Thursday, 18 September 2014

Dear justice

Full title: The Visit
Author: Friedrich Dürrenmatt (translated by Joel Agee)
Genre: Drama, tragicomedy
Attributes: 112 pages, paperback
Publisher: Grove Press (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This is a play in the tradition of things so tragic they are comical, and therefore absurd. A flavour of Ionesco hovers over the play, and one can't help but delight in tragicomedy, a hybrid genre where everything is possible and where everything, if given the chance, will take place. Dürrenmatt imagines a textbook moral crisis, yet complicates it to a serious extent. The dilemma that puts the play in motion involves not an individual (as would have been the case in a classical tragedy) but an entire community (as is often the case in comedy).

Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Source: Die Kunst der Fugue
The principal character and the protagonist/antagonist (notice how she seems to be ticking both boxes at the same time), Claire Zachanassian, is an old and filthily rich woman who’s coming back to her hometown. She’s visiting, but the visit turns out to be far from a touristic whim. She’s back with a vengeance. She’s here to fix a problem that’s been haunting her for decades: the treacherous act of Alfred Ill (it looks like a 3, but it's actually "ill"), her former lover, who, sixty years earlier, had abandoned Claire when their love story was in full swing, and condemned her to a life of prostitution and squalor. Now a billionairess, she's grown into a merciless revenger. She presents the town of Güllen, where Ill has lived all this time, with an offer they cannot refuse:
“I can afford justice. One billion for Güllen, if someone kills Alfred Ill.”
One sentence, and the town is shattered. The engine of tragedy has been turned on. There won’t be peace any longer, there won’t be patience. The command, veiled, like all moral dilemmas, in the illusion of choice, is precisely diabolical and leaves no room for negotiation. The offer falls upon Güllen like a thunderbolt. It destabilizes its institutional structure, it brings the populace into the marketplace, it shakes the foundations of its very humanity, and it makes it take pleasure in the idea of committing a crime for financial gain.
The mayhem generated by the old billionairess is illustrated by the Priest, who, acting like a chorus from a Greek tragedy, gives Ill the only advice that can, in all appearance, still save him  (BTW, choruses do appear in the end, to give the play that special twist and remind the audience to put the right frame onto the story):
“Flee! We are weak, Christians and heathen alike. Flee, the bell is resounding in Güllen, the bell of treachery. Flee and lead us not into temptation by staying.”
Let us not forget, this is a small town, where existential spleen happens in cyclical swirls, and where ethical norm could be disturbed by as much as an innocent pinch. Let alone a billion! As noted by one of the visitors, an idiot who’s managed to best define the town’s bucolic insignificance,
“All right, the linden tree’s rustling, birds are singing, the fountain is splashing, but they were already doing that half an hour ago. There’s just nothing happening, neither in nature nor in the people, nothing but deep, untroubled peace, contentment, satiety, and comfort. No grandeur, no tragedy. None of the ethical calling of a great age.”
Of course, he’s wrong in the essential part: exactly where he supposes there’s no “ethical calling.” Because the play is all about this problem, presented to the inhabitants of Güllen like an equation they are expected to solve. In the age of counting (in 1956, when the play was originally published, just as much as now, almost sixty years later), morality too must be looked for in numbers. One billion in unspecified currency against one very concrete human life! A problem for ethics, a problem for arithmetic, it’s all the same: a problem; and one that needs to be solved. Now!

The 1964 filmic version discarded some of the humour
and changed certain details, but heightened the drama

A few things need to be said about the play’s technical conceits as well. Dürrenmatt manipulates very well theatrical conventions, so as to encourage experimental treatments of both space and time. Settings, for instance, change without the fall of curtains, by mere prop handling (in the style of Brecht’s Epic Theatre, no doubt). Sometimes, even characters are used as props, as is the case with an omnipresent group of four blind men who turn now into trees, now into animals, now into different people. These are, perhaps, the most delightful characters. They bring that touch of comedy to the stage whenever they go through these unexpected transformations: a great source of humour.
When taken as a whole, The Visit entertains while exposing the weakness and the hubris of human nature. The end is not comic, but the journey there is paved with a lot of delightful moments, which ease the bitter taste of the ethical crisis the play occasions. Plus, the questions – the questions, whatever they may be, are worth pondering.