Der Besuch der alten Dame

Der Besuch der alten Dame; The Visit, or The Old Lady Comes to Call (first performed and published 1956)

Dürrenmatt’s most famous play has been taught to generations of A-Level students in England. It is also a classic text for university students, and still popular in theatres.

In the play, the richest woman in the world arrives in a small Swiss town, Guellen, and puts a price on the head of her ex-lover, the man who betrayed her, Alfred Ill. Once a respected member of the community, Alfred Ill is hunted down and murdered by his fellow citizens. The play is an absurd comedy, but it also has the ring of truth. People have been known to betray their neighbours for financial profit. Indeed, the play has connotations of National Socialist Germany, in which people were very often denounced and hunted down by their neighbours (from a variety of motives).

The name of the small town, Guellen, is appropriate, since the German word ‘die Gülle’ means ‘slurry’ or ‘liquid manure’. This suggests that behind the clean, respectable, moral facade of this Swiss town, there is a swamp of moral filth and degradation.

The name ‘Zachanassian’ probably alludes to the Armenian businessman Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), who was one of the richest men in the world. 

The play suggests that justice can be bought for money, suggesting pervasive legal and moral corruption. The play is also political because it alludes to the subordinate, disenfranchised role of women in Swiss society. Women did not get the vote in Switzerland until the three Swiss referendums of 1971. Incidentally, the campaign for women’s suffrage in Switzerland is the subject of a recent film, Die göttliche Ordnung; The Divine Order (2017), directed by Petra Volpe. 

In Act One, Claire Zachanassian, now 63 years old, arrives in the town of Guellen with her entourage of servants and her pet, a black panther. She promises to donate a million Swiss francs to the town if someone kills Alfred Ill. Forty-five years ago, when Claire was called Clara Wascher, Alfred Ill got her pregnant and betrayed her. He bribed the witnesses in her paternity suit, and she was driven from the town in shame. Now she can afford to take her revenge. Claire reveals these events at a banquet at the end of Act One, which becomes a public trial.

In Act Two, Claire’s panther escapes, which gives the townspeople the right to walk around carrying loaded guns. The consumer habits of the citizens change – they start buying luxury goods in anticipation of the cash they are going to receive. Alfred Ill attempts to escape by going to the train station, but he cannot bring himself to board the train.

In Act Three, Alfred Ill refuses to commit suicide and faces death. The townspeople recite a parody of the Rütli oath, one of the essential features of Swiss national identity.

Further Reading in English

Sydney G. Donald, Dürrenmatt: Der Besuch der alten Dame (Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1993)

Paul Elliott, Der Besuch der alten Dame: Friedrich Dürrenmatt (London: Hodder Education, 2017)

Peter Hutchinson, ‘Dürrenmatt, Der Besuch der alten Dame’, in Landmarks in German Comedy, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), pp. 195-210

Eugene E. Reed, ‘Dürrenmatt’s Besuch der alten Dame: A study in the Grotesque’, Monatshefte 53:1 (1961), 9-14

E. Speidel, ‘Aristotelian and Non-Aristotelian elements in Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch Der Alten Dame’, German Life and Letters 28:1 (1974), 14-24

Kenneth S. Whitton, Dürrenmatt. Der Besuch der alten Dame and Die Physiker (London: Grant & Cutler, 1994)

Rodger Edward Wilson, ‘The Devouring Mother: An Analysis of Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch Der Alten Dame’, The Germanic Review 52:4 (1977), 274-88 

Web Link

National Theatre (London) production, adaptation by Tony Kushner, Spring 2020