Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Visit: A Drama in Three Acts by Friedrich Duerrenmatt

Last week I attended a performance of The Visit by Friedrich Duerrenmatt at Downers Grove North High School. Bonnie and I attend most of the plays and musicals, as we enjoy live theater and like to see students that we know on stage. This time our daughter Laura was on the crew doing makeup for four of the cast members. Her friend David was playing the son of Alfred Ill.

I had never heard of The Visit, which Critical Survey of Drama identifies as Duerrenmatt's masterpiece and most performed play. I do not recall having heard of Duerrenmatt either, who is identified by the reference set as the leading German-language playwright of post World War II Europe. My friend Dick Wyman, who has directed many community and high school plays, knows the work well. He said it was a very challenging drama for a high school production. He remembered that Joan Fontaine had played Claire Zachanassian in the American debut in the 1950s.

The play is set in the economically depressed town of Gullen in an unnamed country. Most of the cities of Europe are recovering and prospering, but Gullen has a wagon works, a foundry, and a pencil factory that all stay mysteriously closed. Everyone is wearing old clothes and old shoes, eating inferior food, smoking cheap cigarettes, and drinking cheap beer. They are all desperate for an economic savior, which comes in the form of Claire Zachanassian, a former citizen who has become one of the world's wealthiest women. She does offer the community a large sum of money, but she demands that the citizens commit a terrible crime to earn it.

After seeing the play, I read a copy from my library. I quickly discovered that there are different translations available. Characters names vary. Alfred Ill in the high school production is Anton Schill in the copy I read. Toby and Roby become Max and Mike. The Mayor is the Burgomaster. The actors as trees and the family driving scene are missing from the copy I read. Most of the story, however, and its impact are the same.

Critical Survey of Drama states that the play examines the difficulties of justice. Perhaps, but justice is definitely not served. Duerrenmatt combines both comic and tragic elements in this work with a 1950s or 1960s feel to it. It reminds me of the plays and short stories of Ray Bradbury and of television's The Twilight Zone; they often have an entire community act almost like a single character. The Visit is a creepy play that will make you shudder.

Duerrenmatt, Friedrich. The Visit: A Drama in Three Acts. New York: Samuel French, 1958, 1986. ISBN 0573617546

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