Jack Woodruff Memorial Notes on International Drama


Duerrenmatt's The Visit


Comedy, Dark Comedy, or Tragicomedy


By Paul H. Grawe © 2017




Jack Woodruff Memorial Notes Contents















Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame) is a highly experimental play. As Block and Shedd explain in their introduction to Duerrenmatt, “In drama as in other literary forms, allegory, fable, parable, and other symbolic devices came to replace the older concern with literal anecdote”[i] (1132). Within that perspective, Block and Shedd claim, Duerrenmatt “is a wholly representative and traditional mid-century playwright.” The Visit itself, they call a “tragicomedy” without further definition. Duerrenmatt’s own note on the play also argues for the play as necessarily comedy given the diminutive stature of modern humanity and a tragedy in Shill who manages to move beyond that diminutive status (Block and Shedd, 1133).

In short, the generic definition of The Visit is also “representative and traditional mid-century.” No care is taken by anyone to define terms. Everyone assumes we know comedy when we see it and that we are all aware that this is a period of dark comedy, and everyone moves on from there very quickly to other topics. As argued in Comedy in Space Time and the Imagination, any counter-attempt to be at all careful about generic identification shows that one after another of the dark comedians like Beckett and Ionesco were not able to stabilize their work within a comedic structure but instead found it necessary to press beyond comedic structure. Erich Segal would eventually write a book pointing to this progressivism in his title, The Death of Comedy.

So is The Visit a comedy, a tragedy, a tragicomedy or beyond comedy? In this Jack Woodruff Memorial Note, we consider the generic identification of The Visit more carefully. Generic identification is a matter of form—what makes formal comedy, formal tragedy, etc. A full understanding of any of these forms, however, requires attention to the form’s “special language” and to the abiding emotional impression of the work as a whole, what Aristotle called dynamis, the work’s power over us. ITCHS intends to cover these questions more fully in another note. For the present, we can cover them with the generally accepted critical position that the play is highly ironic, highly dark, and simultaneously (ghastly) comic. None of these descriptors is useful for defining the form of comedy, tragedy, or tragicomedy.

The key to formal generic identification is quite likely Block and Shedd’s perception that Duerrenmatt is dealing in a symbolic form, maybe allegory–which he is at pains to deny[ii] or fable, or parable (which he seems equally to deny). Not to quibble, let’s compromise. The Visit is in the form of a folk drama or as we more typically say, of a folktale. And that form limits the applicability of any formal definition of comedy.

Fairy tales and folktales are meant to be retold by individual tellers in somewhat different forms—and Duerrenmatt believed that plays like The Visit should be modified for the particular locale in which they were to be played. He, in fact, collaborated in such an adaptation by Maurice Valency for the New York debut of The Visit. As such, what makes the folktale a tale is a bare-bones—basically abstracted—plotline that can be embroidered in various adaptations. One of the central characteristics of that plot is that it is singularly directed rather than multi-plotted. Its being created for retelling minimizes most elements of literary poesis with, for example, only sketchy characterization allowing for little development. Ornamented language is rather antithetic to the folktale.

Most importantly, early on as the plot is revealed, standard folk attitudes toward the narrative details are referenced enough so that we are in no way surprised by the direction of the whole or about our general feelings toward the characters, situation, and plot development. Using The Visit as our example, by the end of Act I, we have been told that Claire is willing to donate a billion marks to Guellen with the one stipulation that the town must secure Shill’s death. We have no reason to say more for the entire audience to be quite in the flow that the money will corrupt, that Shill will die, and that the town will be to some degree at least polluted by the death.

Now what does this have to do with formal comedy? By our definition of formal comedy, comedy is a patterned action celebrating or demonstrating a faith in human survival or success. The central word of the definition is “pattern.” Something can’t be patterned if it only goes through once—and folktales with their singularly directed plots are not moving in circles but in rather straight lines toward climax and denouement. Even before we have examined The Visit in any particular details then, it is either totally unlikely that the play is a formal comedy or that it is at best a very unelaborated, abstracted comedy where one feels the strain of trying to argue for pattern in such an anti-patterned form of writing. A folktale can end happily, and if that is all we ask for something to be comedy, then such a folktale is comedy. But if we ask what pattern moved toward that happy ending, a pattern enough to represent faith that humanity can at least survive and perhaps prosperously succeed, we are clearly on difficult ground.

So let us consider possible plot centers for comedy in The Visit, make the case for an actual pattern being involved, but finally judge whether such a pattern is sufficient to force a comedic interpretation of the work.

If we demand success or survival as necessary to comedy, the most obvious succeeder and survivor of the play is Claire Zachanassian herself. Critical reaction to the play, however, has also suggested success for Anton Shill (as Alfred Ill has been renamed in the Valency adaptation). And there is some argument as well for the town, Guellen, being the central figure and having its own very dark comedy. (Guellen, incidentally, is Swiss-German for ‘manure.’)   Let’s begin our investigation with these rather off-beat comedic nominees, testing them carefully against a definition of comedy as patterned action demonstrating a faith in humanity’s success and survival.

As already indicated, Anton Shill does attain a certain heroic character. He becomes a bigger and bigger man throughout—having been extremely popular but of almost no moral character at the opening curtain. He is about to be nominated and elected as mayor of Guellen, but we soon find out that he has loved Claire enough to impregnate her but not enough to restrain himself from hiring false witnesses to frustrate her paternity suit. If that were yesterday, it would be caddish. But in fact, it was, say, 35 years ago, and with every passing year, Shill has more and more convinced himself that “That happened long ago. That’s all forgotten”[iii] (1144).

So Shill’s rise is from the contemptible and the absolutely deplorable. He rises to know himself for what he has been and what he has not even tried to be. In the process, he finds that he is able to understand what his fellow-townspeople are going through, tempted beyond all reasonable hope of resistance. And in his understanding, he exonerates them and explicitly accepts their decision over his life, knowing that their decision has nothing at all to do with absolute justice, a Western tradition of civilization, or any other exalted term. Finally, he not only accepts the verdict of his fellows, he also steels himself to face them, to walk among them, to be smothered by them, and to become the corpse they need for a new life out from under the curse Claire has economically imposed on them.

In terms of our formal definition, Shill’s career may very easily express a faith in the redeemable in humanity. If Shill can be redeemed, there is hope for us all. But clearly, the hope is that he will end well, end well in accepting death and vilification. Ironically, he is deserted by everyone except Claire who accepts his dead body for burial where she herself will be buried. If tragedy is about mistakes that lead to death linked with the possibility of humanity growing in stature in the process (a Shakespearean proclivity, see especially King Lear), then Shill’s is clearly a tragedic component within The Visit.

If that tragedic component is balanced with a comedic component, then the term ‘tragicomedy’ should be very seriously considered in any in-depth understanding of the play. Genre is skeletal. If ignored in criticism, that criticism lacks what a backbone provides. Establishing genre is not the equivalent of deep analysis of a play. Instead, it is a necessary first step in establishing a view of the work as a whole. As such, it should be done carefully.  And here, careful work indicates that Shill is a tragedic, not a comedic element.

We can turn then to the possibility that the community at large, the town of Guellen—Manureville, if you wish—is the central figure of a dark but formal comedy.

There can be no question that Guellen succeeds. Long ago, it was a somewhat idyllic setting, rather typically folktalish that way, as the men at the train station reminisce about the glory days when the great trains of the past not only came through town but also stopped there. 

But then popular and fatally attractive Anton Shill, age not yet twenty, got into the act, not only had a dalliance with the super-attractive young Claire, not only got her pregnant, but then decided not to do the honorable thing and moreover decided to marry a well-to-do merchant’s daughter. He not only denied paternity but also hired false witnesses to contest and defeat the paternity suit.

Claire was forced into prostitution by that act, but providentially she pleased one of her customers, the richest man in the world, who decided to marry her. Zachanassian obligingly promptly died, and Clara as now the richest woman in the world began getting revenge, among other things by buying up all the economic resources available to Guellen, letting them rust or rot, and thus creating an economic curse that has almost consumed the town.

So Guellen has been in the pits. The Visit reverses that cursedness. It can be argued, and Claire does argue, that Guellen can become successful again by being Claire’s avenging agent against Shill. The play is never at all articulate or explicit about why this is not justifiably the case. At the same time, the play consistently takes the position that killing Shill is murder rather than justice. In the end, we see Shill falling, surrounded by fellow-townspeople who have condemned him. But at no point are we allowed to see clearly that anyone or any particular group has killed him. In fact, the doctor examines him and declares that he has died of “Heart failure” (1158). And at least in the original version, the press decides (poetically but without fact base) that he has died of happiness (having been the agent of securing the billion marks for the town).

Throughout the play, Duerrenmatt has directed that the town be gradually spruced up from its utterly degraded state at the opening curtain. At first, these changes are very subtle, matters of newness of clothing and straightened wall hangings, but by the final curtain, the train station at Guellen is thoroughly modern, neon-signed, with elegantly attired leading citizens formally present in abundance.

Especially in these stage-note directions, it is obvious that Guellen goes from success to success. By the closing curtain, it has moved beyond the nostalgic splendors recounted by the men at the opening curtain. And at the same time, clashing overtones of rhetoric throughout and, in the original version, a Greek-chorus epilogue make clear that the town has sold its soul along with its self-respect as part of enlightened modern European civilized society.

Does such a march from success to success equal a comedy or even a satirically dark comedy?

We’re getting to a finer point of criticism here, but in terms of the theory as propounded by ITCHS for several decades, no, repeated success is not the same thing as patterned success. There is no particular sense in which anything happens again, a second time in new guise, for Guellen. Guellen starts accursed. Guellen works its way step by step “upward” to the death of Shill and along the way it is “blessed” by increased modernization and prosperity in place of cursedness. That is not a repeating pattern.  It is much more a lugubrious single act.

Just as important, Guellen’s rise to prosperity doesn’t suggest any factor that gives us faith in human survival. It might be argued that Guellen succeeds because it becomes moral manure. But the play doesn’t really make that case. Guellen has been manure for a long time already. Guellen would remain manure if it did nothing at all in response to Clara’s tempting offer. It moves into the future simply as manure in new clothing.

The simplest explanation for Guellen’s success, in fact, is simply that Guellen having been accursed has gotten “lucky.” There’s only a single piece of luck, not a pattern. It just takes the town a rather long time to accept its luck.

It stretches the meaning of words to suggest that we can have faith in human survival because we are convinced there’s always a world’s richest woman around to tempt us into corrupted survival and success.

So let’s not dignify Guellen’s march as comedy in the ITCHS-defined tradition. The original version at least suggests a tragedic analog for the town’s progress. Put in Eugene O’Neillian terms, that progress is a long day’s journey into night (though again, Claire’s argument that the town is acting rightly to accept her bribe is never thoroughly refuted, only ignored). A great deal of criticism has focused on the corrupting power of money as a major theme of the play. Taken that simply, Guellen’s is a long tragedic journey into money-corrupted night. While Shill’s tragedy is rather Shakespearean in linking the possibility of human nobility with tragedic mistake, Guellen’s tragedy is a simple grinding down to continued moral turpitude without hint of a redeeming nobility.

That then makes two tragedies, one redeemed by vision, acceptance, and perhaps repentance, the other not. The “tragi-“ half is there. But where is the comedy?

And that brings us, as already adumbrated, to Claire. Claire has achieved and achieved again. She has achieved in a variety of disguises. She has achieved in being irresistibly beautiful. She has achieved in loving Anton as a young man. She has achieved in overcoming a travesty of justice. She has achieved in escaping prostitution. She has achieved in attaining unparalleled wealth. She has achieved in tracking down and having the false witnesses castrated. She has achieved in trapping Shill with the bribe to the town and previously anticipated that achievement by cursing the town economically. She has achieved in having forgotten nothing, but still, however grotesquely, she has achieved in loving, really loving Shill.    Ultimately, she has done all of these and at the same time become something of a “stone idol,” an old woman, and a fiercely alive avenger simultaneously.


So Claire has succeeded and succeeded. She has survived male predation. She has survived the death of her only child. She has survived an airplane crash that killed everyone else. She has survived amputation of a leg and a hand. She has survived knowing and competing with all the world’s other richest people. There can be no question of her success or survival, though most of the individual successes are asserted abstractly in a speech or two and left undeveloped thereafter. (Similarly, there can be no question of her “success,” even though the successes are often ironic and ghastly, her worse-than-death vengeance on the false witnesses, for example.)

What is in question, again here, is not success or survival, but pattern. Is there any pattern to Claire’s successes and survivals?  Is there a pattern, a perhaps disguised repetition of the same success, or it there merely many successes without rhyme or reason?  Many of Claire’s successes seem easy given that she is the richest woman in the world. But her successes didn’t start that way. And her final success with Anton goes beyond what money can buy.

And that brings us back to the original assessment of The Visit as being in the form of folktale, abstractly direct and not-very-fully articulated plotted direction. There just doesn’t seem to have been any time in such a directed scripting to repeat any pattern, presumably often in disguise, that creates faith in human survival à la Claire.

Let’s consider leaving it at that. If so, then the play as a whole becomes two tragedies, but not to the exclusion of Claire. She is absolutely essential to both tragedies, but she is essential as the avenging agent, the Eumenides of a modern personal and communal pair of tragedies. And as the Eumenides, she is beyond the merely human. She is an indication of divine vengeance that may lift up but only, ultimately, to cast down and grind exceeding small.

We can leave it so. Criticism can make great progress from there.

But we could also look at our last sentence and decide that there is a comedy after all. It is a divine comedy that will have justice even in a totally sordid world. It will have justice—slow-grinding justice—and go right on to avenging more, as Guellen experiences vengeance in its ill-gotten prosperity. That continual slow-grinding justice is easy to argue as the virtual future as either Valency’s adaptation or the original would have it.

Such an analysis would be dark comedy indeed, the darkness of an unending price of new recriminations, new curses, new vengeances, stretching into the virtual future without end. That is one possible interpretation of the play’s form, and, if that is the form, it deserves to be carefully and clearly articulated before moving on to any “deeper (!) issues.”

There is another comedic answer, however, that we should also consider. If we consider the folktale form, the Spartan plot having so little room for real development, in that very Spartan sense, we still have Claire’s name. She is ‘clear.’

And everything that Claire does is done in clearness. She loves Anton clearly. She hates him clearly, she has him killed clearly, she intends clearly to keep him with her always.

Clara knows that money can buy anything. She has time to let money work. She knows clearly; she waits clearly. 

The unadorned driving direction of the folktale structure only makes the clarity clearer.

So Claire’s comedy as patterned action elicits a faith that humanity can survive—but only in a clarity that she has and Guellen has never had. It is a clarity which she has hopefully engendered in Shill, making his a very ironically noble tragedy.  It goes without saying that her clarity distorted, perverse, and ironic.

If so, we have two tragedies and a comedy. None of them is The Visit. All of them are merely coordinated elements of the greater whole which is Duerrenmatt’s The Visit. Ask not whose is the central role. Ask not whether this is comedy or tragedy. Finally, Duerrenmatt in his notes indicates that we should ask not for a moral. He is describing, he says, “a world.” And that world has as warp and woof tragedy and comedy, and thus in the final analysis moves beyond both comedy and dark comedy.

Happily, careful analysis yields agreement with the general critical claim that The Visit is true tragicomedy, truly distinct from either comedy or dark comedy. 



[i] Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shedd, Masters of Modern Drama, New York:  Random House, 1962.

[ii] Friedrich Duerrenmatt, “Postscript” to The Visit in Friedrich Duerrenmatt: Plays and Essays, Ed. Volmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1982) p. 150.

[iii] All quotes from The Visit are from Haskell and Block.