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der besuch der alten dame

25 december 2016

Der Besuch der alten Dame, "The Visit" in English, is part of the mid-20th-century repertoire of stylized plays, somewhere along the continuum from Expressionism to the Absurd. People continue to be interested in it; it was the basis of a long-gestating Broadway musical a couple of years ago. Der Besuch is full of datable references and was written and first performed in the looming shadow of the Holocaust, but it's also timeless as Greek tragedy.

In fact, Friedrich Dürrenmatt modeled his play partly on Sophocles' Oedipus. A town has been blighted by the long-ago misdeeds of one of its prominent citizens. If justice is done, the town will flourish again. But can anyone be found to execute that justice?

There are no oracles or prophets in Der Besuch, however. The sins of Alfred Ill are revealed by his childhood sweetheart, Claire Zachanassian. Wealthy beyond measure now, Claire has returned to the town of Güllen for the title visit in order to offer its citizens a billion. (Just a billion, currency unspecified.) The condition? That somebody kill Alfred Ill. When she'd become pregnant during their long-ago relationship, he'd denied paternity and suborned two townsmen to say they'd slept with her. She'd left town ruined and turned to prostitution, which became the roundabout way to her present billions. Now she wants Gerechtigkeit: the reckoning of justice.

Of course nobody in Güllen would kill Alfred Ill. They have their principles. But in the second act, they also seem to have expectations. The people of Güllen start to spend lavishly on credit. Everybody has new shoes. Pretty soon everybody has new cars, including Ill's own family. More alarmingly, everybody seems to have new hunting rifles.

Ill survives most of the play, but it's clear by the third act that the town has turned against him. Not that any single individual has turned against him: to a person, the villagers expect that somebody else will do the deed and enrich the rest of them. In the end they don't have to do it; the certainty that they will becomes enough to do away with Ill.

In structure and affect, Der Besuch is a "rainmaker" play. An exotic, charismatic, but not quite benevolent stranger arrives in a depressed community and encourages its people to pull themselves up by their emotional bootstraps. The rainmaker genre is slightly creepy at the best of times; I'm not sure what sort of future Professor Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian might have gone on to have post-Music Man, but his past as a pathologically lying deadbeat drifter doesn't bode well. In Der Besuch, Dürrenmatt exploits this potential creepiness not just by making Claire's offer a morally poisonous bargain, but by emphasizing the banality of the villagers' response. None of them really is a bad person. They're just riding a wave of consumer confidence that comes with the inevitability of landing a really big community grant.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. Der Besuch der alten Dame. 1957. Edited by Paul Kurt Ackermann. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, n.d.