Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility. In the Punch-and-Judy show of our century . . . there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, “We couldn’t help it” and “We didn’t really want that to happen.” And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everyone is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers. . . . That is our misfortune, but not our guilt: guilt can exist only as a personal achievement, as a religious deed. Comedy alone is suitable for us. . . .
But the tragic is still possible even if pure tragedy is not. We can achieve the tragic out of comedy. We can bring it forth as a frightening moment, as an abyss that opens suddenly.
—Friedrich Dürrenmatt, “Problems of the Theatre”
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s view of the theater as a vehicle for moral revelation and universal relevance is reflected in Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit), a tragicomedy combining expressionistic devices and elements of Brechtian epic theater with an inspired sense of the shocking and grotesque. At its core the play is a serious exploration of humanity’s dark side in its conviction that economics determines morality, an idea that is found in drama as early as the 1830s, with the opening scene of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. In The Visit the tragedy is that an entire community is caught in a sweep of events that leads to a murder by the masses; Dürrenmatt’s genius is to present what is a tragedy of commission into a work of unsettling humor.
In Friedrich Dürrenmatt the attributes of the dissident intellectual coalesced with those of the rural villager, the result of a family situation in which strict Protestant training coexisted with unorthodoxy. Dürrenmatt was born in 1921 in the Swiss village of Konolfi ngen in the canton of Bern, the older of two children of Reinhold and Hulda Zimmerman Dürrenmatt. His father was the Protestant pastor of the town church and his paternal grand father, Ulrich, was an eccentric, who had been active in 19th-century Swiss politics. A fanatically conservative newspaper publisher, Ulrich was proud to have spent 10 days in jail for composing a viciously satiric poem he printed on the front page of the paper. His grandson was also affected by the tales his father told him from classical mythology and the Bible tales recounted by his mother, all of which would later provide material for his works. Dürrenmatt’s first ambition was to become a painter, and while attending secondary school in a nearby village he spent his spare time in the studio of a local painter. He continued to paint and draw as an adult, and his first published plays were accompanied by his illustrations. In 1935 the family relocated to the city of Bern, where Dürrenmatt attended the Frieies Gymnasium, a Christian secondary school. He was adept at classical languages but was otherwise a poor student, and after two and a half years there he was asked to leave. He was then sent to a private school from which he often played hooky. Rejected from the Institute of Art, Dürrenmatt studied at the University of Zurich and the University of Bern, where he tutored in Greek and Latin to earn money. After a stint in the military and a return to the University of Zurich, a bout with hepatitis sent him home to Bern, where he studied philosophy at the university and considered writing a doctoral dissertation on Søren Kierkegaard and tragedy.
Dürrenmatt began his literary career in the early 1940s with fictional sketches and prose fragments, and in 1945 he published a short story echoing the intense style of German writer Ernst Jünger. He failed in his attempt to become a theater critic as well as a cabaret sketch writer, although the latter efforts displayed his gift for social satire. In 1946 he married Lotti Geissler, an actress, and the following year the couple relocated to Basel. His first play, Es steht geschrieben (Thus It Is Written), performed in Zurich in 1947, is a parody of Western history in the guise of a panoramic historical drama with Brechtian influences. Set in the 16th century the 30-scene play concerns Anabaptists, their transformation of Münster into a New Jerusalem, and the destruction of the city by a coalition of Catholic and Protestant troops. At once solemn, passionate, prophetic, religious, existential, cynical, and apocalyptic, the play is unwieldy in execution, with a large cast and dialogue ranging from the biblically hymnic to the absurd. It drew boos from its first-night audience; however, reviewers praised Dürrenmatt’s potential, and he was awarded a cash prize from the Welti Foundation as an encouragement to continue writing plays. Twenty years later Dürrenmatt reworked the play as a comedy, Die Wiedertäufer (The Anabaptists), which was more stageworthy but failed equally with audiences. A similar fate greeted his second play, Der Blinde (1948; The Blind Man), considered to be a pretentious, heavy-handed blend of theology and philosophy.
Dürrenmatt’s first theatrical success was Romulus der Grosse (Romulus the Great), performed in 1948. It is a Shavian-like tragicomedy, in which the title ruler, personifying deliberate irresponsibility and inaction, accepts that the power and tyranny of Rome must give way to truth and humanity. He refuses to try to halt the barbarian destruction of Rome and ultimately accepts a pension from the German conqueror that will allow for a comfortable retirement. In 1949 Romulus the Great became the first Dürrenmatt play to be performed in Germany, where it became a standard offering in German theater. Nevertheless, Dürrenmatt continued to suffer financially, and to help support his family, which had grown to three children, he turned to writing detective novels, which were a great success, as were his radio plays. The royalties from the latter allowed him to purchase a home near Neuchâtel in 1952, where he lived until his death in 1990. He completed the manuscript for his next play, Die Ehe des Herrn Mississippi (The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi), in 1950. A panorama of violence and intrigue, with expressionistic touches, in which the title character destroys himself and everyone around him with his determination to impose absolute Mosaic justice, the play was rejected by Swiss theaters but was produced in 1952 at the Intimate Theatre in Munich and established Dürrenmatt as an avant-garde dramatist. Ein Engel kommt nach Babylon (An Angel Comes to Babylon), also produced at the Intimate Theatre in 1952, is a satire of power and bureaucracy that validates, through the hero, the beggar-artist Akki, the values of innocence and ingenuity over institutional power and corruption.’
The philosophical, theological, and social themes that Dürrenmatt explored in his previous plays are highly developed, straightforward, and sardonically and grotesquely amusing in The Visit, first performed in Zurich in 1956 and from then on a mainstay of Western theater. The Visit is set in Guellen, a small town somewhere in German-speaking central Europe. The once-prosperous Guellen, where “Goethe spent a night” and “Brahms composed a quartet,” has decayed in recent years to the point where it is almost completely impoverished (the name in German translates to “liquid manure”). The Visit begins and concludes with a parody of a chorus like that of a Greek tragedy, which serves to give the play a classical symmetry, that heightens its sense of irony. The first act opens at the ramshackle railroad station, where four unemployed citizens sit on a bench and interest themselves in “our last remaining pleasure: watching trains go by,” as they recite a litany of woes:
Man three: Ruined.
Man four: The Wagner Factory gone crash.
Man one: Bockmann bankrupt.
Man two: The Foundry on Sunshine Square shut down.
Man three: Living on the dole.
Man four: On Poor Relief Soup.
Man one: Living?
Man two: Vegetating.
Man three: And rotting to death.
Man four: The entire township.
This chorus of men, together with Guellen’s mayor, schoolmaster, priest, and shopkeeper, gather to meet a train and greet its famous passenger, Claire Zachanassian (née Wascher), daughter of Guellen’s builder, who is visiting her hometown after 45 years. Now 63, she is the richest woman in the world, the widow of the world’s richest man, and the owner of nearly everything, including the railways. She has founded hospitals, soup kitchens, and kindergartens, and the Guelleners plan to ask her to invest in their town:
Mayor: Gentlemen, the millionairess is our only hope.
Priest: Apart from God.
Mayor: Apart from God.
Schoolmaster: But God won’t pay.
The mayor appeals to the shopkeeper, Alfred Ill (sometimes translated as Anton Schill), who was once Claire’s lover, to charm her into generosity. For his part Ill knows that if she were to make the expected financial gift, he will be victorious in the next mayoral contest. Madame Zachanassian arrives. She is a grande dame, graceful, refined, with a casual, ironic manner. She is accompanied by an unusual retinue: a butler, two gum-chewing thugs who carry her about on a sedan chair, a pair of blind eunuchs (who, as Dürrenmatt states in his postscript to the play, can either repeat each other’s lines or speak their dialogue together), her seventh husband, a black panther, and an empty coffin. When Claire and Ill greet each other, Ill calls her, as he used to, “my little wildcat” and “my little sorceress.” This sets her, as Dürrenmatt’s stage notes indicate, purring “like an old cat.” Eventually, the two leave the fulsome (and transparently false) cordiality of the town behind to meet in their old trysting places. In Konrad’s Village Woods, the four citizens from the first scene play trees, plants, wildlife, the wind, and “bygone dreams,” as Ill tries to win Claire over. When he kisses her hand, he learns that it is made of ivory; most of her body is made of artificial parts. Nevertheless, he is convinced that he has beguiled her into making the bequest. At a banquet in her honor that evening Claire sarcastically contradicts the overly flattering testimonial offered by the mayor of her unselfish behavior as a child, but declares that, “as my contribution to this joy of yours,” she proposes to give 1 million pounds to the town. There is, however, one condition: Someone must kill Alfred Ill. For her 1 million, Claire maintains, she is buying justice: Forty-five years earlier she brought a paternity suit against Ill, who bribed two witnesses to testify against her. As a result she was forced to leave Guellen in shame and to become a prostitute in Hamburg. The child, a girl, died. The two witnesses are the eunuchs, whom Claire tracked down, blinded, castrated, and added to her entourage. The butler was the magistrate in the case. The mayor indignantly rejects the offer “in the name of humanity. We would rather have poverty than blood on our hands.” Claire’s response: “I’ll wait.”
The second and third acts chronicle the decline of Guellen into temptation, moral ambiguity and complicity. In the weeks that follow the banquet, Madame Zachanassian, who, it is revealed, intentionally caused Guellen’s financial ruin, watches with grim satisfaction as the insidiousness of her proposal manifests itself in the town’s behavior. She also marries three more times; husband number eight is a famous film star, played by the same actor as husband number seven. At first gratified by the town’s loyalty to him, Ill becomes increasingly uneasy when the Guelleners, including his family, begin to buy expensive items on credit, even from his own store, and there comes into being the kind of night life and social activities found in a more prosperous town. Guelleners are clearly expecting their financial positions to change, and with this expectation comes a withdrawing of support for Ill and collective outrage for his crime of long ago. Claire’s black panther, who symbolizes Ill, is shot and killed in front of Ill’s store. Fearing for his life Ill tries to leave town on the next train but is surrounded on all sides by Guelleners. The citizens insist they are just there to wish him luck on his journey, but a terrified Ill is convinced they will kill him if he tries to board the train. He faints as the train leaves without him. The play reaches a crescendo, with the finale becoming a grand media event, when reporters and broadcasters arrive. Ill faces up to his guilt and publicly—and heroically—accepts responsibility for his crime and the judgment of the town, despite the support of the schoolmaster, the only citizen who attempts to question Guellen’s willingness to abdicate its responsibility as “a just community.” Ill is murdered by the crowd. The death is ruled a heart attack; the mayor claims Ill “died of joy,” a sentiment echoed by reporters. The mayor receives the check for 1 million, and Claire Zachanassian leaves with Ill’s body; the coffin now has its corpse. A citizen chorus descries “the plight” of poverty and praises God that “kindly fate” has intervened to provide them with such advantages as better cars, frocks, cigarettes, and commuter trains. All pray to God to “Protect all our sacred possessions, / Protect our peace and our freedom, / Ward off the night, nevermore / Let it darken our glorious town / Grown out of the ashes anew. / Let us go and enjoy our good fortune.”
In his postscript Dürrenmatt makes clear that “Claire Zachanassian represents neither justice . . . nor the Apocalypse; let her be only what she is: the richest woman in the world, whose fortune has put her in a position to act like the heroine of a Greek tragedy: absolute, cruel, something like Medea.” Guellen is the main character and Alfred Ill its scapegoat, ritually murdered so that the community can, at the same time, purge itself and justifiably accept a portion of Claire Zachanassian’s bounty. They are not wicked, claims Dürrenmatt, but, tragically, “people like the rest of us,” concerned with sin, suffering, guilt, and the pursuit of justice and redemption in an ostensibly alien and indifferent universe.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time