The Visit: a Tragi-Comedy
How could it be tragic? It’s comedy!
A Paper by Joanna D.
The Visit is a story centered on deception. The old lady practices no explicit deception, but she incites others to deception. Ironically, the most grotesque parts of the play occur when she or someone else states what everyone is actually thinking. The most grotesque, and, at the same time, the most farcical points do not actually involve deception. The revelation of wrongdoing is more terrible than the deception itself. Admitting the truth is often so horrible that people will continue to deny it even if they are not believed
The town of Guellen has fallen into a recession. Most of the businesses and the industry that supported the town has closed down. The only possible source of wealth for the revitalization of the town is a childhood resident of the town, Claire Zachanassian. “She owns Armenian Oil, Western Railways, North Broadcasting Company, and the Hong Kong—uh—Amusement District.” She arrives amicably. The task falls to Alfred Ill, her former lover, to evoke nostalgia and tactfully ask for money. On hearing their predicament, she promises one billion—on one condition. Long ago, while she and Ill were still lovers, she claimed his paternity for a child. He denied it and bribed two witnesses to claim paternity. As a result she had to leave the town, and she became a prostitute. She presents the two witnesses and demands justice. “A billion for Guellen if someone kills Alfred Ill.” The towns folk are shocked by this and uniformly refuse her offer.
It is true that the original act of deception was Alfred Ill’s, but Claire has incited people to deception with little hints. To the doctor when she first arrives, she suggests that next time he makes out a death certificate, he diagnose a heart attack. To the pastor, she asserts that the death sentence, “may be reintroduced.” Symbolic of her hidden deception, she sports a prosthetic left leg and right hand. These are things which are obviously meant to resemble natural limbs, and which everyone else is constantly mistaking for natural limbs. She does not hide the truth, but she only reveals it if someone mentions the limbs.
In addition to this purposeful deception, a great deal of subconscious self-deception also takes place. Claire believes that, “Everything can be bought.” One assumes that she includes happiness in this generalization. Obviously, she is not happy. She is attempting to buy happiness or revenge or justice, whichever she prefers to call it, with Ill’s death, but one wonders whether she will be content when she receives it. She marries husbands and divorces them shortly afterwards. She cannot find one that satisfies her. She says, “All my marriages are happy.” Why does she continually marry? She keeps her ex-husband’s money. She cannot be satisfied with even that. At the beginning of the play, she is married to her seventh husband; by the end, she is engaged to her nineth. She has deceived herself into believing that everything can be bought if only she has enough money. She can never have enough money. She has also deceived herself about her life. She says to Alfred, “You chose your life and forced me into mine.” Alfred did contribute to her dishonor and misery, but what cause has she to complain? “That wretched misery turned out to be several billions, after all”, he protests. The truth is that she loves Alfred and cannot happy if he does not love her back. As she tells him later, “You love died many years ago. But my love could not die. Neither could it live.” All the marriages and the death warrant for Alfred are merely attempts to escape that reality.
In the same way, Alfred actively deceives himself about what happened in the past. He volunteers to convince Claire to give the money, but he was the person who caused her exile from the town in the first place! Now that Claire is rich, he is eager to return to the past, but he has forgotten what the past holds. “If only time could be rolled back, if only life hadn’t pulled us asunder,” he exclaims to Claire. “Would you wish that?” she answers dubiously. He deserted Claire to marry Matilda, who owned the general store. “It was for your sake I married Matilda Blumhard.” “She had money.” Clair counters. “I wanted you to be happy. So I had to renounce being happy myself.” He has so far rewritten the past that he cannot bring himself to admit that he made Claire unhappy. Later, however, when the town begins to consider Claire’s proposition, he swings to the other extreme. “I made Clara what she is, and I made myself what I am, a failing shopkeeper with a bad name.” There was no way that he could have forseen what happened to Claire. In reality, how many prostitutes become billionaires? He was responsible only for dishonoring her.
Guellen is also based wholly on deception. They have prepared a grand reception for Claire involving the mixed choir, the fire bell, the town band, students by the Athletics Club, and a meal: all for the purpose of invoking nostalgia. The display they are showing her is not really the town. It is an idealized version put on for the purpose of getting a donation. As it turns out, they are wholly unsuccessful for two reasons. First, Claire arrives before they are ready for her. Second, Clair purposely bought and ruined the town in order to ruin Ill and provide a motive for the townsfolk to kill him. The townsfolk are totally unaware of this, and are willing to pretend that they remember and love her. They are also willing to twist the truth in order to put her in a good light. She failed most of her classes when she was a child and had bad conduct, but her passing grade in botany and zoology was held up as an achievement to others. “She was generous too.” Ill puts in, “She stole potatoes once for an old widow.” But, as the many corrections made throughout the Mayor’s speech attest, few people really knew her.
The town is also deceitful in its conduct toward Alfred. They assure him, “No one wants to kill you.”, but it becomes increasingly obvious that unless they kill him they will not be able to pay back the debts they owe. Everyone begins buying things on credit. Alfred begins to panic. “The town’s getting into debt. The greater the debt, the higher the starndard of living, the higher the standard of living, the greater the need to kill me.” As time wears on, the town changes its opinion of the Alfred’s deed and begins to find what Alfred did to Claire deplorable. This sudden change in opinion and these elevated morals are more self-deception. The townsfolk even begin to deny that Claire wants Alfred dead. “ If he tries showing up Clara, and telling lies, claiming she offered something for his death, or some such story, when it was only a figure of speech for unspeakable suffering, then we’ll have to step in. Not because of the billion.” Why do they hide the truth about what they are doing? They know the injustice of their actions and they cannot bear to admit to them. The only person who attempts to defend Alfred is the schoolmaster, and even he admits that he will probably be assist in Alfred’s death. The mayor attempts to get Alfred to commit suicide so they will not have to pass the death sentence on him. Alfred, by now apathetic, counters, “You may kill me, I will not complain and I will not protest, nor will I defend myself. But I cannot spare you the task of the trial.” Later, at a ceremony, the mayor announces that thanks to the work of Alfred Ill, an endowment by Clair Zachanassian been assured. The reporters and almost everyone else leaves for refreshments. Scant minutes later, they return to find that Alfred had had a heart attack from pure joy. This is the very diagnosis that Clair recommended for the doctor’s next death certificate. The world has been fooled once more
The very design of The Visit speaks of deceit. At one point in the play, all the props in Konradweil Forest or “the wood of childhood memory” are made up of the thinly disguised townsfolk. The props proclaim their identity, but the ludicrousness is laughable. People may state their intentions, but their actions reveal all. This is further demonstrated by the structure of the play. The Visit is untowardly tragic for a comedy. Perhaps this is because Dürrenmatt is illustrating the trickery of the townsfolk. Throughout the entire play, the town promises that they are not out to kill him, and the humor of the play promises a comedy. Instead, Alfred Ill dies, and the play is a tragedy.