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Theatre Review: 'The Visit'

The Cash Nexus

'The Visit', by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The people of a small German town foregather to welcome the return of Claire Zachanassian, a now fabulously wealthy women who had left her home as a girl of seventeen, many years before. The town is by no means well off, and has high hopes that she will offer them a not considerable part of her vast riches. This she does, but upon one condition: that Anton Schill, a leading member of the community—her former love who had disowned her, pregnant and poverty stricken, and had her driven from the town as a whore—forfeits his life.

Outraged, the people protest in the name of humanity and refuse her extreme terms. But since she had been so brutally treated, Claire Zachanassian has planned retribution on those responsible. After the refusal, she proposes to gather the people, slowly and unsuspectingly, into her power, by inducing them to incur an immense debt through extravagant living on credit which she knows they will never be able to meet. Which in turn forces them to abandon Anton Schill and condemn him to die. This briefly is the story of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play "The Visit" produced at the new Royalty Theatre. The play's improbability is unimportant beside the sinister reality of its meaning: the power of money over the lives of men.

The progress of the play presents a remarkable study of a change in human behaviour. At the beginning, the people of the small town of Güllen, simple and easy-going folk although poor, have learned since the decline of their industry to be content with little and not to expect much more. The change in their way of life as a result of the intrigues of Claire Zachanassian, in whom they see the obvious virtuous of a rich woman, brings with it also a complete change in their attitudes and values.

Their lives now rest on a precarious system of credit, weighed down by a fake prosperity  that they naively regard as real wealth. But with this goes fear; for what they now they are afraid to lose. A fear that rots the fabric of their relationships with one another, for they now fear one another; afraid of treachery in the name of the humanity they one professed. Dire economic necessity can no longer sustain their one once outraged principles and in the new found values they now see every justification for the death of Anton Schill. For Schill, their once respected future Burgomaster, they have nothing but hatred; they brand him as an enemy of the people who stands between them and their dreams of wealth, and they demand his life. The people, and their once despised outcast, who ironically is the anonymous owner of their decaying industry, are united, but it is the uneasy union of slave and master. By playing on their greed, Claire Zachanassian has made them bring down her revenge on their own hands, and create their own bondage.

In one of his poems, D. H. Lawrence has written that the "Work-Cash-Want circle is the viciousest circle that ever turned men into fiends." The cynical disregard for humanity that capitalism inculcates makes us its playthings; its cat-paws, as Dürrenmatt's millionairess makes the people of Güllen. We destroy ourselves in the cash race. "This," wrote Lawrence in the same poem, "is called universal freedom."

Ian Jones