The Visit

From Academic Kids

The Visit is the title of various English translations of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play Der Besuch der alten Dame (literally, "The Visit of the Old Lady"). It is probably the most well-known of his work, at least in the English-speaking world. The play deals with the themes of punishment, greed, revenge, and moral strength.


Plot Summary

The play centers around the fictional European town of Güllen (or Guellen, depending on the translation), 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, 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 in currency if they kill Alfred Ill. The exact currency is not specified so as to keep the town 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. Ill notices this and becomes troubled. The townspeople's rhetoric of support behind Ill slowly but surely changes to flat-out outrage at his actions in his youth. Ill sees it all coming and accepts his eventual death, which is brought on by the crowd en masse. 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.

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). 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.

Main Themes

The author often emphasized that 'The Visit' is intented 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 priest, who is one of the few who manage to warn Alfred Ill of his impending doom.


The Visit is traditionally performed as a screenplay, and is a popular performance for language students, as it is considered one of the keystones of twentieth century German Literature.

The play was adapted as an opera libretto by the author and set to music by composer Gottfried von Einem, entitled Besuch der alten Dame and translated as The Visit of the Old Lady, and was first performed in 1971.

The plot was used for Kander and Ebb's musical The Visit, which received its first production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2001.

See also

Friedrich Duerrenmatt German Literature de:Der Besuch der alten Dame


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