Friedrich Dürrenmatt – A Tragedian for Our Times
Der Besuch der Alten Dame – A Modern Greek Tragedy
I first encountered the wonderful Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, when I was in year eleven and my school was putting on, ‘The Visit’, Maurice Valency’s translation (well, more of an adaptation in fact) of the play. I played the Painter, not a large, but quite a fun part. It is an enthralling play about love, desperation, power, resignation, but above all revenge, and it captured my imagination for its moral complexity and its fundamentally disturbing nature. I properly encountered it again, when it came up as a possible German A Level set text and I was very excited to read the original at last. It is a good deal darker than the Valency suggests. The Classical element is much more palpable in the original. It is an incredible play and one that both would have resonated back in Classical Athens and also still resonates today. You sometimes find this play called a ‘tragicomedy’. Yes, there are comic moments, principally from Claire herself, but the overall flavour is certainly not that of a comedy. I will start by briefly summarising the plot, then look at direct references to the Classical world made by the characters. I will then turn to the character of Claire, and how an understanding of Euripides’ Medea and Aeschylus’ Clytaemnestra is integral to a full appreciation of her portrayal, but also of how audience reaction to her is manipulated. Finally, I will look at the closing chorus, and how this stock feature of Greek tragedy provides an effective end that leaves the message of the play ringing in our ears.
Just before I begin, if you are studying the play, you may well have come across the term ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (estrangement-effect). This is a technique whereby the audience is alienated from any sympathy with the characters. Whilst I see how it might be applied to this play, I do not agree with this reading. In my opinion, Dürrenmatt is employing a technique familiar from Greek tragedy, whereby he ‘messes’ with the sympathies of the audience. One minute we sympathize with ‘x’ character, then their actions destroy those feelings and are transferred to ‘y’, yet a little sympathy for ‘x’ still simmers away.
The plot. We enter the poor and ruined town of Güllen. A group of citizens watches the trains whizz by, and they lament the fate of their once buzzing and esteemed hometown. The industries have all shut down, the town is bankrupt. A glimmer of hope has raised its head in the form of the impending visit of former Güllen resident, Kläri Wäscher, now the great beneficent and famous billionairess, Claire Zachanassian. The Mayor (Bürgermeister) and Ill, a former flame, plan her great reception. Ill believes he will be capable of great influence with Claire. She arrives sooner than anyone expected, and they all rush pell-mell to get ready. The welcome sign is half-done, a train zooms by when the choir sing for her, and the fire-bell rings late. Almost at once, however, there is a sense that something is not quite right. Claire has brought a coffin with her. And her pet black panther. Black panther was a ‘pet’ name (pardon the pun) for Ill. The beast is shot in the second act. Ill and Claire have something of a reunion in the woods, and old haunt for them, and the feeling of unease continues. A darkly humorous line is when Ill kisses Claire’s hand and he sighs, ‘Dieselbe kühle weiße Hand’ – ‘the same cool white hand’. Claire enlightens him that it is actually a prosthetic. She also has one or two other false limbs. Ill asks if she is entirely ‘prosthetic’, a dark moment of humour. Her false limbs are a physical symbol for how Claire has changed. Ill has not yet clocked it. We move to the reception in the Golden Apostle Inn. The mood is jolly, bar some strange remarks from Claire, for example, she asks the gymnast whether he has ever strangled anyone Ill takes these comments as signs of Claire’s dark humour, which she certainly has. After a speech from the mayor, Claire announces a gift of one billion to the town. They are overjoyed. But she has a condition. Her Butler announces that the gift is dependent upon the town righting a wrong done to Claire when she was young. It turns out the Butler was once the chief magistrate in Güllen. Ill’s wife suddenly recognises him. He had presided over the case concerning the paternity of Claire’s unborn child. Claire swore that Ill was, and no one else could be. Then, two other citizens claimed also to have slept with Claire. The case against Ill was dismissed and she was banished, heavily pregnant and homeless. Our sympathies for Claire soar. The two perjured citizens are brought in. They admit to lying about sleeping with Claire. They did so, because Ill bribed them with Schnapps. They are peculiar fellows with high-pitched voices, blind, and talking like robots in their repetitive, rhyming speech. Claire hunted them down and had both blinded and castrated. Our sympathy wavers. But when she says, softly (leise) that the child lived only a year, we see her true pain, and we are torn. Her condition is one billion for the murder of Ill. The citizens are horrified, and the mayor emphatically rejects her offer. Claire simply replies, ‘I’ll wait’, and the act ends. Fast forward through the rest of the play. As the citizens begin buying expensive goods, Ill realises they are becoming dependent on the proffered gift and price on his head. We gradually see them turning against him, condemning his actions towards Claire. He is prevented from leaving. In the third act, the teacher and doctor attempt to plead with Claire to rescue the town without killing Ill, but rather by buying the bankrupt industries. She already owns them. She bought them to shut them down and back the whole town into a corner. This is what she meant earlier in the woods when she tells Ill she has become his ‘Hell’. Ill is killed in the end and he does rather become the town’s martyr. Our sympathy grows for him. Can we admire him in his acceptance of his fate, for his town’s rescue? Or is he simply resigned? Does he ever truly show remorse? I shall leave that for you to decide.
We now come to the direct Classical references in the play. These are nearly all spoken by the teacher, a Classical scholar. Watching Claire’s entourage and parade of possessions, he tells the mayor that for the first time he knows what it feels like for something to give him the creeps. Something is not right. As Claire stepped off the train in her black garments, she reminded him of one of the Greek fates, specifically Clotho. ‘One can believe her capable of spinning life’s thread’, he says rather darkly. We have heard earlier about how Claire has donated billions for charitable causes. She certainly has the power. And he is to some extent correct. She IS spinning the rest of Ill’s thread as well as that of the Gülleners. He also compares her to the famous Greek courtesan Lais, in view of the predominance of men in her train. He has misunderstood their role. They are Claire’s pawns, not her lovers. The teacher is particularly chilled by the sight of the two small blind men (the perjured citizens, something he does not know yet). He says, ‘Monstrous. Like they have climbed out of Hades’.
What is it about Claire that the teacher has noticed? Her appearance has spooked him, the number of men she has in her power, the strange appearance of the two blind men. Claire certainly does bring Fate to the citizens. But they have a choice. She just knows which one they will make. She alone in the play truly understands human nature. The pressures of the poverty that she has quite deliberately brought upon them will drive them to do exactly what she wants. What does Claire do in the second act, as Ill’s world crumbles around him? Nothing. She does absolutely nothing to further her plan. She does exactly what she says. She waits. Claire is ever present in the act, sitting on her balcony raised above the main stage, we see her organising her shares, communicating with powerful contacts, organising wedding invitations and replies, announcing famous attendees such as Onassis, as Ill goes desperately seeking help, reacts with horror to the expensive purchases of his fellows, and in the end resorts to attempting to escape. What this reminds us of is Claire’s power. She has risen from nothing, poverty, being forced to prostitute herself, all forced on her by Ill, and now she is the one in power. Ill used Schnapps to get his way, she uses one billion.
Fate, manipulation, powerful women are all familiar traits of Greek tragedy. You have probably also noticed the following: the wronged woman, determined to get revenge, a fall from grace – Ill goes from being the mayor’s successor, to being utterly disgraced, and eventually, to being victim to revenge. But the Greek tragedy infusion, shall we call it, goes much deeper than that.
A parallel emerges in the scene in the first act where Ill and Claire converse in their old haunt, the forest. Claire laments the past (p.39) and her relationship with Ill, and then rather bitterly notes:
‘Then you went and married Mathilde Blumhard with her small corner shop, and I old
Zachanassian with his billions from Armenia. He found me in a brothel in Hamburg. My red
hair attracted him, that lecherous old June bug.’
This tells us that Claire’s departure from Güllen was not a happy one, although we still yet to learn the details. And there is a hint she blames Ill. Ill seeks to portray his act of marrying another woman as selfless:
‘It was for your sake that I married Mathilde Blumhard.’
Claire sharply replies:
‘She had money.’
Ill appeals thus:
‘You were young and beautiful. The future belonged to you. I wanted you to be happy. For
that I had to forego my own happiness.’
A rather feeble bit of fawning. But here we find him comparable to Jason in Medea. Just like Ill, he has gone off to marry for money, the wealthy Corinthian princess, Glauke. Medea has been banished from Corinth, rather like Claire, although Medea’s ranting threats did not help her case. Also like Ill, Jason claims to have married another woman for ‘them’, namely Medea and their two children, arguing it was to secure their future. Yep, work that one out. Medea doesn’t buy it, and Claire knows the truth.
Once we find out the truth, we realise the shallowness of Ill’s words. How can he think Claire has forgotten? The fact is, he was motivated by money then, no less than his fellow citizens when Claire’s offer is dangled before them. In fact, Claire is the least motivated by money. For her, it’s simply a tool. Presumably, Ill thinks, she’s done all right, and that was a long time ago.
So, what truly does motivate Claire? Simply, revenge. However, this is not a simple case of a woman scorned. Claire’s fate after she was thrown out of her hometown was grim, her meeting with old man Zachanassian, who became her passport out of poverty, was simply chance. She took it. But it was hardly the ‘I sent you off to better things’ state of affairs that Ill tries to palm her off with. After Doctor (p.117) calls her deliberate crippling of the town monstrous, Claire gives an unsparing account of her departure. She was heavily pregnant, it was winter, she was mocked by the residents as she left. She also adds the detail about her two long plaits to remind them of her youth. Later, in her final conversation with Ill, she reveals that their child was a little girl, whom she called Genenvieve, who was taken away from her, and lived only a year. In the earlier scene, the Teacher is moved by her account. He says she is not the ancient vengeful Medea he originally considered her to be, but a genuinely wronged woman.
Therein lies the complexity of Claire’s character and the genius of Dürrenmatt’s portrayal. She is a tragic heroine absolutely and true. Powerful, aggressive, wilful, but shamefully treated. Claire is both Medea and Clytaemnestra, as we shall see.
Both Medea and Claire are angry at lovers who have abandoned them. Medea helped Jason and even saved him in his most dangerous quests, bore him two children, and now she has now been cast aside. Claire was wrongly banished when she was found to be expecting her lover’s child. Jason at least never denies paternity. If this is all sounding a bit DNA test on the chat show, you would be right. Claire wants to kill Ill himself, Medea wants to make Jason suffer for the rest of his life. Death is an easy way put for him. She wants to take everything from him, even their own children. Yet, there is a clear similarity with Claire here. Ill is made to lose everything he once held dear, too. She forces Ill to experience losing everything and being isolated before he dies. She might not kill Ill’s family, but she certainly sows the seeds for them to turn against him. In their last goodbye to their father, his daughter Ottilie reveals her new dress and shows off her French, an item and lessons paid for by the bounty on her own father’s head. Ill DOES lose his family. Claire’ money destroys their loyalty. Both Medea and Claire manipulate others into assisting them. Medea manipulates king Aegeus of Athens into giving her refuge, by saying she can end his childlessness. She omits to mention her little murder plot. It is interesting that Aegeus takes a dim view of Jason’s actions, as do the chorus, a group of Corinthian Women, this tells the audience that Medea is not entirely unsympathetic. At this point in the play, we don’t yet know about her plan to kill her own children in revenge. It is the same with Claire. The citizens are genuinely horrified when they learn about Ill’s betrayal. However, does it justify her having Ill murdered? One sees the citizens almost trying to convince themselves that it does. Like Medea, and as we shall see Clytaemnestra, too, Claire is a powerful speaker. The instant reaction to her revelations about what really happened is one of sympathy, conflicted sympathy when she adds her deadly proviso. An important difference is that Claire has no qualms about her revenge. Medea has no qualms about revenge, but does waver in her later plan. Mind you, Claire is not planning to kill her children.
In fact, the one time we see tenderness and true sadness from Claire, as mentioned above, is where she says of her child, ‘it lived a year’, in hushed tones suggesting she is choked at the memory. And here, she most strongly resembles Clytaemnestra. Her grief over the child’s death is part of her anger. She lost the child twice, once when taken from her, and then her actual death. Clytaemnestra’s target for revenge is her husband, Agamemnon. In the Odyssey, when Agamemnon tells Odysseus about his murder, Clytaemnestra’s involvement is as second fiddle to Aegisthus, who wants to take Agamemnon’s throne. Aeschylus makes the matter a good deal more complicated. Clytaemnestra is having an affair with Aegithus, but he is her pawn now. Clytaemnestra is not trying to please her lover, she is avenging her daughter. She never forgave Agamemnon for killing Iphigeneia as a sacrifice for a fair breeze to Troy. She waited ten years. She could wait, just like Claire could. Claire also manipulates a lover. She arrived with her 7th husband in prospective, never named, the only one who is, is old man Zachanassian. That is significant. They are little more than pawns. Number seven’s only purpose is to give Claire her pretext for returning. To get married in the church in Güllen. Both Claire and Clyt. control the situation in which they exact their revenge: Agamemnon in his bath, Ill the only stumbling block to Claire’s restorative billion, and the Gülleners so in debt, they have little choice. But Clytaemnestra gleefully strikes the blow herself, Claire does not. She doesn’t have to – she sets the snowball rolling and watches it go. When Claire says to Ill, ‘And I have become your Hell’ (Ich bin die Hӧlle geworden), she means, not only that she is responsible for the situation of Güllen, but that he will not escape justice. She is like a Fury from Hades. Intriguingly comparable is Clyt’s remark, triumphing over her killing of Agamemnon:
‘Iphigenia, his daughter, gladly will she meet her father at the swift-flowing ford of pain and
will fling her arms around him and kiss him.’
Iphigeneia will embrace her father at the gates of Hell. It is also the one time, following Agamemnon’s murder, that the Chorus realise that revenge upon him for killing his daughter was just. Another interesting parallel for the child-grief and also for the blinding of the two bribed witnesses comes in the form of Euripides, Hecuba. When her maiden daughter Polyxena is sacrificed as an offering on the tomb of Achilles and her youngest son Polydorus murdered by Polymestor, she brutally blinds him and kills his sons in requital.
And this is why I do not subscribe to the Verfremdungseffekt theory: Dürrenmatt, like Aeschylus and Euripides, plays with our sympathies. What Claire suffered was dreadful, but her ice-cold, unswerving revenge makes her response understandable, but is it justified? Agamemnon (personally, I think he deserved all he got), chose the esteem of his army over his daughter. Revenge and requital had to be expected, but it was still murder, and by his wife at a time when marriage was essentially a woman’s purpose. In Medea, the chorus are willing accomplices at first, recognising the possible fragility of their own marriages, in the wake of Jason’s abandonment. But once the plan becomes killing her children, they are horrified, and pity the ruined Jason in the very last scene of the play. Medea displays a similarly cold rationality. Hurt Jason/Ill by taking everything from them.
We must also consider Ill as a tragic hero. He has wronged Claire terribly. In the end, he does accept what will happen for the good of the town, and one can, I think, feel he goes some way toward redemption. In the end, he does not fight what is coming. Much like Oedipus, although unhappily unaware of his crime. But there is a parallel here. Thebes is beset with plague, Güllen with poverty. Oedipus wants to put it right, and I believe Ill does too. Both are unaware of their role in their town’s misfortune. Oedipus directly, in the murder of his father and maternal nuptials (lovely), Ill, directly, in the sense that his treatment of Claire set off the anger and grief that wrought ruin on the townsfolk. In Oedipus, the gods send it, in Der Besuch, Claire, perhaps hence the Teacher’s reference to her being like a powerful fate-goddess. In both cases, a miasma and past crime, must be exposed and righted before recovery can begin.
We end, as a Greek tragedy normally does, with a chorus meditating on the lesson of the play. At the end of that play, the chorus meditate on wisdom as the key to happiness and arrogance as what brings divine requital, in this case upon Creon. At the end of Der Besuch, the conference list terrible tragedies such as earthquakes, the atom bomb, and flooding. But, they say, nothing is more monstrous than poverty which eats up the human race. Ackermann in his edition of the text calls it a parody. I am not so sure. They go on to paint pictures of mothers watching children wasting away, and the corrupting power of poverty. In the last lines we come full circle. A train rushes away from Güllen. I should like to suggest another chorus parallel. Not the end chorus this time, but Claire’s men folk who she plays like marionettes. In the marvellous Bacchae of Euripides, the chorus are the savage female army of the god Dionysus and in the end, whipped into their maenadic frenzy, they rip Pentheus, who denies Bacchus’ divinity, limb from limb. Dionysus controls them like Claire does her male entourage. Their names all rhyme. ‘Roby und Toby’ (the two heavies Claire rescued from Sing-Sing), Boby (the former magistrate), ‘Koby und Loby’ (the two lying witnesses). She even calls her husband ‘Hoby’ because it rhymes with the others. The chillingly dehumanising effect of this, does make an interesting comparison of the amorphous, robotic, but violent group of maenads of th Bacchae. Could this play also have influenced Dürrenmatt.
What we have in this play is a modern tragedy: poverty, women unjustly treated, revenge, money, power. Tragedy offered Dürrenmatt many models and parallels, through which he could infuse his play with deeper meaning, and by which he could make it a more shocking portrayal of human nature:
o a strong woman driving the quest for revenge (Clare)
o a downfall (Ill)
o the mixed emotions and sympathies we feel with the characters (not just Clare and Ill, the
Bürgermeister, Ill’s family, etc.).
o Characters with tragic flaws – Clare bitterness, Ill status.
This only highlights the play’s universal pertinence more strongly. As we survey a world with many problems, we still reflect upon:
§ human emotion.
§ human nature and its faults.
§ human responsibility.
It is a fascinating case study on the theme of Classical reception. Dürrenmatt wonderfully and thought-provokingly emphasised tragedy’s message and how it still matters.
 The name Claire is a mix of Zacharoff (Basil Zacharoff, the rich Greek arms dealer), Onassis (Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate), and Gulbenkian (Calouste Gulbenkian, the British-Armenian oil magnate). The name conveys Claire’s power and influence that she is capable of thanks for the vast fortune left to her by her first husband Zachanassian, his name becomes synonymous with money and power.
 The text used is the Methuen edition.
(This article originally started life as a paper for St. Swithun's Academic Lunch, a venue where I have always felt very welcome with a super audience - 23/11/2021. A few extra thoughts have been added since, those on Hecuba and the Bacchae, for example. A massive thank you once again to Dr. E Mackintosh for the invitation).