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Drama

The Power And Influence Of Claire In The Visit By Friedrich Dürrenmatt

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Throughout the process of the interactive oral, I understood that much of Dürrenmatt’s own family background as well as his view on Swiss politics affected his writing in The Visit. Dürrenmatt was raised as a Protestant, though I realised that upon writing the play, he may no longer have been religious.

This could be reflected through the character of Claire Zachanassian, as she was highly cynical towards the Church and the Pope—it would be highly unlikely that someone devout in this faith should write from the perspective of a cynic. Dürrenmatt also looked at the Swiss neutrality in both World Wars as a form of hypocrisy and cowardliness, which can be reflected through the creation of Guellen, a town whose connections are severed with the outside world, and with much weakness among the townspeople.

The playwright also believed that writers must look at life with a harsh and merciless clarity, as this prevents fantasising and the shielding of audience away from the truth happening behind all of the action happening onstage. This applies greatly to both the history of the Switzerland post WWII era, as well as the play itself. The truth that Dürrenmatt wanted to reveal was the hypocrisy of Switzerland—that though they seemed to have remained neutral throughout the World Wars, still had business ties in selling arms to the Nazis. This was then portrayed in the play by the townspeople unanimously turning in on Ill, following the orders of Claire, and claiming that Ill had lost all his compassion and humanity.

We discussed that a key aspect of The Visit was the inspirations Dürrenmatt drew from multiple play forms and character personalities from well-known stories that influenced this piece of work. Being greatly inspired by ancient Greek plays, the story of Jason and Medea was melded into his use of characterisation: Claire having similar characteristics with the character of Medea—planning and plotting to kill, revenge, and going at no expense to obtain her needs reach her goals. I learnt that Dürrenmatt played greatly on the idea of ‘alienation’—a key technique used to allow the audience to remain distant to the work and to prevent them from complacently accepting a character. This applies to the character of Claire, as she alienates herself from the rest of the world, plotting her revenge with no one but herself knowing of its existence.

An impoverished and isolated town named Guellen declares bankruptcy upon finding that they can no longer afford to retain their Town Hall. At this moment in time, Claire Zachanassian, a millionairess who earnt her wealth through prostitution, returns to the town where she grew up in to offer them one million pounds. In return for her money, she proposes that the townspeople are to kill her former lover Ill, who denied paternity to their daughter twenty-five years ago. The Guelleners, desperate for money, do not realise that Claire began plotting the day of revenge since her departure twenty-five years ago, and despite feeling reluctant at first to comply to her requests, commit the act of murder as the money—the bait she uses to reach her ultimate objective of killing Ill—is too tempting. Through portraying the manipulative nature of Claire and the way in which she employs her power and web of influence, Dürrenmatt reveals the weakness of humanity and criticises its vulnerability towards greed and self-interest.

Dürrenmatt assembles Claire’s speech and demeanour for her characterisation, exposing the lack of morality in her behaviour as she desires to reach her objective. Claire, losing all her capacity to be virtuous has nothing but vengeance and finding her sense of ‘justice’ as her only goal, as she expresses in Act One while conversing with Ill, “You chose your life, but you forced me into mine…and I want justice. Justice for a million” (Dürrenmatt, 39). The sentence of ‘justice for a million’ is a short and strong statement Claire makes, which perfectly captures her values of believing that money is the only way she can find a compensation for all the past wrongs that Ill did to her (39).

This is further reflected in Act Three, when she declares, “feeling for humanity, gentlemen, is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order…and I’m paying. Guellen for a murder, a boom for a body” (67). Her lack of morality is expounded through her willingness to buy her way through anything, where she uses the power of her purse to overthrow the rules in society. Despite murder being openly forbidden by law, she is perfectly at ease to use her authority, fortified by the money she has, to gain her sense of justice, as demonstrated in the line ‘with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order…and I’m paying’, indicating that she is fully aware of the power her wealth brings, and that she is ready to deploy it; thus, highlighting her manipulative nature and her unmistakable self-interest (67).

The interactions between Claire and the Guelleners mirror a power imbalance beginning from the day of Claire’s departure twenty-five years ago. The Mayor, a symbol for law and power in Guellen, a representative for the Guelleners, has however, no control over Claire. His change of attitude from refusing Claire’s first attempt to voice her condition in Act One, “You forget, we are not savages. In the name of all citizens of Guellen, I reject your offer; and I reject it in the name of humanity”, claiming that he will not succumb to Claire’s coercion; to pushing the responsibility to Ill in Act Three, “But isn’t it your duty, as a man of honour, to draw your own conclusions and make an end to your life?”, pressurising Ill to take his own life as an act of desperateness for survival (39, 80-81).

The presence of Claire’s web of influence has affected the morality of the Mayor; the downfall of this character represents the failing of the law, emphasising both the hypocrisy of this character and the entire town of Guellen. A similar effect can be seen in the Mayor’s speech when he first addresses Claire. Attempting to appease her, he mentions, “you, a curly-headed, blonde (Ill whispers something to him) – redheaded madcap, who did not know you?” (34). Interrupted mid- sentence, he is informed that he has incorrectly remembered the details of Claire’s appearance, which contradicts to his rhetorical statement of ‘who did not know you?’ (34).

The Mayor manipulates the truth when he states, “for did not our Claire obtain food for an old widow, buying potatoes with that pocket-money so hardly earned from neighbours, and thereby save the old lady from dying of hunger”, which Claire truthfully corrects, “…I stole the potatoes for Widow Boll…not to save the old bawd from dying of hunger” (34, 35). This conversation allegorises the relationship between the Guelleners and Claire: they know little of her whereas she has full control over the town, buying all the properties in Guellen to the point of their bankruptcy. Claire’s interactions with the Guelleners therefore exposes the lack of morality and ethical decisions in both the people, when under the influence of a higher power or authority, and herself, where she uses money to abuse her power.

Dürrenmatt employs sound to manifest Claire’s web of influence as one that has caused corruption within Guellen. At the beginning of the play, disruption occurs upon the arrival of the main characters (except for Claire), seen through the line ‘MAN FOUR. We’re ruined politically. / STATION-MASTER. (waves green flag, blows whistle)… / (Enter from town, Mayor, Schoolmaster, Priest and Ill)’ (13). The blowing of the whistle is placed right after a Guellener proclaims, ‘we’re ruined politically’ to reveal that the four men whom entered are to blame for the failure of the town system (13).

The corruption shown since the arrival of Claire echoes this sentence. Apart from revealing the truth, the shrill tone of the whistle heightens the senses and acts to warn the audience that the progression of the play will be affected by the lack of a strong political structure in the town. Coupled with prior knowledge of the bankruptcy, the political corruption thus foreshadows that Claire Zachanassian will bring forth a shift in power dynamic with her riches before her actual arrival. Likewise, the thunderous rattle of trains goes by when the Mayor attempts to please Claire in his speech, ‘As Mayor of Guellen, it is my honour to welcome you, a child of our native town… (Remainder of Mayor’s speech drowned in clatter of express train as it begins to move and then to race away. He speaks doggedly on).’ (20). The overwhelming noise of the express trains exhibits the absence of authority of the Mayor and furthermore disrupts the topic and initiates a change. The attempt to please Claire displays the servile nature of the Mayor and his lack of command in Guellen. The use of contrast and tension onstage is a key technique employed to highlight the presence of Claire when she is both onstage and offstage.

In ACT 1, an image of a landscape that is a ‘tumbledown wreck’, with ‘a barren little building with…mutilated posters on its walls’ is painted; only a fleck of colour stands out on a bright red sign reading ‘Welcome Clarie’ on stage left, attracting the audience’s attention. Everything in the landscape is still, and four men can be seen moving their heads from left to right (1). In this instance, two forms of contrast have taken place—the contrast of colour, and the contrast of movement. The bright colour of red against the dirt-coloured backdrop acts as a warning— red signifies death, foreshadowing possible death associated with the arrival of Claire—a disclosure that this character lies key to the entire play. The second contrast, the contrast of movement, unveils the stagnant state of the town itself and the depletion of life and vivacity.

In ACT 3, the set splits, separating the stage into 3 parts: stage left, stage right, and the background. Stage left is the Police station, where the black panther is shot by the Priest; stage right Ill’s General Store, where customers come and buy goods they cannot afford; yet in the background, on Claire’s balcony in the Golden Apostle, she pleasantly reads her mail with Husband VIII, creating a contrast in movement and mood. The contrast of movement mimics Claire’s web of influence—despite the lack of her physical presence, both events occurring in the other two locations are a result of her actions. The juxtaposition of mood: relaxed and agreeable on the balcony, and hectic and in chaos in the forestage illustrates her calm attitude towards manipulation: she need not worry about them opposing her orders, as she controls the token for power—money.

The manipulation and power of Claire through use of dramatic devices and characterisation evinces the lack of morality and the weakness of humanity. The Guelleners’ greed for money reflects their inability to withstand coercion, further setting out Claire’s web of influence. The interaction of Claire with other characters elucidates that all characters lack morality; however, what differentiates them is that Claire has money and they do not. The corruption of man, and their greed of money over their want for justice thus is thoroughly criticised by Dürrenmatt.

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