The play opens on the fictional Swiss cathedral town of Güllen, literally “liquid excrement” in Swiss German. The name fits: the town is dirty, dilapidated, and, as noted by a chorus of the local unemployed (the First Man, Second Man, Third Man, and Fourth Man), the town is in the midst of a deep and mysterious economic depression, its industry having suddenly failed. The unemployed men sit at Güllen’s railway station, watching the express trains that used to stop in their town pass it by. They anticipate the arrival of the billionairess Claire Zachanassian (née Wäscher), from whom they and their fellow citizens hope to secure a donation with which to restore Güllen to its former glory.
Given the tensions between appearance and reality that undergird his play, it isn’t surprising that Dürrenmatt’s stage directions are so specific about how Güllen should “look.” The shoddily tiled roof of the railway station, the ripped posters on its walls, the outlines of dilapidated buildings in the background—these details visually alert us to the town’s dire situation even before the unemployed men say anything. This opening image mirrors—and sharply contrasts with—the image of a prosperous Güllen with which the play ends.
The Schoolmaster, the Mayor, the Priest, and Alfred Ill, Güllen’s “most popular personality,” arrive at the railway station and review their preparations for Claire’s arrival. They hope to move the billionairess to donate to their town with an elaborate welcome ceremony with performances by Güllen’s mixed choir, band, and gymnastics club, as well as an ingratiating speech from the Mayor.
This scene is supposed to seem a little sleazy, since their grand gestures obviously aren’t about a genuine love or respect that the town has for Claire—the whole celebration is a transparent attempt to flatter her into donating money.
As Ill helps the Mayor prepare for his speech, the two of them discuss Claire. She was born and raised in Güllen, and was Ill’s lover. Ill remembers her fondly, and laments how “life … nothing but life” separated him from her. When the Mayor asks for more details about Claire to use in his speech, Ill recalls that she once threw rocks at police arresting a vagabond and, another time, stole potatoes to give to a widow. The Mayor favorably interprets these stories to reflect Claire’s “love of justice” and “charitable disposition.”
The Mayor distorts Ill’s memories of Claire—of her bad school grades, skirmishes with the police, and potato pilfering—into a fond speech honoring her for her intelligence, justice, and charity. The compliments are obviously self-serving: the rhetorical manipulations are meant to appeal to Claire’s vanity and charity.
The Mayor recognizes that his speech alone will not secure an endowment from Claire; he calls on Ill to exploit his connection to the billionairess—to appeal to her nostalgia for their young love. Further vesting his trust in Ill, The Mayor declares Ill to be his successor.
“Love” is neither pure nor idyllic in Dürrenmatt’s play, but rather a commodity, a leveraging tool, or sometimes even a spur to violence. Here, Ill intends to exploit Claire’s affections for financial gain.
Suddenly, an express train charted for Stockholm makes an unscheduled stop in Güllen, throwing the townspeople into a frenzy; Claire Zachanassian has arrived, and two hours early at that. She is a sight to behold, caked with makeup and laden with ostentatious jewelry, grand for the same reasons that she is grotesque. She begins to detrain with her entourage, including her Butler and her Husband VII, but is stopped by an irate Train Supervisor demanding that she offer an explanation for pulling the train’s emergency break. Claire nonchalantly offers him several thousand dollars instead. The stunned Supervisor soon realizes to whom he is talking, and mortified, softens his tone, obsequiously offering to stall the train while Claire tours Güllen and begging her not to report him to railway management.
Claire flexes her proverbial muscle in front of the Gülleners, first by completely disregarding the scheduling concerns of the train company and its passengers, then by casually tossing a large sum of money to the Train Supervisor. This action in particular reminds the impoverished Gülleners how desperately they rely on the exorbitantly wealthy Ms. Zachanassian.
Meanwhile, Claire’s early arrival has thrown Güllen into total disarray. The performers aren’t ready, the Mayor is without his frock coat and top hat, and the banner welcoming Claire is unfinished. The villagers frantically assemble while Claire talks to the Train Supervisor and they are shocked by her casual attitude toward money, murmuring when she pays off and dismisses the Supervisor.
Claire arrives just after the Mayor has warned his constituents not “to slip up on the timing” of their welcome. The irony is played for laughs. It also exposes the Gülleners—who haven’t had the time to put on their literal and proverbial top hats—for what they really are: impoverished schemers desperate for help.
As Claire takes her leave of the Supervisor, Ill steps forward to welcome her, bringing the two together for the first time in forty-five years. They recall the pet names they gave one another as young lovers, Ill calling Claire his “little wildcat” and “little sorceress” and Claire calling Ill her “black panther.” Ill proceeds to shower his former lover with praise, confident that flattery will win her heart and loosen her purse strings. He is wrong; Claire bluntly rejects his appeals to her vanity, perhaps because she is no longer vain—she knows full well that she has grown old and fat, and doesn’t hesitate to show Ill her prosthetic leg, which she had fitted after a devastating (and dismembering) car accident.
Claire is often the only character to speak the unadorned truth. She catches Ill off guard when she bluntly deflects his compliments: “I’ve gotten old […] and fat,” she says. “And my left leg is gone. But the artificial one is quite something, don’t you think?” Her brutal straightforwardness exposes just how much Ill equivocates—he relies on lies to charm Claire.
As Ill scrambles for the right words to respond to Claire’s brutally honest comments, she introduces him to her seventh husband. His real name is Pedro, but she has effectively renamed him Moby to rhyme with Boby, her Butler’s name.
Claire’s assignment of rhyming nicknames to her attendants demonstrates her disregard for their individuality. It also recalls Adam’s naming—and subordination—of the animals of Eden.
By this point, Güllen’s villagers have congregated, the mixed choir and Youth Club have taken their places upstage, and all are ready to extend an enthusiastic formal welcome to Claire. The ceremony starts inauspiciously, however; the clattering of a passing express train drowns out the choir’s song.
Circumstance compromises the Gülleners’ attempts to get the welcome ceremony back on track. The event is a disaster, and betrays the undignified desperation the Gülleners feel (which they meant to conceal from Claire).
Claire nevertheless commends the choir, making special mention of one of its bass singers. The singer introduces himself as Officer Hahnke, the Policeman. Claire proceeds to ask him if he’d be willing to simply ignore a crime in Güllen, then she laughs. She then suggests to the Pastor that the death penalty be reinstated in Switzerland, and to the Doctor that he attribute the next death in Güllen to a heart attack. Claire’s cryptic comments catch each of the men off guard; they don’t know what to make of them. Ill, however, finds them hilarious, chortling at what appears to him to be black humor.
Claire’s questions seem directed toward some malevolent end, but are too cryptic to make sense of at this point. Echoes of this scene resonate through the play’s later acts, when the Policeman, Pastor, and other authorities are faced with moral challenges.
At Claire’s request, the welcome parade moves from the railway station to the town. Claire herself cannot move around easily with her artificial leg, so she is borne into town atop a sedan chair carried by her burly, gum-chewing attendants Roby and Toby. The pair are former New York gangsters, saved from the electric chair by Claire’s money and now working as her servants.
Once in town, Claire sends Roby and Toby back for her luggage, which includes not only many suitcases, but also a coffin and a caged black panther. Claire has also brought along two small, blind eunuchs named Koby and Loby, who repeat everything they say at least twice. The Mayor dismisses the men, the cat, and the coffin as only the whims of a “world-famous [lady],” but the Teacher finds them unsettling. In fact, he finds everything about Claire unsettling, and compares her to “an avenging goddess…spinning the web of destiny.”
The appearance of the black panther evokes Ill’s nickname and, by metonymy, his whole self; the man and the animal share a common name and mistress. The image of the panther next to the coffin foreshadows something ominous (i.e. Ill’s death). The Teacher picks up on this foreboding (even though he doesn’t know Ill will die) and compares Claire to a Greek Goddess or Fate, engineering tragedy from on high (i.e. her sedan chair).
While her things are delivered to her room at the “Golden Apostle” hotel, Claire expresses a desire to revisit the sites of her youth with her former lover and her entourage. The group heads first into the woods of Konradsweil, represented onstage by the First Man, Second Man, Third Man, and Fourth Man, who hold twigs in outspread hands and proclaim themselves to be trees. Here, Claire and Ill encounter the tree that they once inscribed with their names; Claire comments that the names have faded and grown apart, and that the tree has grown fatter and uglier like them. She then dismisses her entourage, wishing to discuss things alone with Ill.
One of Dürrenmatt’s more interesting stage directions specifies that the four men from the train station should play the part of the woods of Konradsweil. The effect is surreal—the audience clearly sees the artifice of the scene, but Claire and Ill don’t, highlighting once more the disjuncture between appearance and reality in Dürrenmatt’s play. Moreover, the stage direction reiterates the facelessness of the play’s supporting cast—for Claire they are nothing more than props to be manipulated.
Noticing the boulder on which she and Ill once kissed and the trees and bushes under which they made love, Claire reminisces about their love affair. They cared deeply for one other, she recalls, but Ill nevertheless decided to marry the wealthier Matilda Blumhard. Now, Claire can’t help but acknowledge the dramatic irony of the situation—she is now the richest woman in the world, while Ill is destitute and unhappily married.
Like anything else in the “The Visit,” romantic love is no match for money. The promise of financial security with Matilda proved more important to Ill than the genuine affection he felt for Claire.
Ill expresses regret about how things turned out, but newly pledges himself to Claire, eager to make things right (and, of course, secure a donation). His ploy appears to work; Claire implies that she will give millions to Güllen. An excited Ill eagerly kisses her hand—another prosthesis, he learns. Shocked, he asks if everything about her is artificial. She responds that she is “indestructible.”
A scene change relocates Ill, Claire, the entourage, and the tree-men (who are men once again) to the Golden Apostle, where the town band and the gymnastics club have just performed in honor of Güllen’s esteemed (and very rich) guest. Before the festivities recommence, Claire announces that she will be divorcing her husband and marrying a German movie star, only because she would like to satisfy her childhood wish of marrying in Güllen’s cathedral.
Claire demonstrates, once again, a total lack of respect for her husband’s individuality. For her, a husband is a faceless pawn in her game—someone she uses to satisfy her own whims.
The announcement catches the Gülleners off-guard, but their suspicions of Claire are quickly forgotten when the Mayor finally gives the speech he prepared earlier in the act. The speech is long and brown-nosing, insincerely lionizing Claire for her intelligence, justness, and goodwill in an obvious appeal to her vanity and charity. Claire thanks the Mayor for his speech, but then curtly points out that she has never been the altruistic saint the Mayor has made her out to be.
Claire is quick to point out the untruths in the Mayor’s concocted speech and exposes his cash-grab tactics for what they are. Her disarming honesty is a calculated display of strength: it makes the Gülleners feel embarrassed and unsure of themselves while making Claire seem powerful and self-possessed (i.e. difficult to manipulate).
Nevertheless, Claire says, she does want to help Güllen. She announces then and there at the banquet that she is prepared to donate one billion—half to the town and half to be split equally amongst the families. The Gülleners are first too stunned to speak, but then gradually—prematurely—erupt into jubilation, celebrating their apparent financial salvation. But, of course, nothing in life is free and Claire’s offer is conditional: “with that billion,” she says, “I will buy myself justice.” The Mayor counters that justice cannot be bought, at which Claire scoffs, “Everything can be bought.”
She summons Boby the Butler to make her point. As soon as the man removes his dark glasses, the Teacher recognizes him as Güllen’s former Chief Justice Hofer. The Butler proceeds to explain that he entered Claire’s service twenty-five years ago, lured away from a prestigious post at Kaffigen’s Court of Appeal by the massive salary she offered him.
The Butler continues: when he was the Chief Justice of Güllen, he arbitrated a paternity case that a seventeen-year-old Claire had brought against Ill. Ill falsely denied fathering Claire’s love child, and brought two witnesses to corroborate his claim, leading an unwitting Boby to decide in his favor. These witnesses were none other than Koby and Loby, then Jakob Duckling and Walter Perch. The odd pair step forward and confess to having undermined Claire’s case by falsely claiming to have slept with her. They did so, they say, because Ill bribed them with a quart of schnapps. Years later, a vengeful Claire tracked down the perjurers (who were by that point living in Canada and Australia, respectively), and had them castrated and blinded.
For Claire, justice and vengeance are one and the same. She is an ethical egoist, driven by self-interest and operating according to her own sense of right and wrong (where revenge is “right”). As she herself acknowledges, it is her wealth that licenses her to act accordingly. While her powers are not supernatural, the sheer magnitude of her resources does make her somewhat otherworldly: an “indestructible,” all-seeing figure, able to track down her slanderers to ends of the earth.
Claire explains that she left Güllen following the trial and fell into prostitution to support herself and her child (who only lived for a year). When asked why she became a prostitute, Claire responds: “The court’s verdict turned me into one.”
The Mayor, speaking on behalf of his mortified constituents, immediately and emphatically refuses Claire’s offer, citing the town’s commitment to a rich humanistic tradition that values human life over capital. The Gülleners applaud his speech, but are interrupted by Claire, who ominously announces that she “can wait” (presumably for the villagers to succumb to the influence and allure of her money).