Romantic love, a universal issue many writers grapple with, consumes most of one’s life: it is constantly exalted as the loftiest of virtues in Christianity along with the notion of true love. Durrenmatt, however, satirises and distorts characteristics of romantic love, such as the idealisation of loved one and the belief of eternal romance, in The Visit to show how the idealisation of romance creates illusions that become a source of destruction when confronted with reality. In doing so, Durrenmatt conveys a cynical view of humanity, in which love cannot thrive under states of desperation. This perspective contrasts with most fictions because living in post-war Switzerland, Durrenmatt has experienced economic crisis which revealed to him the corrupted nature of humans who place material wealth before love.
Primarily, the pastoral setting in The Visit illustrates how romantic love creates sentimental illusions of eternal romance during adolescence. For instance, Claire remembers how Alfred and she “loved each other under these boughs”, with “sunflowers…all golden” (28) when she reunites with him. This setting of a forest creates a bucolic image that refers to the Clichéd pastoral romance. This use of Cliché allows Durrenmatt to satirise the notion of true love in romantic literature. A key illustration of this is when the nostalgic tone highlights the tendency for humans to sentimentalise romantic memories, thus portraying innocence in idealised terms. For instance, Claire sees their names “carved” on a tree. It is significant because the tree is a motif for innocence, which suggests that memory has caused Claire to rationalise the innocence of Alfred to an extent in which she is psychologically vulnerable to his corruption. By creating this juxtaposition between adolescent romance and post-war desperation, Durrenmatt shows how illusions of purity create sentimentalised expectations of love which becomes a source of destruction. Also, “golden”, which connotes regal and something of value, is symbolic for the value Claire sees in their relationship. Moreover, the use of the adjective “golden” is ironic because Alfred chooses golden money over love for his marriage. Therefore, this rejection of love elevates the value of money over love, emphasising how love fails to thrive in poverty. In addition, Claire sees “the heart with our names on it” (28) “carved” in wood, but is “faded”. It is significant as “heart” connotes romance, which furthers the portrayal of love being idealised. This also creates dramatic irony since this secret place is unknown to other characters, which stimulates emotion in the audience when the townspeople do not see romantic associations between Claire and Alfred. Therefore, the audience obtains an insight into Claire’s motive in which not only is she seeking revenge, but also attempting to possess Alfred eternally. Furthermore, the verb “carve” is ironic in that it is symbolic of eternal commitment, but the names “faded” since both Claire and Alfred married other people for money. This irony, therefore, shows that idealised romance fails to thrive in states of desperation, with “faded” serving to highlight the contamination of humanity by materialism. Nevertheless, the notion of eternalness accentuates Claire’s will to possess Alfred. Therefore, her illusion becomes her tragic flaw and foreshadows her determination to keep Alfred eternally regardless of the method. Ultimately, Durrenmatt’s employment of Cliché and irony allows the audience to confront to the ephemeral nature of romantic love and therefore question their idealisation of romance. Durrenmatt brings a cynical view if capitalism in Europe whereby romantic love is disregarded.
Furthermore, the dialogues and actions of using secret code language for love portray idealisation of romantic love. An illustration of this is when Alfred calls Claire “my little wildcat”, and Claire “purrs like an old cat”. Interestingly, the pet name and the possessive adjective “my” highlights the notion of the one and only, which shows that Alfred idealises Claire as his soulmate. However, Alfred can only express his love for Claire through possessive words, which portrays romance as merely a result of sexual restriction. Moreover, the pet name is not only significant for its romantic nature, but also for the portrayal Claire’s idealisation. For instance, after Claire is referred to as a “little wildcat”, she is seen with the corresponding stage direction “purrs like an old cat”. This simile illustrates a softened and nostalgic side of Claire which contrasts her decision to kill Alfred. In addition, the corresponding action demonstrates that Claire is contempt with this idealised version of herself and, as a result, cannot cope with the corruptness of post-war Europe. Consequently, this sentimentality of memory drives her to possess Alfred in a coffin. When he is dead, she sees him as “the way he was”, “the black panther” (99), which is Claire’s nickname for Alfred. Durrenmatt employs The Grotesque, distorting death not as separation but as romantic closure, to satirise the element of betrothal, the happily ever after, in romantic novels. Moreover, the coffin creates dramatic tension throughout the play to put the audience into unease, and hence show Claire’s distorted psychology as she anticipates for physical closure with Alfred. Dramatic tension is further employed through the motif of “black panther”, which is not only a pet name but also an actual pet of Claire’s who is shot by the police. This foreshadowing of Alfred’s death creates terror in the audience, which portrays a juxtaposition between romantic nickname and death, and thus highlights the destructive nature of love. In addition, Durrenmatt’s satire for the idealisation of romantic love is furthered by how the pet name “black panther” is used to describe a corpse, which emphasises that romance is merely physical desires and that poverty has deprived the virtue of spiritual companionship in post-war Europe. Overall, the sentimentalised dialogue and the portrayal of the coffin using The Grotesque persuades the audience that romantic love is self-destructive in that it creates illusions of a perfect loved one. Durrenmatt expresses that this illusion is particularly dangerous in post-war Europe since everyone, even those seen as ideals, loses his/her virtues.
Finally, Durrenmatt satirises the closure of romantic love, which is exalted in Christianity as the loftiest virtue in humanity, in the balcony scene. The second act opens as “Claire Zachanassian appears on the balcony in the background” (43). This stage direction is significant because the “balcony”, an allusion to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is symbolic for an idyllic and youthful love affair. In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers obtain spiritual closure despite the physical separation created by the balcony. Therefore, Shakespeare illustrates an idealised romance by suggesting that the true love overcomes all obstacles. It is ironic, however, as the balcony scene created by Durrenmatt visualises an economic hierarchy with the powerful one watching the townspeople through her “lorgnette” (43). This economic hierarchy becomes the physical separation between Claire and Alfred. Their love, therefore, is presented as eroded by the desperate post-war society. This irony rejects Shakespeare’s idealised version of love by suggesting that love cannot overcome obstacles such as poverty in post-war societies because human ideals, such as the pursuit of true love, becomes undermined under states of desperation. Furthermore, Claire comments on her ex-husbands while observing Alfred. This demonstrates that not only are Claire and Alfred spiritually separated, but also old and stained with corruption as Claire married her husbands for money. As a result, Durrenmatt creates a Grotesque monstrosity by destructing the youthful romance by revealing the tainted qualities within the lovers. Therefore, this darkly comedic scene satirises the notion of true romantic love. This satire is furthered by how Claire “assesses morning critically through lorgnette” (43). Interestingly, the “lorgnette”, which allows one to see clearer, symbolises how Claire observes the town in a Godlike bird’s eye view with careful attention. Moreover, the verb “assess” has connotations of solemnity and authority, which suggests that Claire has control of Alfred’s downfall. Moreover, the “lorgnette” denotes entertainment since it was often used at the opera in the 19th century. This prop satirises the loftiness of love and condescends it to merely an amusement as Claire maliciously impends the dying of her love like watching a game in the ostensibly romantic scene. By doing so, Durrenmatt undermines romance as a joke that cannot thrive in periods of struggle during which he has personally experienced, and demonstrates how other writers wrongly idealise love. Consequently, the audience feels entertained by the darkly comedic irony created by the allusion to Shakespeare but is disturbed to learn the powerlessness nature of spiritual love since it has often been lauded by the society.
The Visit, in brief, deals with the subject of romantic love in a deeply cynical and satirical manner, as Durrenmatt believes that human ideals such as love cannot survive under post-war poverty though it has been idealised in most fictions. To highlight his perspective on romantic love, Durrenmatt portrays the sentimentality of love as a source of destruction and satirises the idealisation of romantic affairs. Therefore, The Visit brings to its readers an unsettling perspective of romantic love that is worth ruminating.