The Visit tells the story of a woman returning to her hometown after forty-five years to exact revenge on the man that betrayed her—or, as she puts it, to “buy justice.”
The play opens on a gaggle of unemployed townsmen who sit at a railway station in the fictional Swiss town of Güllen, awaiting the arrival of the famed billionairess Claire Zachanassian. They bemoan the deterioration of their home; Güllen was once a renowned cultural capital but has since fallen into a deep and devastating economic depression. Its impoverished citizens nevertheless hold out hope for their township—hope that Ms. Zachanassian, who was born and raised in Güllen, might endow the town’s restoration. Alfred Ill, Güllen’s “most popular man” and mayor-to-be, is leading a campaign to secure Claire’s donation; he was once her lover, and he expects that he should be able to leverage his relationship to her to get to her millions.
Claire arrives in Güllen several hours earlier than expected, throwing the townspeople into nervous disarray. While she and her entourage get off of the train, the Gülleners scramble to pull together the formal welcome they planned for her, frantically convening the choir and changing into their frock coats and top hats. Ill is the first to welcome the billionairess, bringing the two face-to-face for the first time in forty-five years. Ill showers Claire with compliments, hoping to loosen her purse strings with appeals to her vanity, but this fails. Claire bluntly states that she and Ill are old and fat now, and she proceeds to show him her many prosthetic limbs. She also takes a moment to introduce her Butler, Boby; her henchmen, Roby and Toby; her seventh husband, Moby; and the blind eunuchs Koby and Loby. She explains that she gave her attendants rhyming names to suit her own preferences. Claire’s strange retinue, her disarming directness, and her outlandish luggage—which includes a caged panther and a coffin, among other things—unnerves some Gülleners, particularly the Teacher. Nevertheless, all are hopeful about her visit.
While her luggage is moved to her accommodations at the Golden Apostle Inn, Claire revisits her old trysting haunts with Ill. The two reminisce about their young love affair, which ended when Ill left Claire for the then-wealthier Matilda Blumhard, owner of Güllen’s general store. Claire fell into prostitution after Ill abandoned her, and thus met the wealthy john that became her first husband (the oil magnate Zachassian).
Following their walk in the woods, Claire and Ill return to the Golden Apostle, where a banquet is being held in Claire’s honor. The Mayor makes a speech lionizing the billionairess in an obvious grab for money. Claire is unmoved by the insincere speech, but she nevertheless pledges one billion dollars to the town. She has only one condition: that someone kill Alfred Ill. This, of course, catches Ill off guard—until this point, he thought that he had the billionairess eating out the palm of his hand. Furious, he dismisses Claire, but her Butler steps forward to explain. Forty-five years ago, before he was in Claire’s service, the Butler was Güllen’s Chief Justice and he heard a paternity case that a young Claire had brought against Ill. Ill falsely denied that he was the father of Claire’s child, and he bribed two witnesses to corroborate his claim, thus losing Claire the trial and causing her exile from Güllen and her lapse into prostitution. The perjuring witnesses were none other than Koby and Loby, whom Claire tracked down years later and had blinded and castrated. Her campaign of revenge continues now in Güllen with Ill as her target: she only wants “justice,” she says, and now she can afford it. Claire’s murderous proposal takes the Gülleners aback. Citing the town’s commitment to a rich humanistic tradition that values human life over capital, the Mayor emphatically rejects Claire’s offer on behalf of his constituents. Claire simply replies that she will wait for them to change their minds.
In the days following the dramatic banquet, Ill sees Claire’s henchmen regularly changing the wreaths on the empty coffin Claire brought with her to Güllen, presumably for Ill. He also sees an increase in business at the general store he manages; his customers have started buying previously unattainable luxury items on credit. When Ill notices his customers all wearing the same new and expensive yellow shoes, he begins to suspect his neighbors of considering Claire’s proposal—of buying goods in advance of her billion dollar donation (a prerequisite for which is Ill’s death).
A paranoid Ill visits Güllen’s authorities one by one—the Policeman, the Mayor, the Priest—seeking protection, but he finds that they too have begun to live above their means. Though the Gülleners insist that they will not consider Claire’s offer, their increase in spending indicates that they do anticipate Claire’s donation (and, by extension, Ill’s death). Understanding this, Ill attempts to flee town on the train, but he is intimidated into staying by the mob of townspeople that crowd around him at the station. Meanwhile, Claire observes the town from her balcony at the Golden Apostle as a mob of Gülleners hunt down her escaped black panther.
At the start of the play’s final act, Claire has just married her eighth husband, but is already preparing for divorce. In the midst of managing her marital business, she is visited by the Doctor and Teacher. They inform her that the townspeople have drawn up exorbitant debts, and that the town needs her help more than ever, but that no one is willing to kill Ill. They propose an alternative to Claire’s offer, suggesting that Claire invest in Güllen’s industry, which would not only reintroduce paying jobs in town, but would also produce returns for Claire. Much to their consternation, Claire reveals that she already owns the town’s industry. She intentionally ran it into the ground to cause Güllen’s financial collapse and lay the groundwork for her revenge on Ill.
Meanwhile at the general store, Ill’s wife’s customers have taken to openly denigrating Ill and sympathizing with Claire, marking a major shift in public opinion since the Gülleners defended Ill and rejected the billionairess’ offer. When journalists enter the shop asking questions about Claire and Ill’s relationship, the townspeople offer platitudes about young love and nostalgia, but keep mum on the issue of Claire’s ultimatum. The Teacher, drunk and full of guilt, almost breaks the silence, but is kept in check by his fellow citizens until the journalists leave.
After days of keeping to himself above his shop, Ill suddenly reappears. He seeks out the Teacher who, still drunk, admits that the town cannot resist the temptation of Claire’s money. When the Mayor stops by the shop to advertise a public meeting about Claire’s offer, Ill promises to defer to the town’s verdict. The Mayor indirectly advises Ill to kill himself (and save someone else the trouble), but Ill refuses, demanding that the people of Güllen take responsibility for their choices and kill him themselves.
Faced with what seems to be an inevitable early death, Ill spends his last few hours driving with his family and reconciling with Claire in the woods. Claire admits that she never stopped loving Ill, but that years of bitter resentment turned her love into something evil. When Ill is dead, Claire says, she will finally possess him as she’d always wanted to. The couple parts, and Ill heads to his “trial.” The public meeting is well attended by the townspeople and by journalists reporting on Claire’s visit. The Mayor, who moderates the meeting, takes pains not to alert the press to Claire’s deadly ultimatum; he leads Güllen in a vote “to make justice a reality.” The townspeople unanimously vote to accept Claire’s money, and thus sentence Ill to death without saying so. They murder Ill while the journalists are at dinner and inform the press that Ill died from joy when Claire’s endowment was accepted. Later, Claire collects the body and delivers a check to the Mayor. As she leaves Güllen with her former lover’s body, the citizens of Güllen revel in their newfound prosperity.