Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Der Besuch der alten Dame


Published by Diogenes, 1998


When the billionaire Claire Zachanassian returns to her old home town, the city of Güllen, after many years of absence, everything changes from one moment to the next. She offers financial help to the citizens of Güllen, but only if they agree to kill their fellow citizen Alfred Ill. When Claire was young, Alfred denied to be the father of her child and thus ruined her life. Ostracised by everyone, she had to leave Güllen and became a prostitute. After marrying the owner of an oil spring, and eight more marriages, she could accumulate enough wealth to slowly buy enough property in Güllen to be able to blackmail the town. Now she demands justice. The townspeople now have to face a difficult decision. And even though Claire’s offer seems deeply immoral at first, they still begin to adapt a completely new life style in expectation of their imminent wealth.


The tragicomedy “The Visit” is one of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s most well-known plays and it has been staged countless times after its world premiere in Zurich in 1956. It was internationally successful and it has offered a greatly intriguing female part, especially to older actresses for more than 60 years. With Claire Zachanassian, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) created a character that draws on ancient Greek revenge motifs but also has grotesque and abstruse elements. Claire for instance always travels with her husbands XII-IX, a butler, two former inmates as servants, two lisping and blind eunuchs and a black panther. Her entire body consists of prostheses and she is a generally eerie character.


Dürrenmatt’s drama depicts a situation that challenges the reader’s moral understanding. Because although Claire seems completely mad, one cannot deny that she has suffered injustice. But how should the town decide when they are facing financial ruin because of Claire’s extortion? Are these circumstances enough to justify sacrificing a person, who has burdened himself with guilt on the one hand but has also been regretting it for the last 45 years?


In this parabolic story, Dürrenmatt tackles two social deficits at once. He addresses greed and the dangers of materialist thinking. The drama constitutes a biting criticism of capitalism in the form of a tragicomic story. But it also hints at the centuries-old problem of sacrificing one person for the well-being of an entire community. Both aspects have gained importance in the last decades. The strong response to Ferdinand von Schirach’s popular play “Terror” (2015) is a perfect example for this.


Although “The Visit” is a true comedy in many instances, it is also tragic and terrible and it mercilessly forces the reader to decide between right and wrong. In a world, where capitalism has ultimately won and the decisions of only a small group of rich people influence thousands of others, questions like those in the play have to be revisited. In the end, everyone has to decide for themselves, to what extent money can have an effect on our moral actions.


Christina Schlögl


Signet Sunflower Foundation