Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Visit - Friedrich Durrenmatt

Friedrich Durrenmatt (1921-1990)

A small dilapidated town is waiting for the arrival of one of its long lost citizens, a now millionairess named Claire Zachanassian. She has left the town many years before and as the mayor, bailiff and general store manager Ill wait for her at the station, the mayor persuades Ill to try and convince Claire to leave an endowment to the city. Ill and Claire used to be great, friends, even lovers and if he could just get on her good side, remind her of all the wonderful times they had together, maybe she'll be the town's salvation.

The priest asks if they parted on unsavory terms and Ill quickly denies such accusations:

"We were the best of friends. Young and hotheaded. I used to be a bit of a lad, gentlemen, forty-five years ago. And she, Clara, I can see her still: coming towards me through the shadows in Petersen's Barn, all aglow. Or walking barefoot in the Konrad's Village Wood, over the moss and the leaves, with her red hair streaming out, slim and supple as a willow, and tender, ah, what a devilish beautiful little witch, Life tore us apart. That's the way it is.

Claire finally arrives with a bazaar entourage comprised of a panther, a couple henchmen, a couple eunuchs, her current husband and a coffin. She endures the pleasantries and the towns peoples toadying until at last after a long speech by the mayor touching upon all the endearing qualities of their dear Claire, that they have hastily dug up and somewhat fabricated, she arrives at the true intent of her visit.

She first denies all the accolades saying rather than being an exemplar student she was often thrashed, and her motivation for stealing potatoes for the Widow Boll, was so that she and Ill for once would have a comfortable place to sleep...nevertheless, despite the unabashed pandering to her wealth and status by the township...she will make a deal with them. She is willing to donate one million to Guellen! Five hundred thousand for the city itself and five hundred thousand to be shared among the individual families. On one condition...she demands justice for a wrong that has gone unpunished for the past 45 years.

45 years ago she was involved in a paternity suit, claiming Ill was the father of her unborn child, Ill denied this deciding after a long frolic with Claire, maybe Matilda would make a better wife and effectively jilting her, hiring a couple of ne'er-do-wells to swear to the judge that they had slept with Claire making the issue of paternity ambiguous at best. Claire is forced into a life of harlotry, her baby is taken away from her and she wanders the globe marrying one man after the other biding her time until she can exact her revenge which is this: The life of Ill for one million dollars.

"Feeling for humanity, gentlemen, is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order. The world turned me into a whore. I shall turn the world into a brothel. If you can't fork out when you want to dance, you have to put off dancing. You want to dance. They alone are eligible who pay. And I'm paying. Guellen for a murder, a boom for a body..."

At first the city is outraged. They refuse such a deal and say they would rather suffer in poverty than be an accessory to murder, but slowly each one of them begins to envision a life beyond the borders of poverty, a life where they can afford a few luxuries here and there and as if to anticipate such wealth they begin buying on credit, living beyond their means with the imaginable wealth already in their pockets. Even Ill's own son, daughter and wife begin consuming luxuries at a steady rate, the son buying a new car, on credit of course, the wife upgrading the shop. Ill begins to feel trapped, with each pair of new shoes he sees it is a reminded of the terrible price that must be paid.

Finally the townspeople convince themselves that they really are for justice...The Claire Zachanassian Endowment will be accepted, not for the money of course, but for justice, and for conscience sake, "for we cannot connive at a crime, let us then root out the wrongdoer, and deliver our souls from evil, and all our most sacred possessions..." The crowd surrounds Ill, and a moment later after verifying that he is dead, Claire hands the Mayor a check and takes her leave.

This was probably the best play I have ever read. It is at times a little over the top, Claire's entourage all have rhyming names like Roby, Koby, Loby, and Toby...and the humor at times seems a little displaced, but the idea that when confronted with morality and honor or a lot of money....eventually people will take the money and that ultimately justice is corruptible when exchanged for material wealth is a sobering argument.

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