The Visit is the title of various English translations of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 play Der Besuch der alten Dame (literally, "The Visit of the Old Lady"). It is probably the most well-known of his works, at least in the English-speaking world. The play deals with the themes of punishment, greed, revenge, and moral strength.
The play centers on the fictional European town of Güllen, which was once a vibrant center of culture but has in the past few decades decayed into near-bankruptcy. When the play opens, the town is preparing a celebration of the arrival of Claire Zachanassian, a former resident who had since attained a great fortune and is coming back to visit.
She arrives with her fiancé (throughout the play, she has several husbands - often played by the same actor, and it is mentioned repeatedly that she has had many more), and after some general festivities on the part of the townspeople she announces the true reason she has visited: when she was young she was impregnated by her lover Alfred Ill, who, at the paternity suit, denied the charges and bribed two drunks to testify that they were the fathers, and she was shamed out of the town. Now that she has become rich, she will give the town one billion pounds if they kill Alfred Ill, who over the years became one of Güllen's most popular persons. Even though Güllen is said to be situated in Central Europe, Claire Zachanassian presents her reward in pounds, so that the town is kept as an anonymous location in Europe that is detached from the outside world.
The townspeople unanimously refuse to do so - but soon they start to buy things on credit, expensive things, even from Ill's own store, as if they expect some new source of income in the future. Ill notices this and becomes troubled. The townspeople's rhetoric of support behind Ill slowly but surely changes.
A Salon blog relates the rest of the story:
The mayor receives the check for the billion. The dark tone suddenly gives way to a prosperous, cheerful ending on behalf of the townspeople, which underscores the main themes of the play.
Ironically, the only person who truly grieves Ill's passing is not Ill's wife and children, but Claire Zachanassian herself. The revenge she sought for years was finally fulfilled, but she is left unsatisfied.
The play is written in a kind of resigned, slow manner that reflects the state of the town after their gradual ruin (which is revealed around the middle of the play to have been intentionally brought on by Zachanassian). It is generally seen as a treatise on corrupting influence of money, but there is a lot of potential in the play for varying interpretations, both in meaning and in production. It remains, nearly fifty years after its writing, a mainstay of Western theater.
The author often emphasized that The Visit is intended first and foremost as a comedy. However, it is often difficult to ignore the serious and usually dark points being made about human nature throughout the play. A popular method of bringing up concerns important to an author in Germany at this period was through the use of unsettling humour of this type.
The fundamental underlying point of the play is that money can buy anything. As the arrival of Claire Zachanassian shows, the promise of money can lead people to hate and even murder. It can pervert the course of justice, and even turn the local teacher, who is one of the few who manage to warn Alfred Ill of his impending doom. The teacher is a self-declared humanist and his moral collapse, as well as that of the priest, demonstrates the power of money to overcome both religious and secular morality.
When you read this play, it is difficult to judge which of the two, Claire Zachanassian or Alfred Ill, has done more wrong.
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. (Dürrenmatt was Swiss, not German). The play is also often used as a text for those taking German as a foreign language.
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.
Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn starred in a much-altered film adaptation, also called The Visit, directed by Bernhard Wicki in 1964.
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.
The plot was used for Kander and Ebb's musical The Visit, which received its first production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2001.
This play was also turned into a film in 1992 by Djibril Mambety from Senegal.