Drama Study: The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

FRom the pRL / translated work (German) / C20TH / Europe / switzerland

“He considers it a part of his philosophical business to reach a mass audience through his [works] without diluting that one main idea which permeates much of his writing: justice.”

William Gillis, writing in the German Quarterly, 1962
Hugo Weaving plays Alfred Ill in the 2020 National Theatre production of The Visit in London. You can find interviews with cast, director, and crew of this production on the NT’s website.


The impoverished town of Guellen looks to multi-millionaire Claire Zachanassian for financial salvation. When she offers them a million dollars, they think their dreams have come true – but her offer comes with a condition attached. They must kill a citizen of the town, named Ill, a popular man standing for mayor – and someone who just happens to be her former lover. Initially, the townspeople refuse, but their resolve is tested by the allure of wealth. Will they hold true to their morals, or will they end up carrying out her wish?

The Visit, written in 1956, was Dürrenmatt’s third published work and is set approximately ten years after the end of the war. Famously, Switzerland remained neutral throughout the conflict, siding with neither Allied nor Axis forces. However, Switzerland had deported its Jewish citizens, refused to allow migrant Jews fleeing the Nazis to enter Switzerland, hosted Allied soldiers in prisoner of war camps, and accepted looted gold from German forces. In Dürrenmatt’s opinion, ‘neutrality’ was merely a euphemism for ‘complicity’. Therefore, his play is set in Guellen, a thinly veiled representation of Switzerland; a community forced to choose between moral convictions and material gain.

IB Student Learner Profile: Thinker

“We use critical and creative thinking skills to analyse and take responsible action on complex problems. We exercise initiative in making reasoned, ethical decisions.”

If any writers on your course can be called a thinker, Friedrich Dürrenmatt must be near the top of the list. He was born in 1921 in Konolfingen, a small town just outside the Swiss capital of Bern. The son of a pastor, he developed a keen interest in philosophy and went to Berlin where he began a doctoral dissertation on the philosopher Kierkegaard. In the middle of his studies, though, he came to believe that greed and hypocrisy had polluted life in Switzerland after the second world war. He abandoned his dissertation and returned to Switzerland, becoming a playwright and crafting controversial works full of dark humour and grotesqueries, laying bare the absurdity of European politics and society. He famously said, “it is not only possible to think with the philosophy, but also with the theater stage.”

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Communication

Arguably the defining language feature of Dürrenmatt’s play is pervasive irony. Hardly anybody says what they really mean, and their actions contradict their words. Even the ‘hero’ of the piece is guilty of shifting the truth when it suits purposes. As you read The Visit, consider how certain uses of language can be used to conceal as well as reveal, to distort as well as illuminate, and how communication is rarely straightforward in Dürrenmatt’s play.

Act 1

“Everything can be bought.”

This set design by Milan Butina was created for the Ljubljana City Theatre in 1958. You can find more of Butina’s sketches for this performance at the Slovenian Theatre Institute’s online collection.

The first act begins with several townspeople gathered at the train station. They note with regret how few trains stop in Guellen; a sign of the city’s recent economic decline. They are waiting for the arrival of Claire Zachanassian, a woman who was born in the town, but had to leave under a cloud of shame when she was seventeen years old. Claire is now a multi-millionaire and the townspeople hope that Claire will give them money so they can restore their town to its former glory.

Claire arrives – early – and disrupts the townspeople’s preparations to welcome her. Nevertheless they give her the best reception they can manage and, after she visits a few places she remembers from her youth, the mayor gives a speech in her honour at the town’s hotel, the Golden Apostle. Claire then delights the gathered townspeople by offering them a million dollars – it seems like their hopes will be granted. But she attaches a condition which they cannot yet accept: they must kill Ill, her former lover, now a popular storekeeper and the man in line to be the next town mayor.

Act 1 Scene 1

“We must drink a special toast to Ill – a man who’s doing all a man can to better our lot. To our most popular citizen: to my successor!”

The once prosperous town of Guellen is plunged into desperate poverty, even while the rest of Europe seems to be prospering. Various men of the town of Guellen are gathered at the train station. The way the people look forward to Claire’s arrival shows their fixation on money, and in fact, it seems that they put money above anything else, such as religion, when they mention that “God doesn’t pay.” Guellen is a fictional town of Dürrenmatt’s invention meant to represent any Swiss town in the decade following the second world war. Therefore, the townspeople of Guellen also represent average Swiss people – if not European people as a whole – and so their fixation on money can be seen as a criticism of post-war European materialism. Equally, the town’s mayor, who is eager to welcome Claire and writes an oily speech praising her intelligence and generosity, can be seen to represent any politician who is willing to put materialism before morality and say whatever he needs to say to secure financial rewards.

Claire arrives at the station by riding a train which normally does not stop in Guellen. She pulls the emergency brake to make sure it does, and is initially scolded by an official of the railway until he finds out who she is. Then, like everyone else in the play, he wants to slavishly fulfil her every wish – even going to the ridiculous extent of offering to keep the train and all of its passengers there waiting for days until she wants to leave.

OFF stage

Why are Dürrenmatt’s stage directions so specific about how Guellen should look? The shoddily tiled railway station, the ripped posters on its walls, the outlines of dilapidated buildings in the background; these details visually alert the audience to the town’s dire situation even before the unemployed men say anything.

Learner Portfolio: Putting on the Play

Based on Dürrenmatt’s detailed stage directions throughout Act 1, design the staging for a new production of The Visit. You could do some research into set design by visiting this Museums of the World online collection and viewing Milan Butina’s wonderful concept drawings for a 1958 performance of the play in Ljubljana.

Annotate your work with explainers as to the effect you want your design to have on the audience. If you don’t like doing visual or graphic design work, you could submit this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of a ‘letter from the director’, communicating with your design team about your ideas and the effects you want to create for your audience.

Act 1 Scene 2

A moment ago you wanted time turned back, in that wood so full of the past. Well I’m turning it back now, and I want justice. Justice for a million.

Roby and Toby are two blind eunuchs who have already faced Claire Zachanassian’s particular brand of justice. Here they are played by Simon Startin and Paul Gladwin in the NT’s production which ran in 2020. You can find a review of this production here.

Claire and Ill tour some of the places they trysted together when they were young: Petersen’s Barn and Konrad’s Village Wood. Claire recalls how their relationship ended: Ill married another woman and left her all alone. She wound up leaving the town and becoming a prostitute in Hamburg, where she attracted the attention of a rich Armenian, the first of many wealthy husbands. Ill insists all turned out for the best because, if she had married him, she would not have become rich. Eventually, talk comes back to the reason for Claire’s visit and she promises that she will not let her hometown continue to suffer. Elated, Ill regrets aloud that they could not have married, and admires her once more. He keeps saying how she has not changed and kisses her hand. She corrects him; her hand, like her leg, is artificial. She was the only survivor of a plane crash and needed numerous artificial limbs.

Back at the hotel, the Mayor finally delivers his fawning speech in Claire’s honour. Afterwards, she reveals that she will indeed make a contribution to the town’s economic recovery. She will donate a million dollars to the town and its residents – but she has a surprising condition attached.

Off stage

While the possession of excessive wealth can lead to the corruption of one’s character, there seems to be the suggestion that poverty can have negative effects, too. Ill says that the lack of money in his family has made his home unhappy. Dürrenmatt criticises extreme wealth – and simultaneously recognises the effects of poverty. Do you think his play supports the idea of wealth redistribution from the obscenely rich (people like Claire) to ordinary people like the citizens of Guellen?

Learner Portfolio: Claire’s Worldview

Throughout the play, ‘justice’ means something different to each of the central characters. To Claire, justice is the same as vengeance – it is her desire for retribution against Ill because he wronged her forty-five years ago. This kind of justice is personal, Claire feels entitled to take Ill’s life even though it is outside the laws or even religious guidelines of her community. Furthermore, Claire treats justice as a commodity to be bought or sold. When the Mayor protests that “justice can’t be bought,” Claire responds that “everything can be bought.”

Write a one-two page piece about Claire Zachanassian’s worldview based on Act One of The Visit. Include a selection of her thoughts about various topics, such as:

  • Justice
  • Money
  • Honesty
  • Relationships
  • Other topics that you think might be meaningful.

Act 2

“You can get anything you want with money”

Der Besuch der alten Dame was performed at The Vienna Opera in 2018. Translated as The Visit of the Old Lady, this title is sometimes given to adaptations of Durrenmett’s play.

Ill’s curiosity is aroused by the behaviour of people in the town. Customers in his shop order more expensive items than usual, people ask for their purchases to be charged to expense accounts; everyone in the town seems to have new clothes and shoes. Ill gradually starts to fear that all of this debt is being taken out on the expectation that the town will receive its reward from Claire; something they can only receive if he is killed.

Things take a more sinister turn when the black panther Claire brought with her to Guellen escapes. The Mayor orders that everyone carry a gun – even the priest Ill turns to for help has a rifle strapped to his chest. The priest, like everyone else in the town, dismisses his fears, and suggests that really it is the miserable state of his soul which should trouble him, not his fear of his fellow citizens. Eventually, things get too much for Ill and he resolves to leave town. He is headed to the train station with his suitcase, but the townspeople stand in his way. Guellen, they say, is the safest place for him. Is Ill simply being paranoid – or is the lure of money starting to erode the Guelleners’ moral convictions?

Act 2, Scene 1

“The way they all rejected the offer, all the Guelleners… unanimously, that was the finest moment of my life.”

Ill is alone in his shop. His son and daughter have both made excuses to be elsewhere, and he can only watch through the window as the townspeople bring flowers to adorn the coffin Claire has had set up as a reminder of her offer – and the condition she has attached. Throughout the morning, his shop is frequented by customers who tend to be a bit more liberal in their purchases and, what’s more, he notices their nice clothes and new shoes. All his customers ask him to charge the bill to their accounts. They would not do so unless they expected to come into possession of money in the near future, and with Guellen’s otherwise slim prospects, it is obvious they must be counting on the money from Claire. Ill quickly realizes this for himself, and this scene marks the beginning of his anxiety.

Off stage

Throughout this scene, Ill sees that the people are getting used to living better than they have in the past, and he does not think that they will want to return to their previous way of life. Dürrenmatt criticises Western society’s obsession with materialism: people are unable to sacrifice what they have, even for a good cause such as saving a man’s life.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.90=—0

Here are two passages taken from The Visit; as this is a play the literary form is ‘drama’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

Act 2 Scene 2

“Do you believe the people will betray you now for money?”

Growing increasingly suspicious of the townsfolk’s true intentions, Ill tries to leave town. This still from Act 2 is taken from VBW’s musical stage version of the play.

His anxiety rising, Ill visits both the Mayor and the town Priest for reassurance. The mayor then tries to reassure him by recalling the lofty heritage of Guellen; the citizens would never stoop to murder, he says. The mayor becomes resentful when Ill demands Claire’s arrest and points out that perhaps Claire has a point and that what Ill did to Claire was a pretty bad thing to do. Because of this, the Mayor tells Ill that his chances of becoming mayor have been dashed. The priest, like the others, dismisses his fear, and also suggests that Ill’s conscience is troubling him. Finally, it all gets too much for Ill and he decides to leave town. At the train station, he is surrounded by people who prevent him from leaving.

Off Stage

If their words contradict their interior desires, the exterior actions of the townspeople mirror the true direction of their thoughts. Many carry around guns, ostensibly to defend themselves from the panther. But, as Ill points out, their reaction is excessive. Even the priest, who represents religion, succumbs to this ambivalence and carries with him a rifle.

Learner Portfolio: A State of Denial

‘Denial, or evasion of responsibility, is what plagues the townspeople. As their subconscious minds become more focused on murdering Ill, they refuse to see the reality for what it is’.

Use an analysis of Act 2 to support this statement. Spend a few minutes deciding on the kind of work you might like to produce for your Learner Portfolio. For example, you could write a mini-essay, mind-map the theme of ‘denial’, or create a Point-Quote-Explanation chart.

Act 3

You must judge me, now. I shall accept your judgement, whatever it may be. For me, it will be justice; what it will be for you, I don’t know.

In 1964, The Visit was adapted for the big screen. The film, directed by Bernhard Wicki and starring Ingrid Bergman as Claire Zachanassian, was a critical success but did not succeed commercially.

In the third act, the Press arrives to cover Claire’s visit to her hometown. They are aware that she has offered the town money, but they don’t know anything about the condition she attached to it – and the townspeople are anxious to keep it that way! The schoolmaster, with the aid of some strong drink, gathers up his courage and tries to tell the press the town’s secret; unexpectedly, it is Ill himself who stops him. Ill has realized that he brought this situation on himself through his past actions.

The town is planning to vote later that day on whether or not to accept Claire’s proposal and Ill tells the mayor he will abide by whatever decision is made. Will the town vote in favour of Claire’s proposal and kill him? Or will their humanist ideals and morality prevail over the lure of cash?

Act 3 Scene 1

“The world turned me into a whore. I shall turn the world into a brothel.”

The next step in the psychological ‘devolution’ of the Guellen townspeople is an attempt to bargain with Claire to avoid the downsides of her offer while still getting the benefits. They appeal to her own sense of greed by pointing out that Guellen’s industry could be quite profitable to her if she invested in it. Their efforts fall on deaf ears. Whatever profit Claire could gain through investment could hardly be worth her time, if she can simply marry another rich husband – precisely what she is now planning to do.

Meanwhile, Ill returns to his shop to find his family enjoying their own new purchases, and a group of reporters asking questions about the town’s proposed windfall. Of all the townsfolk, only the schoolteacher seems at all repentant, and tries to pluck up the courage to go to the Press with the truth about Claire’s ghastly offer.

Off stage

Ill’s situation seems to have prompted some powerful reflection on his part, signified by the way he is directed to pace up and down in his shop. Do you think that his remorse over his past actions is genuine? Or is he still hoping to avoid his fate by evoking the pity of the townsfolk?

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to The Visit, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. In what ways can the term ‘artificial’ be applied to literary works you have studied?
  2. Works of literature can often function as social or political commentary. Discuss this idea with reference to literature you have studied.
  3. In what ways, and with what techniques, do writers you have studied appeal to the emotions of the reader?
  4. It is not always easy to ‘forgive and forget.’ Illustrate this observation with reference to literary works you have studied.

Act 3 Scene 2

“Not for the sake of the money… But for justice.”

This costume design for Claire Zachanassian is by Susan Hilferty, for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, 2001.

Ill finds Claire in the Village Woods which, he finds out, she owns. After they briefly recall the time they had together when they were young, Ill thanks her for the decorations to his future coffin and tells her that the city council is going to meet to decide his fate. Unrepentant and unapologetic, she says that she will intern him in a mausoleum she owns, thereby asserting absolute control over him. After his death she says she will no longer be haunted by him; he will become just another memory.

Ill returns to the Town Hall where the press has gathered to cover the town meeting, though they are still unaware of its full meaning; they are not aware of Claire’s offer. The mayor begins speaking and offers his thanks publicly to Ill for securing the donation from Claire. They will hold a vote to decide whether to accept or reject Claire’s offer. Surprisingly, Ill tells the mayor that he will respect whatever decision the city makes. Will the lure of money prove too much to resist or will the town’s morality and idealism win the day?

OFF Stage

This scene helps the audience understand Claire’s offer more fully. As a rich woman Claire always gets what she wants: if she wants to travel somewhere, buy up an entire town, buy a panther, she can. So far, however, she has not been able to shake the heartbreak Ill caused. Therefore, she uses the same tactic of throwing money at a problem to solve it. Do you think, though, that killing Ill will really make her problem go away?

Learner Portfolio: Crime and Punishment

‘The most obvious overall themes of The Visit are those of vengeance and justice. Claire’s driving force in the play is vengeance and what she believes is justice for the crime which drove her from town in humiliation – and she stops at nothing to get it.’

Write a one-two page Learner Portfolio entry about vengeance and justice as presented in The Visit. Consider the following points to help you structure and develop your response:

  • What type of justice does Claire represent? What does ‘justice’ mean to her?
  • What does ‘justice’ mean to the townspeople? Are they really motivated by a sense of justice for Ill’s past crimes?
  • How has Ill’s notion of justice developed and changed over the course of the play? What does ‘justice’ mean to him?
  • Given that Guellen is a microcosm of Europe, what, seemingly, does Durrenmatt conclude about justice in Western societies?

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 Marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Now you have studied the entirety of The Visit, if you are a Higher Level student, you might like to turn your thoughts to the essay that all Higher Level students must write. The Visit has been described as a ‘tragi-comedy’ and you might like to take this description as the starting point for your investigation. Begin by considering one of these angles of approach; although remember to follow your own ideas and interests where you can:

  • To what extent do the characters and settings of The Visit function as allegories for real-world people and places?
  • Discuss whether The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is a comedy or a tragedy.
  • To what ends does Dürrenmatt employ foreshadowing and allusion in his play The Visit?
  • What is the importance of secondary characters to the meaning and message of The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt?
  • Explore Dürrenmatt’s use of features associated with tragedy in his play The Visit.
  • To what extent is Claire Zachanassian a personification of Fate in The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt?
  • Is it possible for the audience to truly sympathise with Alfred Ill in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit?
  • How, and to what purposes, does Durrenmatt employ different types of irony in his play The Visit?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course), students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied (40 marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

The Visit could be an excellent text to talk about in your oral assessment. The themes of humanism, morality, money, denial, deception, revenge and justice can be formulated into the Global Issue which will form the core of your talk. Now you have finished reading and studying the play, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the play, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: types of justice
  • Possible Pairings (Lit course: if you are following the Literature-only course, you must pair a text originally written in English with a translated work)The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare; Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee.
  • Possible Pairings (Lang and Lit): I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach; Nelson Mandela’s speeches;

The action of The Visit is motivated by Claire Zachanassian’s desire for revenge – which she calls ‘justice’ – over Alfred Ill for his treatment of her decades ago; a type of ‘eye for an eye’ justice. In fact, ‘justice’ means different things to different people throughout the play and exploring this idea could make for an excellent Individual Oral activity.

The townspeople of Guellen are offered a Faustian bargain by Claire: a million dollars in exchange for a man’s death. Dürrenmatt’s play shows his belief that idealism is no match for the lure of money. What do other writers have to say about this conundrum?


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