Book Review: The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The Visit

Friedrich Dürrenmatt is a well regarded Swiss author and dramatist. His play The Visit was first premiered in Zurich in 1956. The actual title in German is Der Besuch der alten Dame, translating into The Visit of the Old Lady. I read it translated into English. The German version is highly thought of, and it is indeed often used as text for those studying German as a foreign language. The Visit has been performed internationally as a play, as a musical and even as an opera. There is also a much-altered film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman.

I approached The Visit cold. I did not try to find out anything much about it before hand. Why I chose The Visit, was firstly because my reading challenge needed a play. Secondly I was looking for something in German to vary the the language context. I found the book some months back, while preparing my reading list for 2019. The cold approach worked well, as thus I was able to form my own idea of the book.

I knew it was a tragi-comedy. That is stated on the title page. Patrick Bowles, the translator describes it as a macabre parable in his foreword. The Visit is indeed funny, sad, macabre and tragical. There is death, fear, desires, submission, betrayal, power, weakness, wealth and poverty in it. As I was reading The Visit, it came to me that this was possibly allegorical. Yet Dürrenmatt makes a point of denying this in his postscript.

We can, however, note that  Dürrenmatt studied philosophy along with literature. Therefore he would have been aware of utilitarianism – and how the morally right choice is what is best for the majority. We also know that Dürrenmatt was politically active, and that he was a member of the left-wing club Gruppe Olten of Swiss writers. Then questions about the corruptibility of justice, the power of the wealthy, the effects of democratic decisions on the individual and the weakness of any man/woman become interesting.

The Visit centers around two characters. Clare Zachanassian is now old. So is Afred Ill. Both remember times when they were young, beautiful, vibrant and in love. With each other. In Guellen, their small town. They also remember bought injustice and betrayal – something that took place between them as well as within the justice system of the town. And Clare has paid the price of it so far, and now she demands that Alfred too will pay. She has to the money to ask for it. It is not the first time Clare Zachanassian has taken justice in her hands with her money.

I enjoyed The Visit. It entertained, but it also made me think. It reveals. It lays open. There is a sad undertone, as it is a dark comedy. The plot one can both see and not see at the same time. The discussion flows naturally and it is pertly multi staged at once. It is also interesting, how clearly Dürrenmatt describes the scenes. Scenes that one can visualize, yet wishes to see in actual productions. In varied interpretations in fact.

STARS: 5/5

PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape Ltd


PAGES: 104


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