The act opens with a view of Claire’s balcony at the dilapidated Golden Apostle Inn, foregrounded by Ill’s general store opposite what seems to be the Policeman’s office.
The scene visually articulates Claire’s power over the Gülleners: on high she watches them fall into the traps she’s laid out.
These three locations are visually linked by Roby and Toby ominously carrying wreaths and flowers across the stage to place on the empty coffin Claire brought with her to Güllen. Ill anxiously looks on through the window of his shop, worrying that the ritual will remind Gülleners of their option to kill him, but he reassures himself that the town is on his side.
Roby and Toby’s processions are, of course, unnerving, but they are also direct, wordless, and less disturbing than the disingenuousness of other rituals in Güllen, such as Claire’s welcome celebration.
Ill momentarily turns his thoughts away from the price on his head and speaks briefly with his son and daughter. They announce that they will head to the railway station and Labor Exchange, respectively, in search of work. Ill sees them off.
The children’s difficulty finding work reestablishes the direness of Güllen’s economic situation. This will also later contrast his son and daughter’s extravagant wealth.
As Ill’s children leave the shop, a townsman enters looking to buy cigarettes—a more expensive brand than usual. When Ill alerts him of the additional cost, the man asks Ill to charge the purchase to credit. Two more customers (the First and Second Women) enter, and buy richer milk and butter than usual, and even indulge in bread and chocolate. Like the man before them, they make their purchases on credit.
It begins—the Gülleners who so boldly defended Ill not ten minutes of stage time before, are starting to succumb to the allure of the wealth Claire has conditionally promised them. Their “humanism” seems no match for market forces—or for the taste of chocolate!
Meanwhile, Claire’s entourage tries to appease their demanding mistress: Boby the Butler searches for her prosthetic leg, while Roby strums folk tunes she requests on guitar. Claire contemplates her upcoming wedding, not a week after her divorce from Moby. This leads her to recall her former husbands. She expresses particular admiration for her first husband—the oil tycoon Zachanassian whom she met when she was a prostitute—after whom she modeled her own persona. She also derisively pities “poor Moby,” and mockingly “honors” him by smoking a cigar made with tobacco from the plantations she acquired from him during their divorce.
The way that Claire uses the people around her reflects her deep disregard for the humanity of others. It’s also notable that Claire attributes her persona to her first husband, whom Ill’s betrayal led her to marry. It was Zachanassian’s ruthless capitalism that has allowed Claire to live a life in which she understands everything, even justice, to be for sale. For Claire, the way to never be betrayed and powerless again is to be ruthless.
Ill and his customers look on, condemning Claire for sitting high and mighty on her balcony and smoking such expensive cigars. “Conspicuous consumption,” they call it. “In full view of destitute humanity.”
The customers disparage Claire for indulging in what they can’t. Their rebukes only thinly veil their envy.
Another customer then enters the shop, prompting Ill to comment on the unusually high number of customers he’s had this morning. The customers all assure him that they are visiting his shop in solidarity with him against Claire’s offer—he is, after all, the most popular man in town, and Güllen’s Mayor-to-be!
A half-naked girl—Miss Louise—suddenly bursts across stage, playfully pursued by Toby. The lady customers in Ill’s shop momentarily turn their derisive gaze from Claire to Louise, continuing to eat their chocolate all the while.
The customers’ judgmental actions are ironic; they may not be traipsing around in the nude with Claire’s goons, but they are essentially whoring themselves in the same way, standing there indulging in things they’d never be able to afford without Claire’s money.
Back at the Golden Apostle, we see Claire’s soon-to-be eighth husband join her on her balcony. (A stage direction allows the same actor that played Husband VII to play Husband VIII.) Claire can hardly stand him. He comments on the apparent nervous energy of the Gülleners, unaware of Claire’s plan and the anxiety it has caused.
A director might cast the same actor in all the husbands’ roles, a choice which would deny the characters any individuality (much in the same way that Claire does)—VIII is but the next in a long line of nameless, faceless husbands to be used, then discarded. His banal observations further emphasize his indistinction.
The play cuts back to the shop, where Ill has suddenly noticed that all his customers are wearing new yellow shoes. This development, on top of his customers’ exorbitant purchases on credit, alerts Ill to an economic fact that might spell his own doom: the greater the Gülleners’ debts, the greater their need to kill Ill for Claire’s money.
With every new purchase, the Gülleners raise the price on Ill’s head, and thus further dehumanize him to the level of a commodity. The shoes, as bright and highly visible symbols for the Gülleners’ increasing debts, signal the rise of consumerism in their town at the expense of Ill’s life and humanity.
A nervous Ill rushes out of his shop to the Policeman, demanding that he arrest Claire for inciting his murder. The Policeman downplays Ill’s concerns, assuring him that no one in town is taking Claire seriously. But when Ill notices that the Policeman is himself wearing the same new yellow shoes—and sporting a new gold tooth—he recognizes that the Policeman, like the customers, has succumbed to the lure of material gain (if not yet the willingness to murder for money). An exasperated Ill challenges the officer, but the Policeman abruptly ends their conversation, explaining that Claire’s black panther has escaped and that he must hunt it down. “The whole town has to hunt it down,” he adds.
Ill’s paranoia is vindicated by the Policeman’s vague dismissals and recent purchases. It seems that the law (represented by the Policeman) is less motivated to maintain law and order in Güllen than to indulge in luxury. Furthermore, the Policeman’s subtly threatening remarks about the hunt for the panther roaming Güllen suggest in veiled terms that “the whole town” will be hunting Ill next. Nevertheless, the Policeman denies any plot against Ill.
Only more desperate after his disconcerting conversation with the Policeman, Ill heads for the Mayor’s office. When Ill arrives, he notices the bureaucrat casually handling a revolver. The Mayor explains away the gun, indicating that he has only armed himself in case Claire’s escaped panther approaches him. Ill remains suspicious of the Mayor (whom he notices is also smoking a more-expensive-than-usual brand of cigarettes and wearing those same ominous yellow shoes), but nevertheless Ill pleads with the Mayor for protection. The Mayor dismisses Ill’s concerns and chides him for his faithlessness: "You forget that you're in Güllen. A town with a humanist tradition. […] If you’re unable to place any trust in our community, I pity you.” The Mayor goes on to chastise Ill for his perjury during Claire’s paternity trial, and informs him that he has been disqualified from running for Mayor on account of this crime. When Ill notices a blueprint for a new building on the Mayor’s wall, however, he interprets the Mayor’s admonitions as yet another sign of the tide of public opinion in Güllen turning against him.
The government in Güllen (represented by the Mayor) also seems to have compromised on its commitment to justice—at least, “justice” as the Mayor described it at the end of Act I. The Mayor denies that Ill has any cause for concern, going so far as to shame him for doubting the compassion of his community. The Mayor also bars Ill from the Mayorship on account of his mistreatment of Claire years ago. But the Mayor’s rebukes are clearly disingenuous; his dismissals and vague threats, not to mention his indulgences (i.e. the blueprint, the cigarettes, the shoes, and the gun) suggest that Güllen’s once humanitarian Mayor now cares more for money than for human life, dignity, and well-being.
As Ill downheartedly takes leave of the Mayor’s office, we cut once again to the balcony of the Golden Apostle Inn, where Claire is having breakfast with her fiancée. He dolefully shares that Güllen depresses him: it lacks “grandeur” and “tragedy,” he says. There is no drama or discomfort to make life there interesting; the town has “none of the ethical calling of a great age.”
The irony of the fiancée’s claims is painfully clear to the audience, who, unlike him, is aware of the great and tragic “ethical calling” the town is facing.
We shift back to Ill, who has now come to plead with Güllen’s Pastor. The Pastor, like the Mayor, totes a shotgun with which to defend himself from Claire’s panther. When Ill shares his concerns about the potentially malevolent intentions of the townsfolk, the Pastor suggests that Ill is merely imputing to others the guilt and disdain he feels toward himself for having abandoned Claire. The Pastor encourages Ill not to worry, but to find peace with himself. Ill starts to reiterate his concerns about the Gülleners’ outrageous spending, but is interrupted by the toll of a new bell the Pastor has bought for the church. With that, Ill realizes to his horror that even Güllen’s spiritual guide has been seized by an earthly desire for wealth and luxury, and may therefore agree to Claire’s terms.
Seeking help in an increasingly hostile Güllen, Ill turns to the Pastor. Perhaps he hopes that the Church—an institution ostensibly less invested in earthly affairs (e.g. Claire’s money) than in matters of morality—can temper the rising tide of ill will toward Ill in town. But Ill soon learns that even Güllen’s Church—under its veneer of sanctity and human compassion—is an institution like any other in the town, motivated not by any genuine pursuit of justice or enlightenment, but by the desire for wealth and power.
Suddenly, two shots are fired and the startled Pastor briefly recovers his moral clarity. He urges Ill to leave town before he and the Gülleners commit some greater treachery than buying new shoes or cigarettes or bells. His exhortations of “Flee! Flee!” are drowned out by the reverberations of the gunshots, which apparently finished off the escaped panther.
Not long after defending the value of life, the Gülleners have become ruthless killers, hunting an animal desperate for freedom. The cat’s death doesn’t bode well for an increasingly dehumanized and preyed-upon Ill (who is Claire’s other “black panther”). This time, the shock of violence temporarily lifts the veil of denial from over Güllen; faced by real death, the guilty Pastor exposes his town’s motivations for what they are and urges Ill to flee.
Claire mourns her pet, and the Gülleners assemble before her balcony to offer their condolences. But before the townspeople have the opportunity to sing their dirge for the panther, Ill interrupts them, paranoid that they are singing the funeral song for him. He dismisses the other Gülleners from the scene, leaving him alone with Claire. He is below on the street, and she is above on her balcony. Claire recalls that their love began in a similar way: she was also on a balcony the day that Ill first laid eyes on her. His stare was intense, she remembers—“almost sinister, almost evil,” yet “full of love.” Her memories fail to charm Ill, who only wants to know if Claire’s bargain of his life for a billion dollars is serious. He asks. She does not answer.
This scene is a parodic reconstruction of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It takes the pure, wanton love from Shakespeare’s play and turns it into something dark and charged with tension. It also introduces the idea that “love” can be sinister. This idea recurs in the next act when Claire tells Ill that she never stopped loving him—that by collecting his corpse, she hopes to finally possess him.
The next morning, Ill heads for the railway station with his suitcase, intending to catch the next train out of town. As he waits for his train, he notices first that the station has been updated a bit, then that the citizens of Güllen have begun to approach him from all sides. They overwhelm him with questions and comments obviously meant to discourage him from skipping town. But when Ill once again expresses his suspicions, the townspeople assure him that no one will harm him. As the train pulls up to the station, the Gülleners bid Ill farewell, but continue to crowd closer and closer around him. Intimidated, Ill finds himself unable to board the train, convinced that someone would hold him back if he did. He collapses as the train departs and fatalistically cries, “It’s all over!”
Dürrenmatt’s stage direction places Ill at the center of the mob forming around him. This image is repeated in the play’s final scene, when the Gülleners kill Ill. Visually, these scenes reflect Ill’s central role in everything that has happened in Güllen—it was his betrayal of Claire that has set all these events in motion (including, Dürrenmatt reveals later, Güllen’s economic decline). Ill’s fate (life or death) is intertwined with Güllen’s; for this reason, Ill feels that it would be impossible—or at least pointless—to leave town.