The Visit of the Old Lady
The Subject of Romantic Love in The Visit
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.
The Role of Weaponry used to Demonstrate the Theme of Corruption in The Visit
In Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play, The Visit, the notions of corruption begin with the arrival of billionairess, Claire Zachanassian to the poverty stricken town of Gullen, where she is originally from. Claire arrives with the intention of seeking revenge on a former lover who had abandoned her in her youth. Durrenmatt emphasizes the development of conflict through the foreshadowing of the downfall of Alfred Ill, the town’s most beloved citizen, as well as the oppression and increase of corruption within their society due to the arrival of Claire Zachanassian. The use of weaponry, specifically that of the rifle and gun – found in the Acts Two and Three is significant among the characters in order to convey the idea of corruption and betrayal in Gullen towards Ill. Through the use of symbolism of weaponry, Durrenmatt explores how betrayal and corruption consume the town of Gullen in The Visit, as Claire pushes further for the murder of Ill in hopes of seeking revenge and justice on what had occurred to her in her youth.
Durrenmatt establishes the theme of corruption through the use of weaponry to foreshadow how Ill is ordered to be put to death after the arrival of Claire Zachanassian. Claire, who was also spurned by Ill when she was younger and had become pregnant because of him, offers a copious amount of wealth to the citizens of Gullen if they killed Ill. Weaponry is used to represent corruption in the society of Gullen. Ill is viewed as a target due to the corruptive forces of Claire’s promise to the citizens as they grow increasingly selfish as the play progresses. This is initially seen in Act II, when Ill visits the Policeman and demands the arrest of Claire for “…inciting the people of the town to kill [him]…” (Durrenmatt 45). Here, the Policeman claims that Ill’s declaration to arrest Claire was “…peculiar…” (45) and not sufficient enough for the authorities to take such an action as he states that no one is it trying to harm or threaten him as he says, “….You can’t be threaten by a proposal, only by the carrying out of a proposal. Show me one genuine attempt the carry out this proposal, for instance a man point a gun at you, and I’ll be there faster than the blink of an eye” (46). There, the Policeman asserts that he believes that Ill will not be killed and this ultimately reveals a sense of corruption as Ill does in fact get killed by the end of the play. The progression of the increasing corruptive forces of the Policeman from going from an individual who had greatly admired Ill to someone who now sees Ill as a barrier to Gullen’s advancement by taking part in such fraudulent conduct under Claire’s power, through her bribes. It is also ironic that the Policeman assures Ill that no harm will be done to him if someone were to point a gun at him, as he shortly waves a gun around Ill as “he stands up and takes a rifle from the back of the chair” (48). This is a means of provoking corruption in Gullen as the Policeman, who is seen as an authoritative figure in society, who is meant to protect all citizens, is viewed as someone who is corrupt and selfish in nature, as he loads the gun in front of Ill. The use of weaponry of the rifle conveys the idea of Durrenmatt utilizing weaponry as a means of conveying corruption in Gullen.
Throughout Acts Two and Three, the use of weaponry becomes even more evident to the force of corruption in Gullen as the play progresses. The citizens of Gullen gradually become increasingly corrupt due to the forces of Claire’s power, in turn, leading to the betrayal of Ill. They are willing to sacrifice an individual for their personal gain. This idea of corruption and betrayal in Guellen is seen prominently through the use of weaponry with the gun that was used to kill the black panther in Act Two, whom Claire had brought along with her to Gullen. The killing of the black panther is symbolic to the progression of corruption, as it acts as an allusion that foreshadowed the killing of Ill. In Act One, it was mentioned that Claire’s nickname for Ill, in their youth, was the Black Panther. The killing of the black panther foreshadows of Ill’s death. The teacher says, “We have been rescued from a great danger. The black panther was balefully prowling our streets,” (60). Here, the Teacher implies that Ill is similar to the black panther. The gun used to the kill the black panther further reinforces that idea of corruption in Gullen as it foreshadows the killing of Ill, and how Gullen eventually turns against him due to their selfish and immoral nature, towards Ill. He even mentions that the killing of the panther is an allusion to him when he hears the Teacher conducting a song for to mourn the death of the panther as he says, “It’s for my death you’re practicing this song for, my death!” (60). Consequently, Ill comes to the conclusion that the black panther is a reference to his own death the will be conducted in the near future. The killing of the black panther is used to further reinforce the notion of corruption in Gullen and further alludes to the foreshadowing of the Ill’s death.Durrenmatt demonstrates the structural progression of corruption in Gullen through the Mayor’s use of the gun, contrasting to that of the one used to kill the black panther in Act Two.
In Act Three, as a final attempt before Ill is murdered, the Mayor approaches Ill claiming that he has brought him a loaded gun. Ill quickly refuses to take the gun. He says, “I brought you a gun. […] It’s loaded” (87). Ill quickly refuses to take the gun. The gun is an indication from Mayor and the citizens of Gullen, who believe that it would be much easier for Ill to kill himself with that gun, before the citizens kill him. If Ill were to shoot himself, the conspiracy of his murder would not be held accountable by the townspeople. By forcing them to physically kill him, Ill cements his place in Gullen’s collective conscience. If he committed suicide, the corruption of the town would not be as evident; they did not perform the murderous act, therefore, the town cannot be held accountable. The use of weapons also reveals the ending of Ill, as he understands he must sacrifice himself in order for Gullen to receive their riches This, in turn, allows him to see the viewpoint of his corrupt society as he understands the wealth the town will gain if he were to be sacrificed. It is also an immoral and selfish matter that is particularly surprising from the Mayor who should have been an authoritative leader of the community, and is meant to promote and provide for the greater good of Gullen; however he is contrasted to someone who is willing to sacrifice someone for their own benefit. Ill soon realizes that his society is corrupted by this idea, as he begins to accept the fact that he is guilty man as he and the other citizens seem to arrive at the same conclusion. Due to this corruption, he sees himself as someone who has brought misery to the town and as someone who is holding back the advancement of Gullen. Thus, he accepts the fact that he must sacrifice himself.In Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, weapons are used to reveal the corruption that has enveloped the town of Gullen, as the citizens become increasingly motivated in their intention to kill Ill in exchange for a billion dollars. Durrenmatt exemplifies that the weapons themselves reveal the progression of corruption in Gullen as the play advances.
The consequences behind the weapons become progressively burdened on Ill, as they become progressively oppressive throughout the play. The transition of weapons is used as a means of safety and protection for all. As the play progresses, a singular lethal murder weapon is presented and is seen prominently when the Policeman points the rifle at Ill. Moreover, the shooting of the panther is used to signify that the end is near for Ill. It is finally seen that when the Mayor gives the gun the Ill, he is implying that Ill must kill himself in order to satisfy the people of Gullen. This, in turn, leads to the inevitable murder and end of Ill. Furthermore, the use of the symbolism of weaponry in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play, The Visit represents corruption and betrayal of Alfred Ill after the arrival of Claire Zachanassian, leading into his ultimate death under the circumstances of the selfishness of the town.
Poverty and Humanistic Values in The Visit
Poverty is one of the most important themes of The Visit, and serves as the foundation for the entire plot. If the town of Guellen had not fallen into deep poverty, Claire Zachanassian would have never had to visit the town and present the solution of wealth and prosperity to their problem (although, it is arguable that Gullen would not have fallen into poverty if it weren’t for Claire financially corrupting the town, so her motives come into play here). Before Claire, the town of Guellen based their society on humanistic values that they held in the highest regard. These values slowly fade as the citizens of Guellen begin to gain wealth. Poverty serves as a symbol of these humanistic values because of the negative correlation between poverty and humanistic values.
Gullen was obviously an extremely impoverished town. Its citizens were all struggling to get by and everything was closing down and being sold. Poverty was initially the cause of Guellen’s problems. Historically, many European economies were not doing well at this point in time due to the recent world wars. It is not obviously stated where The Visit took place (most likely Germany or Switzerland), but due to its obvious western European location it is safe to say that due to the historical context, the economy would be struggling. In the first scene, where the setting is exposed, the town’s impoverished state is made very clear by the dialogue of the citizens. They discuss the state of the town and things closing down and being sold. It sets the stage for what is to come. It is important to remember that Claire’s offer could not have been made (or would not nearly have had the same effect) if the town of Gullen were not impoverished in this way.
In this beginning scene, the citizens discuss the impending visit of a former citizen, the powerful Claire Zachannasian. The second man introduces this with, “It’s about time the millionairess got here. They say she founded a hospital in Kalberstadt” (page 3).. She arrives and mostly converses with Ill, and it is obvious that they had a relationship in the past. Ill describes their seemingly close, friendly relationship by saying, “We were the best of friends – young and impetuous – after all, gentlemen, I was a young fellow forty-five years ago- and she, Clara, I can still see her shining through the dark on her way to meet me in Petersen’s barn or walking barefoot on moss and leaves through the woods of Konradsweil with her red hair streaming behind her…” (page 6). Durrenmatt uses Ill’s beautiful imagery and memories of Claire to characterize not only Claire but Ill himself as we see their relationship unfold. She eventually arrives and tells the citizens she has an offer for them that will rescue them from poverty. The citizens are all obviously very excited about this, until they learn what the offer entails. Claire makes her offer to save the town from poverty if Ill is killed. “I will give you a billion, and with that billion I will buy myself justice” (page 31). At this point in the play, the citizens do not accept as they would rather be in poverty than have the blood of a fellow citizen on their hands. The mayor says, “… we are still in Europe; we’re not savages yet. In the name of the town of Guellen I reject your offer. In the name of humanity. We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands” (page 35). This is because of the humanistic values they value so dearly. The implications of poverty then begin to change. The citizens start to realize that they could easily be saved from poverty from this simple offer. When wealth was in reach, poverty began to look much worse. The citizens were given the prospect of wealth and they soon realized they could not turn this down. Wealth was so close and they wanted it so badly. This is evident when the citizens start buying things on credit, going into Ill’s shop and making bigger purchases. Ill knows that these citizens can not usually afford to make purchases on credit, so he is extremely suspicious. When Ill asks about everyone’s new yellow shoes, the women say, “We bought them on credit, Mr. Ill,” (page 44). At this point their humanistic values started to decline as wealth and the prospect of it started to increase.
This desire for wealth is simply human nature. Why would someone want to live in poverty when they could easily start being wealthy? As the play progresses, the citizens are more and more intrigued by wealth. Ill begins to realize his impending fate. He talks to many of the citizens, and none of them admit that they want to go through with Claire’s decision, but it is made very obvious. It is only the teacher, in a drunken stupor, that admits the flawed nature of the decision and proves the decrease of humanistic values in the citizens. He opens up with, “I’m telling it like an archangel, with a ringing voice. For I am a humanist, a friend of the ancient Greeks, an admirer of Plato… sit down. Humanity has to sit down. Absolutely- if even you won’t stand up for the truth,” (page 81). He warns Ill about the decision, but he does not try to help, because deep down he wants the wealth too.
Ill can not successfully escape his fate. He is killed at the end of the play. The wealth was too tempting for the citizens. Once they had a taste, they could never go back, no matter what it entailed. This leads to the chorus, which basically described what has happened throughout the play and the aftermath. The citizens (chorus) state that poverty is the worst thing in the world and the cause of all of their problems. At the beginning of the play, most of the citizens would have most likely not said that poverty is the worst thing in the world. They were already in poverty, and surely they could’ve had it worse. After all, initially, they didn’t accept Claire’s offer because they believed that Ill’s life was more important. They valued their humanistic values more; they were all they had. Once the offer is introduced, the general opinion on poverty begins to change. It becomes more and more horrible once the citizens realize what they could have. Poverty then becomes a scapegoat of sorts; something to blame for what was really done by the fault of human nature.
The initial humanistic values of the citizens of Gullen probably would not have existed if the town wasn’t impoverished. Value of human life is more important when everyone is poor and all they have is each other. As poverty decreases, so do the humanistic values in a positive correlation. Illl’s life decreases in value as the citizens realize and start utilizing the wealth they could easily receive. This leads to Ill’s obvious death. Poverty was the foundation of the morals of the citizens of Guellen. At surface level, poverty is bad and wealth is good. But, it is likely a poor person would say that poverty is not the worst thing in the world. Durrenmatt uses this story to juxtapose the ideals of the wealthy and poor. Wealthy people are likely to value their wealth. At all costs, they do not want to lose their money, so poverty may seem like a worse option. Impoverished people only have themselves; therefore, the value placed on human life is very high. Poverty is not the cause of the problems in The Visit, directly anyway. The problems were caused simply by human nature. Humans will want wealth if it is available to them. If the town of Gullen wasn’t poor originally, they most likely would have still wanted to become wealthier (just probably not quite to the extent they did in the play). Poverty changes the circumstances but the flaw of humanity exists no matter what the socioeconomic status of the town is.
The impoverished citizens of Guellen place a high value on human life, placing great importance on their humanistic values. They are then given an offer to increase their wealth if they kill own of their own. Durrenmatt brilliantly breaks down humanity’s desire for wealth as struggling citizens are given an ultimatum. As their prospective wealth increases, they value that wealth and material instead of human life, so humanistic values decrease. Therefore, poverty serves as a symbol of humanistic values due to the negative correlation of the two ideas.
The Ironic Tragicomedy
Plays are often written to make a statement about the world, or to provoke deeper thought from the audience. While many playwrights share the same overall goal, each playwright adopts his or her own style of writing. After adopting a certain style, playwrights are then given the option to customize their genre to meet their literary needs. In the case of Friedrich Durrenmatt, the writer opted to combine both tragedy and comedy within his play The Visit. As in many plays, Friedrich Durrenmatt makes use of allusions to increase the audience’s understanding of key characters. Durrenmatt develops the characters Claire Zachanassian, Alfred Ill, and the Schoolmaster with a complexity not found in the play’s other roles. In order to do so, Durrenmatt employs the use of allusions throughout The Visit. These allusions create multi-faceted characters which contribute to the situational irony of the tragicomedy.
One of the most important ironies within The Visit is the fact that Madam Claire Zachanassian did not become the obvious villain of the play. Madam Zachanassian offered “a million for Guellen if someone kills Alfred Ill” (Durrenmatt 38), which the Mayor promptly rejects “in the name of humanity” (39). The Mayor’s response eventually changes, and despite having orchestrated the eventual murder of the shopkeeper Alfred Ill, the town comes to defend Claire Zachanassian. Within the first act, the Schoolmaster spoke on behalf of the town when saying “we feel for you, deeply; we understand” (66) in regards to Madam Zachanassian’s feelings about justice. While the Schoolmaster at this moment in time is adamantly opposed to the acceptance of Madam Zachanassian’s offer, the quote foreshadows the Schoolmaster’s eventual change in opinion. The Schoolmaster’s statement indicates that, even after being shocked with such a daring proposal, the citizens of Guellen may still be inclined to understand how Madam Zachanassian feels. Friedrich Durrenmatt creates situational irony between Claire’s actions and the townspeople’s perception of her by alluding to the Greek play Medea in the second act. The schoolmaster states “Madam Zachanassian! You’re a woman whose love has been wounded. You make me think of a heroine from antiquity; of Medea” (66).
In the play Medea, a young woman from Colchis is betrayed by her husband and the father of her two sons. Medea’s husband Jason leaves Medea for a wealthier young woman named Creusa, similarly to how Alfred Ill left Claire Zachanassian years before for Mrs. Ill, who had been the wealthy daughter of a shopkeeper at the time. At the end of the play, Medea kills her two sons as an act of ultimate revenge against Jason, but upon the play’s completion there is often a faction of the audience which believes Medea’s choice is justified. By alluding to Medea’s tale in The Visit when describing Madam Zachanassian, Durrenmatt poses the question: Were Claire Zachanassian’s actions justified? Durrenmatt’s allusion deepens the complexity Claire’s character Zachanassian. Where once stood an old, bitter woman who waltzed into Guellen thirsty for blood now stands a woman whose heart was betrayed. This allusion enables the audience of The Visit to sympathize with Madam Claire Zachanassian; she quickly turns from the avenging murderess to the broken-hearted girl. The complexity Durrenmatt’s allusion created enables Claire Zachanassian to end the play without the title of “villain”. When Claire Zachanassian first enters Guellen, many of the citizens recognize that she may have come with grim intentions. The Schoolmaster, a symbol of enlightened thinking and education, tells the Mayor “Sir, I only learned what horror is one hour ago. That old lady in black robes getting off the train was a gruesome vision. Like one of the Fates; she made me think of an avenging Greek goddess. Her name shouldn’t be Claire; it should be Clotho. I suspect her of spinning destiny’s webs herself” (26). In Greek mythology, the three Fates are the embodiment of destiny. These fates are rumored to be more powerful than gods, and they control the lives of each individual by spinning the “thread of destiny”. When the fates cut one’s thread, the life ends and the soul enters the underworld. Clotho is the fate responsible for spinning the thread and therefore creating destiny. The Schoolmaster alludes to Clotho, foreshadowing Madam Zachanassian’s desire to manipulate and control the town as the fate Clotho controls life. The schoolmaster’s allusion is made prior to Zachanassian’s proposal, which serves well to indicate the intelligence and awareness the Schoolmaster embodies.
While the Schoolmaster is apt enough to foresee Claire Zachanassian’s eminent wickedness, the irony of the situation lies within the fact that the Schoolmaster admits to Alfred Ill “They will kill you. I’ve known it from the beginning, and you’ve known it too for a long time, even if no one else in Guellen wants to admit it … But I know something else. I shall take part in it” (77). The Schoolmaster, symbol for the education in a town where “[the people] are not savages” (39), eventually succumbed to the appeal of the wealth Madam Zachanassian is offering the town of Guellen. Durrenmatt’s allusion to Clotho does not create the irony, rather, the Schoolmaster’s character does. The Schoolmaster is designed as a symbol for everything an enlightened European society embodies. As the symbol for civilization, the schoolmaster should have been intelligent, honest, and civilized. Despite all this, even the most enlightened citizen in Guellen still fell to the power of greed. The embodiment of civilized, rational thought is no match for the draw of one woman’s wealth, regardless of his foresight regarding the situation.
While the aforementioned allusions in The Visit had clearly stated meanings, Durrenmatt inscribes other allusion’s meanings more subtly. During a wedding between Madam Zachanassian and her eighth husband, the Schoolmaster and his choir perform “Bach. From the Saint Matthew Passion” (64). Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” is eerily beautiful, but it was ironic that the song be performed at a wedding because Johannes Bach wrote the piece in memoriam of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as told by the Book of Matthew in the Bible. What’s more, this wedding happened to be the 8th wedding of Madam Zachanassian. For a woman who seemed to enjoy the process of marriage and divorce, she certainly chose a grim tune for her day. This piece is as grim as most of Claire Zachanassian’s actions, and carries the dark story of an innocent man’s murder on behalf of the people. In a traditional wedding, the chosen piece would be something more festive and light-hearted. However, Durrenmatt chose the Saint Matthew Passion to emphasize the irony of a wedding occurring in a town filled with citizens on the verge of committing a murder. The tune highlights Alfred Ill’s role as the martyr for Guellen and contributes to the irony of the enlightened town turning a blind eye to his murder. Much like the Policeman, who Claire Zachanassian instructs to “wink a blind eye to things” (22), the townspeople turn a blind eye to the tragedy surrounding Alfred Ill’s life. Ill was killed for the benefit of the other citizens, just as Jesus Christ was killed for the benefit of the rest of the world. Much like a sacrificial lamb, the crimes of all the Guelleners are placed on Alfred Ill’s head and they will be granted “forgiveness” in the form of Madam Zachanassian’s financial aid. While Alfred Ill was essentially the cause of Claire Zachanassian’s strife with the town of Guellen, he did not play a role in the cruelty Madam Zachanassian experienced prior to her departure from Guellen. The irony of the Guellener’s sacrificial lamb lies within the fact that the people of Guellen created a deeper sin by condoning the murder of a man within their city limits.
Despite the fact that some of Durrenmatt’s allusions are hidden within the subplot of The Visit, and the fact that some allusions often require further research for full understanding, each one serves a distinct purpose in developing the play as a whole. Durrenmatt is a writer whose style is filled with deliberate choices and references which ensure the audience interprets the play in the way which he intended. Durrenmatt wanted to convey the complexity of the moral conflict the town of Guellen was presented. There was no distinct right or wrong answer, but a certain sense of moral correctness sways the audience towards pitying Alfred Ill. While the play is filled with hate and murder, the audience is not left with a sense of melancholy upon completion of the play. As a playwright, Durrenmatt is clearly no stranger to the use of irony, and through his use of allusions in The Visit he creates a work that is truly the ironic tragicomedy.
An Exploration of Mob Mentality in The Visit
The actions involved in ‘mob mentality’ are a prominent and recurring trend in history, dating back to the beginning of human interaction. Complete social unity was once necessary for the survival and comfort of a group of people. Mob mentality is not solely “social unity” or the way in which people are influenced by their peers or a leader to behave and think a certain way; it usually includes an element of violence. People in a mob tend to forget their individual inhibitions and follow the impulses of the group, therefore making violent acts ‘easier’ to commit (due to the perceived lack of individual consequences). In the play The Visit, a town of impoverished people becomes the center of attention when a wealthy native comes back to exact long awaited revenge. She offers them a bargain that could save them and the future of their town for the price of one man’s head, sending the entire group into a tailspin centered on the decision of whether to go through with the terms of the bargain or not. Friederich Dürrenmatt showcases the evolution of groupthink and the violence of mob mentality through the people of Güllen as they contemplate how to go about handling their portion of the bargain and begin to act in response to the deal presented to them.
The Visit starts out with a group of people sitting by the town train station awaiting the arrival of the famous and immensely wealthy Claire Zachanassian, an event in which everyone in the town has taken part in. They hope to receive a sizeable donation from the heiress to save their wretched home. Upon Claire’s appearance, the expected gift is offered through a Faustian bargain that Zachanassian has waited years to present. At the town dinner party she calmly states, “One billion for Güllen, if someone kills Alfred Ill” (Dürrenmatt 35). Following a brief moment of shocked silence, the Mayor of Güllen stands up and retorts, “In the name of the town of Güllen, I reject your offer… We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands.” This proclamation is met with tremendous applause (35). The ‘tremendous applause’ that the group immediately responds with is a signal of the townspeople’s affirmation of the Mayor’s response to Claire’s offer, and serves as a primitive indication of the groupthink that is developed throughout the play. It is important to note that, often, mobs that commit acts of violence usually first come together as a group for a benign reason or commonality (such as this non-malicious agreement). While agreeing with the mayor’s decision provided the immediate consequence of getting no money and keeping a clean conscience, this agreement also biased the thoughts of each townsperson from the outset due to the influence of whatever the group and its leaders were also thinking. The expansion of groupthink and the behavior changes of the townspeople are further probed as Zachanassian awaits her justice.
The actions of the Gülleners develop steadily throughout Act II, going from subtle behavior changes to actual physical intimidation (the closest they get to violence until that point). This change showcases the complexity of mob mentality and the evolution of group behavior. Dürrenmatt also incorporates significant foreshadowing that greatly adds to the suspense of the inevitable mob killing of Ill. It is very important to note that there is not a single, defined leader who directly interacts with the townspeople to influence these changes (as the Mayor did in Act I). There is also a direct contrast between the changes being experienced by the townspeople and Claire, as she is static during this act, continuing to order people around while sitting on her balcony and watching the townspeople below. She is not the “official” leader of group, but it is easy to argue that her unchanging presence and expectation of the completion of her bargain puts her in a position to (indirectly) influence the evolution of the townspeople’s behavior. These changes are also not shown through the entire group at once, but through smaller groups and then through the town leaders. At the beginning of the act, the audience sees Ill’s insecurity within his own family situation, as he tells his children that their mother could be there for them even if he was not. Customers then come into his store, wearing new, expensive clothing and proceeding to charge even more expensive items to their accounts. Ill notices and points out the fact that the day before, they could not afford any of those things. One of the customers responds, “It’s because we stand by you. We stick by our Ill. Firm as a rock” (41). These people are not charging such expensive things to their accounts because they have the money to pay for them or because they are in support of Ill; they are anticipating getting the money that they need to buy things such as these. Interactions with the Police Officer, Mayor, and Pastor all add suspicion and evidence for Ill’s insecurity, as they too have new shoes, a gold tooth, and advice for ‘following the way of repentance’. The townspeople continue to deny that they are changing because of the money, but it is obvious to the audience that each of them has decided that someone else is going to complete the town’s end of the bargain.
While this dominant groupthink is an important aspect of mob mentality, the real violence usually associated with mob action is inched towards at the end of Act II at the train station, when the townspeople come together to intimidate Ill into staying in town. While no one touches him, the crowd encircles him, making him feel as if he cannot leave. He misses his train because he thinks that one of them will hold him back if he tries to step off of the platform. The entire group coming together and acting the same way at this point shows that the “mob has made up its mind” and that the bargain is being accepted. Each individual townsperson came to the same conclusion, and even though such a conclusion is the opposite of what the town originally planned, the loss of individual consequence that a member of a mob experiences allows violence to come easier to everyone. The inescapable ending to the bargain is brought about by an act of true violence, under the direction of the Mayor as the distinct leader in Act III.
Inevitably, the agreement is completed and the townspeople of Güllen get the check to save their town. The true emergence of Claire Zachanassian’s role as the indirect orchestrator for the formation of the mob is shown in Act III, when she is conversing with the Teacher and the Doctor. As they are detailing the devastation of their town, she calmly states an unexpected truth about their situation: “I own [the factories]…I had my agents buy the whole mess and shut every business down…..I decided I would come back one day. Now I set the conditions, I drive the bargain” (71-72). She decided to force the town to betray one of their most respected members, after causing their economic downfall, for her long awaited vengeance. Her exclamation also points out the idea that she is the true, although somewhat indirect, leader, as she is the one setting the conditions of their agreement. Later, there is a town gathering in the Golden Apostle Hotel where a vote is taken, unanimously in favor of killing Ill. The violence of murder is obviously going to occur, marking the final development in the escalation of the mob violence in Güllen. The Mayor leads the Gülleners by directly speaking about the crime that Ill has committed and saying that it is time for the town to exact justice upon the man who caused them their poverty. The Teacher reiterated this justification prior to the gathering when he told Ill, “The temptation is too great and our poverty is too wretched” (85). The townspeople huddle around Ill, and when they step back, he is dead. The completion of the escalation of violence ends with this group murder, an act committed by the entire mob, not just one person, and the bargain that they once fervently refused has been completed.
Friederich Dürrenmatt showed the evolution of groupthink and the violence of a mob through Güllen as its people contemplated how to handle their portion of the bargain and began to act in response to the deal, which eventually resulted in the death of one of their most respected friends. In the final lines of the play, the consequences of the murder are already evident, as everyone prays together for the “preservation of peace and freedom”. Already being worried about losing their “good fortune” shows the effect that the murder had on them, even if they did it as a group. Each person will have to spend the rest of his or her life with the death of Alfred Ill on his or her conscience, as individual consequences come back when the mob dissolves.
The uses of sight in The Visit
In The Visit, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the fictional town of Güllen is turned on its head by the proposal of immense wealth from benefactress Claire Zachanassian, who returns to her hometown for a visit. However, in order to receive this money, the citizens must murder one of their own, a man named Alfred Ill. While the citizens first decide not to break their moral codes by committing a murder, they all slowly become metaphorically “blind” to a harsh reality: money means more to them than high morality. While the citizens try to justify their actions by dubbing Ill as a twisted man for what he did to Claire when they were young, what he did in his past does not mean he deserves to be murdered, which the citizens of Güllen do not comprehend. The uses of sight throughout the drama show the citizens’ eventual downward spiral into greed and bloodlust. In The Visit, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the lack of physical and metaphorical sight throughout the town of Güllen foreshadows Alfred Ill’s murder, and symbolizes the town’s ability to become blind to the sin they have committed.
Throughout the entirety of the drama, Dürrenmatt uses sight to foreshadow aspects of Ill’s murder before they happen. The clearest example of Ill’s death being foreshadowed comes when Claire first steps off the train into Güllen. From her and Ill’s first conversation when she arrives, it is revealed that Claire used to call Ill her “black panther” when they were teenagers. While this conversation is happening, Claire’s butler Moby and her brutes Roby and Toby carry her stuff off of the train. Along with her luggage and a large coffin, Claire brings along a caged black panther. The animal is carried in its confines to the Golden Apostle, and later in Act II, the panther somehow gets free. The citizens, who are all now equipped with large guns, begin the search to 3hunt and kill the panther. After Ill has conversations with both the Mayor and the Policeman concerning Claire’s offer, who both reply with feeble promises to remain on Ill’s side, someone kills the panther in front of Ill’s store. No one but Ill sees the meaning behind this event: by killing the panther, they are foreshadowing his murder. Ill attempts to reveal his feelings to some of the town members when they are holding a funeral march for the panther, boldly saying, “It’s for my death you’re practicing this song, for my death!” (Dürrenmatt 60).The townspeople deny Ill’s accusations and accuse him of overreacting to the situation, when in reality he had every right to fear for his life. Dürrenmatt includes the symbol of the black panther to represent how easy it is for the citizens to blindly succumb to their greed. Claire brings the panther with her to symbolize Ill, and most likely released the panther herself to indirectly trick the townspeople into playing along with her game. Considering the fact that no one but Ill sees through such a blunt metaphor, it seems as though the townspeople are too blind to realize that they are about to commit a mortal sin for the acquisition of immense wealth and prosperity for their town. Another example of Ill’s death being foreshadowed occurs when Claire first meets the Doctor. When Claire meets Doctor Nüsslin, she asks him about certain aspects of his job:
CLAIRE. Interesting. Do you prepare death certificates?
DOCTOR. Death certificates?
CLAIRE. When someone loses his life.
DOCTOR. Yes, I do.
CLAIRE. Next time you determine the cause of death, make it a heart attack (17).
In Act III, shortly after the men of Güllen murder Ill, Doctor Nüsslin arises from the crowd of men to name the cause of Ill’s death, declaring, “Heart attack” (109). This blatant foreshadowing by Claire reveals that she likely planned out every aspect of Ill’s murder before she arrived in town. From bringing a coffin with her, to releasing the panther to be hunted and killed by the citizens, it can be gathered that Claire knew she wanted Ill dead before she stepped off the train. It can be argued that Claire wanted people to see through her foreshadowing attempts, as she made them very obvious, but since the townspeople eventually changed their minds and murdered Ill, her wish ends up being granted. Throughout The Visit, Ill’s death is foreshadowed multiple times, both by the townspeople and Claire Zachanassian alike.
The citizens of Güllen are metaphorically blinded to the true extent of their greed after hearing Claire Zachanassian’s offer to solve their financial problems. When Claire first offers the town of Güllen one billion dollars to be divided amongst the citizens and the town, they are thrilled at the prospect of being pulled out of their financial hardship. This proposal causes the town to become “blinded” by their greed. While the citizens are busy with fantasies of how they will spend money they receive in this proposal, Claire begins to tell them about her history with Ill. She tells them about how she and Ill had conceived a child when they were teenagers, and Ill denied paternity when brought to court for his actions. She then brings out the two blind eunuchs, Koby and Loby, whom she brought with her to Güllen as well. They share that Ill bribed them with a quart of schnapps to lie in front of the judge and say that they were the father of Claire’s child. After they reveal these details, Claire asks them to describe their punishment for the crime:
CLAIRE. Now tell them what I did to you, Koby and Loby.
BUTLER. Tell them.
THE PAIR. The lady tracked us down, the lady tracked us down.
BUTLER. That’s right. Claire Zachanassian tracked you down. Sent out search parties for you all over the world. Jakob Duckling had emigrated to Canada, Walter Perch to Australia. But she found you. And what did she do with you then?
THE PAIR. She gave us to Toby and Roby, she gave us to Toby and Roby
BUTLER. And what did Toby and Roby do to you?
THE PAIR. Castrated and blinded us, castrated and blinded us (33-34).
During this conversation, it is confessed that Claire blinded these men for committing perjury when she was a teenager. When Koby and Loby committed perjury, they were “blinding” themselves to the reality of the situation they were involved in. Although this was a conscious choice made by the pair, the fact that they went through with it to begin with and were literally blinded as a result shows how they were metaphorically blinded by their greed. An important comparison can be drawn between the citizens of Güllen and Koby and Loby: they are both blinded to the truth by their greed. While the citizens’ greed is much larger in comparison to Koby and Loby’s, the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. Dürrenmatt includes this comparison to show how greed can easily blind people and make them do terrible things; in the citizens’ case, it is the murder of Ill, and in Koby and Loby’s case, it is the act of committing perjury. The citizens’ blindness to the reality of the situation continues throughout the drama when they continue to buy expensive items on credit at Ill’s store. Only Ill seems to take notice of the fact that the citizens are using money they don’t actually have, and realizes quickly that they are going to murder him after 6all to gain the fortune and pay off their debts. The townspeople never take notice to the fact that they are spending all of this nonexistent money, as they are so blinded by the prospect of having actual money that they take little notice of anything else. In the end, no citizen of Güllen saw through their blindness except the Teacher, who becomes an alcoholic because he cannot deal with the burden of his greed. Throughout The Visit, the citizens of Güllen are metaphorically blinded to the true extent of their greed, which leads to the murder of Ill.
In The Visit, Dürrenmatt uses sight as a way to foreshadow Ill’s death, and to show the citizens’ greed when concerning the hefty fortune they receive for murdering Ill. He uses well-constructed symbols and metaphors to show how such a destitute town as Güllen can become so obsessed with the idea of being above the poverty line that they will do anything to make it happen, including killing a man. Throughout this drama, Dürrenmatt makes exceptional use of a popular cliché concerning wealth: more money, more problems. When faced with the possible addition of one billion dollars, the town warps into a frenzy of greed, which eventually leads to the bloodlust that convinced them to murder Ill. In The Visit, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, sight is used throughout the drama both to reveal the true extent of the greed of the citizens of Güllen, and to foreshadow Alfred Ill’s eventual murder.