The Visit (play)

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The Visit
Written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Date premiered1956
Original languageGerman
Genre Tragicomedy

The Visit (German : Der Besuch der alten Dame) is a 1956 tragicomic play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt.


Brief plot summary

An enormously wealthy older woman returns to her former hometown with a dreadful bargain: she wants the townspeople to kill the man who got her pregnant, then jilted her. In exchange, she will provide enough money to revitalize the decrepit town. The townspeople eventually agree.


Act I

The story opens with the town of Güllen (a name evoking "liquid manure" in German) 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. Anton Schill (Alfred Ill in the German-language version) is the owner of Güllen's general store and the most popular man in town. He 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.

After settling into the 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: one billion (presumably Swiss francs), 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 Anton. In the suit, Anton produced two false witnesses (who have since been transformed into Claire's eunuchs), and the court ruled in his favor. Her donation is conditional on someone killing Anton. The mayor refuses and the town seems aghast, but Claire says that she will wait.

Act II

As time passes, Anton becomes increasingly paranoid as he sees everyone purchasing especially costly items on credit in his shop. Anton visits the police officer and the mayor, who have also bought new expensive items, and they dismiss his concerns. He then visits the priest, who attempts to calm him, but finally admits they have been paid off, and advises Anton to flee.

Schill 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 Schill 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.

Anton's terror grows as the townspeople buy more expensive products on credit. Hearing of Claire's wedding, reporters are everywhere, and they enter the store to interview Anton. The schoolmaster, drunk, tries to inform the press about Claire's proposal, but the townspeople stop him. The schoolmaster and Anton have a discussion and the schoolmaster explains Anton will be killed. Anton accepts his guilt and acknowledges the town's suffering is his fault. Anton is then confronted by the mayor who asks if Anton will accept the town's judgment. Anton says that he will.

Claire tells Anton that she never stopped loving him, but that over time her love has grown into something monstrous.

When Anton arrives at the town meeting, it is flooded with the press, and the town publicly announces their 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 Anton to thank for their newfound wealth. The doors are locked and the lights dimmed. Anton is killed by a townsman. Just as a reporter reappears in the auditorium, the doctor announces that Anton has died of a heart attack. The reporters gather and declare that Anton has died of joy. Claire examines the body, gives the mayor his check, and leaves the town with Anton's body in the casket that she brought with her when she arrived.


Main theme

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 humor 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. The main theme of the tragicomedy is also the utilitarianism and its manifestation seen in the play. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which distinguishes right from wrong with respect to outcomes. The school of thought believes that the most ethical choice is one which benefits the majority. In the context of the play the driving force behind the persecution and execution of Ill is solely on the basis that his death will lead to the town being lifted from the pits of poverty as Claire would donate the One billion Swiss francs promised, resulting in an increase in living standards and economic prosperity. However, this comes at the cost of Ill's life, who represents the minority that suffers as a consequence of decisions made that benefit the majority.

Women's rights

Women did not achieve full suffrage in Switzerland until 1971 [1] (in one canton until 1990); along with neighboring Liechtenstein it was 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 Anton, 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.


European art and history

In the play, Dürrenmatt uses the sold out museum in the city as a way to satirize the art and history of Europe. The Güllen museum talked about in the story sold everything it had to other museums located in America. This satirizes the idea that to learn about the history of Europe, one must travel to America.


Democracy in The Visit can be seen satirized in Act III, where the townsfolk gather to vote on the issue of whether or not to kill Ill. This event also brings up the fact that everyone thinks that somebody will kill Ill, but it won't be them. In the end, the vote goes against Ill and he is killed for the reward. This gives readers an example of how a democracy can indeed be worse than other forms of government.

Human bodies as objects/human labor

A few examples of this subject arise in the play. One is Claire's prostitution, another is Ill's worth of a billion dollars. In Claire's case, Dürrenmatt pokes at the idea of selling one's body. He describes the prostitution as almost the same as labor jobs. He asks if there is a difference between those two occupations in terms of giving your body away for money. Alfred Ill's situation brings up another subject with the same kind of subject. Ill's body is priced at a billion dollars. This suggests that his body can be bought, sold, and consumed just like things in the economy. Ill's body is made into an object once Claire puts a price on him.


The play by the Maribor Slovene National Theatre in 1960 Friedrich Durrenmatt, Obisk stare gospe, SNG v Mariboru.jpg
The play by the Maribor Slovene National Theatre in 1960

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.

Premiered as Besuch der alten Dame at Schauspielhaus Zürich, Ruedi Walter played in 1956 the blind eunuch Loby. [2]

The original 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt was adapted for American audiences by Maurice Valency; this version features a number of significant alterations. Its first Broadway theatre production, in 1958, was directed by Peter Brook and starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. [3] In Spanish, it was performed in Teatro Español, Madrid, in 1959, and in Catalan language it was created in Barcelona in 1962.

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 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.

In 1988 a TV movie titled Bring Me the Head Of Dobie Gillis was a version of The Visit adapted to the characters and world of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis .

In 1989 a TV movie titled Визит дамы (The Visit of the Lady) was created in the Mosfilm studio (Russia, at that time the USSR)

Mira Stupica, famous Serbian actress performed character of Claire Zachanassian.

Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty's film Hyènes , from 1992, is based on the play.

The Visit was performed at Chichester Arts Festival of 1995. [4] Players included Lauren Bacall and Joss Ackland.

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.[ citation needed ] In 2015, Chita Rivera and Roger Rees brought this adaptation of The Visit to Broadway when it began preview performances on March 26, 2015 at the Lyceum Theatre under the Tony Award-winning direction of John Doyle ( Sweeney Todd , Company ). It opened on April 23, 2015 and closed on June 14, 2015. The 95-minute production debuted in the summer of 2014 at the Williamstown Theater Festival, with choreography by Broadway veteran Graciela Daniele (The Rink, Ragtime).

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 Üksküla (Ill). Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, substitutes for Guellen.

″The Visit″ 2016 production directed by Stan Wlasick and performed at El Rancho High School.

A Russian language production, directed by Alexander Morfov, has been running in the repertoire of the Lenkom Theatre in Moscow since 2008.

An adaptation entitled Miss Meena was performed in 2010 by Perch in Bengaluru. [5] [ clarification needed ]

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.

Indian playwright Madhu Rye adapted the play as Sharat in the Gujarati language.

A new English language adaptation written by Tony Kushner and directed by Jeremy Herrin is currently in previews at the National Theatre in London from February 11 to May 13, 2020. Starring Lesley Manville as Claire and Hugo Weaving as Alfred, this production likewise retains Dürrenmatt's original three-act structure (as does Valency's adaptation) but updated the location of the play from the town of Güllen to Slurry, New York. [6] [7]

Paulo Coelho's The Devil and Miss Prym mentions the author, but not the story directly referenced; the concept of Coelho's book is based on the German 1956 play The Visit, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

See also

The following plays utilize a dramaturgical structure similar to The Visit:

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  2. "Walter, Ruedi" (in German). 2013-12-05. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  3. New York Times, Maurice Valency 93 theatrical master dies
  6. McIntosh, Steven (2019-06-13). "Manville and Peake to star at National Theatre". BBC News. Retrieved 2020-02-10.
  7. "The Visit | National Theatre | Theatre in London". Time Out London. Retrieved 2020-02-10.