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The Visit (German: Der Besuch der Alten Dame, literally The Visit of the Old Lady) is a 1956 tragicomedy by the Swiss dramatist Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt. It is probably the best known of his works in the English-speaking world, particularly due to its frequent study in German A-Level and Higher courses. The play deals with the themes of punishment, greed, revenge, and moral strength.


Plot summary

The play centers on the fictional Central-European town of G√ľllen - Guellen (Swiss-German for "manure"), (the exact location is deliberately obscured to emphasise D√ľrrenmatt's point that the events could/would happen anywhere) which was always formerly a prosperous center of culture but has in the past few decades decayed into bankruptcy. When the play opens, the town is preparing a celebration of the arrival of Claire Zachanassian, a former resident who had since attained an incredibly great fortune and is coming back to visit.

She arrives with her fianc√© (it is mentioned repeatedly that she has had many husbands), and after some general festivities on the part of the townspeople she announces the true reason she has come to visit: when she was young she was impregnated by her boyfriend Alfred Ill (Anton Schill in some translations), who, at the paternity suit, denied the charges and bribed two drunks to testify that they had slept with Claire, so that she was shamed out of the town and eventually forced into prostitution,eventually losing her newborn daughter. Now that she has become rich, she will give the town "eine Millarde" (one billion) 'marks' if they kill Alfred Ill, who over the years has become one of G√ľllen's most popular townspeople. (The specific unit of currency is unmentioned in the original text, one English translation presents the reward in pounds, whereas others present the currency as marks.)

The townspeople initially unanimously refuse Claire's offer, 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 change in the townspeople and even within his own family and becomes troubled. The townspeople's rhetoric of support behind Ill slowly but surely changes, and they ultimately speak of the "justice" Claire seeks. The town schoolteacher holds out against the punishment, long after even the town's mayor, pastor, and police officer speak of justice, but in the end even the schoolteacher turns on Ill and joins the crowd.

The town holds a public ceremony in celebration of Claire's endowment, complete with the world press reporting. Though many of the town's prominent citizens speak about the importance of justice, none mention Ill or his soon-to-be execution.

Ill is killed following a press-filled ceremony marking the town's receipt of a billion marks from Claire. The transfer is portrayed to the outside press as a generous gift; only the townspeople know of the murder-for-money deal. All the press, women, and children leave for coffee. The men crowd around Ill and quickly turn off the lights. When the lights come back on, Ill is found lying on the floor, dead. The doctor claims it was a heart attack, fulfilling one of several ominous prophesies made by Claire in the first Act to the, at the time, bemused townspeople. Then the mayor receives the check for one billion.

The dark tone suddenly gives way to a seemingly prosperous, cheerful ending for the townspeople. But this façade falls away and we see a glimpse of a fear felt by the townspeople about the future.

Ironically, one could argue that the only person who truly grieves Ill's passing is not Ill's wife or one of his children, but Claire Zachanassian herself. The revenge she sought for years was finally fulfilled, but she is left unsatisfied.

In the play, D√ľrrenmatt is highly critical of the church. The character of the priest is one of the weakest, choosing to hide behind ceremony and rhetoric, rather than actually trying to help Ill or guide the townspeople. Instead the most moral character is that of the teacher. He is the only one who tries to prevent the death of Ill, but eventually he too realizes that it is inevitable and is forced to turn to drink.

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, more than fifty years after its writing, a mainstay of Western theater.

Main theme

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 German-language authors of this period was through their use of unsettling humour of this type.

The main theme is about how money corrupts even the most morally strong people.


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 D√ľrrenmatt was adapted for American audiences by Maurice Valency. Its first Broadway 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.

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.

In 1989 a TV movie titled –í–ł–∑–ł—ā –ī–į–ľ—č (The Visit of the Lady) was created in the Mosfilm studio (Russia, in that time 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 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 novela 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 √úskula (Ill). Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, substitutes for Guellen in a fascinating post-Soviet era version redolent with extra-value meaning.

In 2010, the students of Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai, India performed an indianised version of the play.

See also

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


  • Bowles, Patrick, trans. 1962. The Visit. By Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0224009141. Trans. of Der Besuch der Alten Dame. Zurich: Verlags AG Die Arche, 1956.


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