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The Ironic Tragicomedy

Plays are often written to make a statement about the world, or to provoke deeper thought from the audience. While many playwrights share the same overall goal, each playwright adopts his or her own style of writing. After adopting a certain style, playwrights are then given the option to customize their genre to meet their literary needs. In the case of Friedrich Durrenmatt, the writer opted to combine both tragedy and comedy within his play The Visit. As in many plays, Friedrich Durrenmatt makes use of allusions to increase the audience’s understanding of key characters. Durrenmatt develops the characters Claire Zachanassian, Alfred Ill, and the Schoolmaster with a complexity not found in the play’s other roles. In order to do so, Durrenmatt employs the use of allusions throughout The Visit. These allusions create multi-faceted characters which contribute to the situational irony of the tragicomedy.

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One of the most important ironies within The Visit is the fact that Madam Claire Zachanassian did not become the obvious villain of the play. Madam Zachanassian offered “a million for Guellen if someone kills Alfred Ill” (Durrenmatt 38), which the Mayor promptly rejects “in the name of humanity” (39). The Mayor’s response eventually changes, and despite having orchestrated the eventual murder of the shopkeeper Alfred Ill, the town comes to defend Claire Zachanassian. Within the first act, the Schoolmaster spoke on behalf of the town when saying “we feel for you, deeply; we understand” (66) in regards to Madam Zachanassian’s feelings about justice. While the Schoolmaster at this moment in time is adamantly opposed to the acceptance of Madam Zachanassian’s offer, the quote foreshadows the Schoolmaster’s eventual change in opinion. The Schoolmaster’s statement indicates that, even after being shocked with such a daring proposal, the citizens of Guellen may still be inclined to understand how Madam Zachanassian feels. Friedrich Durrenmatt creates situational irony between Claire’s actions and the townspeople’s perception of her by alluding to the Greek play Medea in the second act. The schoolmaster states “Madam Zachanassian! You’re a woman whose love has been wounded. You make me think of a heroine from antiquity; of Medea” (66).

In the play Medea, a young woman from Colchis is betrayed by her husband and the father of her two sons. Medea’s husband Jason leaves Medea for a wealthier young woman named Creusa, similarly to how Alfred Ill left Claire Zachanassian years before for Mrs. Ill, who had been the wealthy daughter of a shopkeeper at the time. At the end of the play, Medea kills her two sons as an act of ultimate revenge against Jason, but upon the play’s completion there is often a faction of the audience which believes Medea’s choice is justified. By alluding to Medea’s tale in The Visit when describing Madam Zachanassian, Durrenmatt poses the question: Were Claire Zachanassian’s actions justified? Durrenmatt’s allusion deepens the complexity Claire’s character Zachanassian. Where once stood an old, bitter woman who waltzed into Guellen thirsty for blood now stands a woman whose heart was betrayed. This allusion enables the audience of The Visit to sympathize with Madam Claire Zachanassian; she quickly turns from the avenging murderess to the broken-hearted girl. The complexity Durrenmatt’s allusion created enables Claire Zachanassian to end the play without the title of “villain”.
When Claire Zachanassian first enters Guellen, many of the citizens recognize that she may have come with grim intentions. The Schoolmaster, a symbol of enlightened thinking and education, tells the Mayor “Sir, I only learned what horror is one hour ago. That old lady in black robes getting off the train was a gruesome vision. Like one of the Fates; she made me think of an avenging Greek goddess. Her name shouldn’t be Claire; it should be Clotho. I suspect her of spinning destiny’s webs herself” (26). In Greek mythology, the three Fates are the embodiment of destiny. These fates are rumored to be more powerful than gods, and they control the lives of each individual by spinning the “thread of destiny”. When the fates cut one’s thread, the life ends and the soul enters the underworld. Clotho is the fate responsible for spinning the thread and therefore creating destiny. The Schoolmaster alludes to Clotho, foreshadowing Madam Zachanassian’s desire to manipulate and control the town as the fate Clotho controls life. The schoolmaster’s allusion is made prior to Zachanassian’s proposal, which serves well to indicate the intelligence and awareness the Schoolmaster embodies.

While the Schoolmaster is apt enough to foresee Claire Zachanassian’s eminent wickedness, the irony of the situation lies within the fact that the Schoolmaster admits to Alfred Ill “They will kill you. I’ve known it from the beginning, and you’ve known it too for a long time, even if no one else in Guellen wants to admit it … But I know something else. I shall take part in it” (77). The Schoolmaster, symbol for the education in a town where “[the people] are not savages” (39), eventually succumbed to the appeal of the wealth Madam Zachanassian is offering the town of Guellen. Durrenmatt’s allusion to Clotho does not create the irony, rather, the Schoolmaster’s character does. The Schoolmaster is designed as a symbol for everything an enlightened European society embodies. As the symbol for civilization, the schoolmaster should have been intelligent, honest, and civilized. Despite all this, even the most enlightened citizen in Guellen still fell to the power of greed. The embodiment of civilized, rational thought is no match for the draw of one woman’s wealth, regardless of his foresight regarding the situation.

While the aforementioned allusions in The Visit had clearly stated meanings, Durrenmatt inscribes other allusion’s meanings more subtly. During a wedding between Madam Zachanassian and her eighth husband, the Schoolmaster and his choir perform “Bach. From the Saint Matthew Passion” (64). Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” is eerily beautiful, but it was ironic that the song be performed at a wedding because Johannes Bach wrote the piece in memoriam of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as told by the Book of Matthew in the Bible. What’s more, this wedding happened to be the 8th wedding of Madam Zachanassian. For a woman who seemed to enjoy the process of marriage and divorce, she certainly chose a grim tune for her day. This piece is as grim as most of Claire Zachanassian’s actions, and carries the dark story of an innocent man’s murder on behalf of the people. In a traditional wedding, the chosen piece would be something more festive and light-hearted. However, Durrenmatt chose the Saint Matthew Passion to emphasize the irony of a wedding occurring in a town filled with citizens on the verge of committing a murder. The tune highlights Alfred Ill’s role as the martyr for Guellen and contributes to the irony of the enlightened town turning a blind eye to his murder. Much like the Policeman, who Claire Zachanassian instructs to “wink a blind eye to things” (22), the townspeople turn a blind eye to the tragedy surrounding Alfred Ill’s life. Ill was killed for the benefit of the other citizens, just as Jesus Christ was killed for the benefit of the rest of the world. Much like a sacrificial lamb, the crimes of all the Guelleners are placed on Alfred Ill’s head and they will be granted “forgiveness” in the form of Madam Zachanassian’s financial aid. While Alfred Ill was essentially the cause of Claire Zachanassian’s strife with the town of Guellen, he did not play a role in the cruelty Madam Zachanassian experienced prior to her departure from Guellen. The irony of the Guellener’s sacrificial lamb lies within the fact that the people of Guellen created a deeper sin by condoning the murder of a man within their city limits.

Despite the fact that some of Durrenmatt’s allusions are hidden within the subplot of The Visit, and the fact that some allusions often require further research for full understanding, each one serves a distinct purpose in developing the play as a whole. Durrenmatt is a writer whose style is filled with deliberate choices and references which ensure the audience interprets the play in the way which he intended. Durrenmatt wanted to convey the complexity of the moral conflict the town of Guellen was presented. There was no distinct right or wrong answer, but a certain sense of moral correctness sways the audience towards pitying Alfred Ill. While the play is filled with hate and murder, the audience is not left with a sense of melancholy upon completion of the play. As a playwright, Durrenmatt is clearly no stranger to the use of irony, and through his use of allusions in The Visit he creates a work that is truly the ironic tragicomedy.

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