The Visit (play)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Visit (original title Der Besuch der alten Dame) is a 1956 tragicomic play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt.


Brief Plot

An older woman who became rich over her life returns to the town of her youth with a dreadful bargain: She wants the townspeople to kill the man who jilted her in exchange for enough money to revitalize the town.


The story opens with the town of Güllen (which literally means "to manure") preparing for the arrival of famed billionairess Claire Zachanassian. Güllen is in a state of disrepair, and the residents are suffering considerable hardship and poverty. They hope that Claire, a native of the town, will provide them with much-needed funds. Alfred Ill, the owner of Güllen's general store and the most popular man in town, was Claire's lover when they were young, and agrees with the mayor that the task of convincing her to make a donation should fall to him. As the town gathers at the railway station to greet Claire, they are met with a surprise when Claire steps off of an earlier train, having pulled the emergency brakes in order to do so. She is grand, grotesque, and fantastic, and is accompanied by two henchmen, her husband, a butler, and two blind eunuchs, along with a casket, a caged black panther, and various pieces of luggage. She begins a flirtatious exchange with Ill, and they promptly revisit their old haunts: Petersen's Barn and Konrad's Village Wood. Ill pretends to find her as delightful as ever, though they are both now in their sixties and significantly overweight. Claire draws Ill's attention to her prosthetic leg and artificial hand.

After settling into the Golden Apostle Hotel, Claire joins the rest of the town, who have gathered outside for a homecoming celebration. A band plays, gymnasts perform, and the mayor gives a speech. Claire takes the opportunity to announce that she will make a donation of one billion units of an unspecified currency, half for the town and half to be shared among the families. The townspeople are overjoyed, but their happiness is dampened when Claire's butler steps forward to reveal her condition. The butler was once the Lord Chief Justice of Güllen, and had heard the paternity suit that Claire had brought against Ill in 1910. In the suit, Ill produced two false witnesses (who have since been transformed into Claire's eunuchs), and the court ruled in his favor. Ill went on to marry Mathilde, who owned the general store, and Claire moved to Hamburg and became a prostitute. and her child died after one year. Her donation is conditional on someone's killing Alfred Ill. The mayor refuses, the town cheers in support, but Claire states rather ominously, "I'll wait."

While Ill feels generally confident about his status in the town, as time passes, he becomes increasingly fearful as he begins to notice the proliferation of new yellow shoes on the feet of the townspeople and the fact that everyone seems to be purchasing especially costly items on credit. Ill visits the police officer and the mayor, who in turn have bought new expensive items, and dismiss his concerns. He then visits the priest, who attempts to calm Ill until the new church bells chime, at which point the priest admits they have been paid off and advises Ill to flee. Claire then receives the news that her black panther has been killed, and she has a dirge played in its memory.

In an effort to escape, Ill heads to the railway station, but finds that strangely, the entire town is gathered there. They ask him where he is going, and he says that he is planning to move to Australia. They wish him well, again assuring him that he has nothing to fear in Güllen, but Ill grows increasingly nervous nonetheless. The train arrives, but he decides not to board, believing that someone will stop him anyway. Paralyzed, he collapses in the crowd, crying, "I'm lost!"

After some time passes and Claire weds a new husband in the Güllen cathedral, the doctor and the schoolmaster go to see her and explain that the townspeople have run up considerable debt since her arrival. The schoolmaster appeals to her sense of humanity and begs her to abandon her desire for vengeance and help the town out of the goodness of her heart. She reveals to them that she already actually owns all the properties in town, and that she is the reason the businesses have been shut down, causing economic stagnation and poverty. The doctor and the schoolmaster are horrified at this revelation.

In the meantime, Ill has been pacing the room above the general store, his terror growing as the townspeople buy more and more expensive products on credit. Having received word of Claire's imminent wedding, reporters are everywhere, and they enter the store to get the scoop on Ill, having heard that he was Claire's lover back in the day. The schoolmaster, drunk, tries to inform the press about Claire's cruel proposal, but the townspeople stop him. Finally Ill descends the stairs, surprised at the hubbub, yet quiet. The reporters clear the room when they hear that Claire has just divorced the man she has just married and has found a new lover.

After the confusion has cleared, the schoolmaster and Ill have an honest discussion. The schoolmaster explains that he is certain that Ill will be killed and admits that he will ultimately join the ranks of the murderers. Ill calmly states that he has accepted his guilt and acknowledges that the town's suffering is his fault. The schoolmaster leaves, and Ill is confronted by the mayor, who asks whether Ill will accept the town's judgment at that evening's meeting. Ill says that he will. The mayor then suggests that Ill make things easier on everyone and shoot himself, but Ill refuses, insisting that the town must go through the process of actually judging and then killing him.

Ill goes for a ride in his son's newly purchased car, accompanied by his wife and daughter, both of whom are wearing new outfits. As they drive through Konrad's Village Wood, Ill says that he is going for a walk in the woods before heading to the town meeting. His family continues on to the movie theater. In the woods, Ill comes across Claire, who is walking with her newest husband. She asks her husband to leave so that she and Ill can speak privately. They reminisce about the past and make plans for the future. Claire tells Ill that she plans to take his body away in the casket to a mausoleum in Capri that overlooks the Mediterranean. She also tells Ill that she never stopped loving him, but that over time her love has grown into something monstrous.

The town meeting is flooded with press, and the town publicly announces acceptance of Claire's donation. The inhabitants then go through the formality of a vote, which is unanimous, and the mayor states that they have Ill to thank for their newfound wealth. The press is then ushered out of the auditorium to enjoy refreshments. The doors are locked and the lights dimmed. The priest crosses Ill, and he is killed by a townsman. Just as a reporter reappears in the auditorium, the doctor announces that Ill has died of a heart attack. The reporters gather and declare that Ill has died of joy. Claire examines the body, gives the mayor his cheque, and leaves the town with Ill's body in the casket that she brought with her when she arrived. Claire boards the train at the railway station, and the visit comes to an end.


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. The play is also often used as a text for those taking German as a foreign language.

The original 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt was adapted for American audiences by Maurice Valency. Its first Broadway theatre production, in 1958, was directed by Peter Brook and starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

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.

In 1976 "The Visit" was adapted for Lebanese National Television "Tele Liban" (the only broadscasting station in Lebanon at that time) as the full sixth episode of the hit TV series "Allo Hayeti ألو حياتي" directed for TV by Antoine Remi أنطوان ريمي, and Starring Hind Abi Al Lamaa هند أبي اللمع as Claire (or Clara as called in the Lebanese production) and Abdel Majeed Majzoob عبد المجيد مجذوب as her lover Alfred, Layla Karam, Philip Akiki (as the Mayor) and Elias Rizk (as the teacher). This production made Friedrich Dürrenmatt known to the common Lebanese public as well as to the Arabic viewers.

Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn starred in a much-altered film adaptation, also called The Visit, directed by Bernhard Wicki, in 1964. A significant alteration is in the ending. Just as Alfred III (Serge Miller in the movie) is about to be executed on the trumped-up charges the town has created, the billionairess stops the execution. She declares that she will give the money to the town as pledged. Her revenge on Miller is that now, as she declares, he must live in the town amongst the people who would have executed him on false charges for money.

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.

In 1989 a TV movie titled Визит дамы (The Visit of the Lady) was created in the Mosfilm studio (Russia, at that time the USSR)

Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty's film Hyènes, from 1992, is based on the play.

A fairly faithful musical The Visit, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Terrence McNally, received its first production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, starring Chita Rivera and John McMartin in 2001. That production was choreographed by Ann Reinking and directed by Frank Galati. The musical was revised and played from May 13-June 22, 2008, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in a production once again starring Rivera, this time with George Hearn. It received glowing reviews from the critics.

The Chilean telenovela Romané loosely use some elements of the plot in the script. It gives the story a slightly happier ending, though; the main characters aren't fully reconciled, but they manage to sort out their differences before Jovanka, the Claire equivalent, leaves the town.

The Visit of the Old Lady (Vana daami viisit, 2006) is a faithful, dark adaption for TV from Estonian theatrical veterans Roman Baskin (director), Ita Ever (Claire) and Aarne Üskula (Ill). Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, substitutes for Guellen.

A Russian language production, directed by Alexander Morfov, has been running in the repertoire of the Lenkom Theatre in Moscow since 2008.

An adaptation entitled Miss Meena was performed in 2010 by Perch in Bengaluru.

See also

The following plays utilize a dramaturgical structure similar to The Visit:

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Visit (play)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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