theater Today. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963. A valuable collection of essays drawn from a symposium on modern German theater. The material on Dürrenmatt’s early plays provides useful background to those unfamiliar with the playwright.

Whitton, Kenneth S. Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1990. Whitton’s understanding of Dürrenmatt is impressive. His material on The Visit brings together a considerable amount of interpretive theory on the play.