The play opens at the railway station of a small town named Guellen, which literally means "excrement". This ramshackle town is the very picture of poverty. It is autumn, and four men from the town are gathered near a painter, who is making a banner that reads: "Welcome Claire..."
The express trains pass noisily by, and the four men discuss the fact that even the commuter trains no longer stop in Guellen. The factory is dead, and the town lies in ruin. The town was once a place of extraordinary culture and artistry: Goethe once spent a night there, and Brahms composed a quartet within its borders. The painter chimes in to say that he was once a brilliant student at the Ecole des Beaux Art, and has now been reduced to sign-making. Another man notes that the town is "rotting", and they begin to discuss the impending arrival of a millionairess who has donated extraordinary amounts of money to villages all over the country.
The Schoolmaster, the Mayor, the Priest, and Mr. Alfred Ill, the most popular man in town, arrive at the railway station. These four prominent townspeople discuss their preparations for the millionairess' arrival. The famous Claire Zachanassian (previously Claire Wascher) was born in Guellen. Her father was a builder in the town, and, long ago, Ill and Claire were lovers. In a burst of nostalgia, Ill describes his fond memories of their liaisons in Petersen's Barn and Konrad's Village Wood: her "red hair streaming out, slim and supple as a willow, and tender, ah, what a devilish beautiful little witch. Life tore us apart. Life" (205). As the Mayor prepares his speech, Ill tells him that in their youth, Claire was a great lover of justice, and was always a generous woman. The Mayor then informs Ill that he is to be named the successor to his office. Ill is elated by the announcement of this honor.
Suddenly, the express train comes to a stop: Claire Zachanassian is early. Claire is 63; her hair is still flaming red, and she is ostentatiously dressed. The overall effect of her appearance is both graceful and grotesque. Apparently, Claire had pulled the emergency brake on the express train, casting everything into disarray. The townspeople are thrown into a frenzy, not being fully prepared for her arrival. Claire argues with the ticket master, who chastises her for having pulled the brake. She attempts to demonstrate the power of wealth by offering him a large sum of money, but he refuses her bribe.
Claire's husband (Husband VII) or "Moby", as she refers to him, appears. Alfred and Claire meet face-to-face for the first time in years, and are quick to exchange endearments. Alfred refers to Claire as his "little wildcat" or "sorceress", and she remembers that she had called him her "black panther" when they were young lovers. Claire, who has grown old and fat, shows off her prosthetic limb, received after a terrible car accident. Her husband's real name, she explains, is Pedro, but she calls him "Moby" because the moniker rhymes with "Boby", her butler.
The celebration begins on an awkward note, as the singing of the choir and the Youth Club is drowned out by the rumbling of the express train. Claire, upon meeting the Policeman, cryptically asks him whether he'll turn both of his eyes blind, and then laughs. She then asks the Priest whether he comforts the dying and the condemned, and ignores the Priest when he replies that there is no longer a death penalty in Switzerland. Claire declares that she wants to go to town, and explains that ever since the accident she has traveled by sedan-chair. Her attendants Roby and Toby, who are described as a Herculean, gum-chewing pair, lift her sedan-chair into the air. Roby and Toby, it is explained, were once Manhattan gangsters facing death by electric chair, but were saved when Claire paid a million dollars for each man's life. The sedan-chair, she notes, was a gift from the French President, and at one time resided in the Louvre.
Seated atop her sedan-chair, Claire declares that she wishes to see Petersen's Barn and Konrad's Village Wood. The townspeople notice that she has come with a great deal of luggage and - oddly enough - a coffin. Her entourage also includes a pair of old, fat, neatly-dressed men. The men are named "Koby" and "Loby", and they are both blind. Claire has also brought with her a cage containing a black panther. Seeing this, the Schoolmaster begins to feel fearful. He states that Claire is a terrifying sight, and that she gives him the impression of "an avenging Greek goddess...spinning destiny's webs herself" (216).
Claire plans to stay at the Golden Apostle, but first wishes to revisit the places where she spent the most important moments of her youth. In Konrad's Village Wood, the four men from the station are transformed into trees as Claire recalls how deeply she and Ill were in love when she was seventeen and he was twenty. When she became pregnant, he betrayed her by denying her paternity claim and marrying Matilda Bluhard, the daughter of the owner of the general store. Claire, in disgrace, fled to a brothel, and eventually married an old Armenian millionaire named Zachanassian. Standing with Ill in the wood, she points out the irony of it all: now she is the one with the money, and it is Ill who leads "a laughable life" (220). Claire warns Ill of her malicious nature by saying, "I've grown into hell itself" (219). When Ill tenderly kisses Claire's hand, she explains that it is made of ivory; she lost her real hand in a plane crash. "Clara, are you artificial?" Ill asks (221). She responds by telling him that she is "unkillable".
As they approach the Golden Apostle, the trees become men once again. The gathering outside the hotel is lively: among those in attendance are a gymnastic team, the town band, the Mayor and his wife, and Ill's wife, Matilda. Claire asks the doctor whether he makes death certificates, and she advises him that the next time someone dies, he ought to declare that the cause of death was a heart attack. The townspeople all seem to find her a little disturbing, but Ill laughs joyfully and says that she is "delicious" (222). To add to the confusion, Claire announces that she is getting a divorce, and that her future husband (Husband VIII) is a German film star. She plans to marry him in Guellen Cathedral - something that had always been a childhood dream of hers. The Mayor, prompted by Ill, then gives a long speech that concludes with the words "three cheers for the prodigal returned" (225).
Claire happily announces that she will give Guellen one million dollars: half for the town, and half to be shared amongst the families. She states that her gift is conditional, but before she can explain the condition, the crowd bursts into a euphoric roar. The Mayor asks Claire what the condition of her gift is, and she replies, "I'm buying myself justice" (226). The Mayor responds that "Justice can't be bought" (226), but Claire says that everything can be brought. She then brings Boby the Butler forward to prove her point. The Schoolmaster identifies Boby as Chief Justice Courtly: he was once the Lord Chief Justice of Guellen, and then assumed a position with the Kaffigen Court of Appeal. Twenty-five years ago, the Butler explains, Claire offered him an astounding sum of money to enter into her service, and he accepted.
The Butler then goes on to explain why Claire feels that she is owed "justice". In 1910, when he was Lord Chief Justice of Guellen, he arbitrated a paternity claim in which Clara Wascher (now Claire Zachanassian) claimed that Alfred Ill was the father of her child. Ill denied her claim, and called in two witnesses. Koby and Loby come forward, holding hands, and say that their real names are Jacob Chicken and Louis Perch. It was they who had falsely "confessed" to sleeping with Claire in exchange for a pint of brandy. Years later, Claire tracked down the two men at the ends of the earth: Jacob in Canada, Louis in Australia. She handed them over to Toby and Roby, who castrated and blinded them, and then took them into her service.
The result of this "miscarriage of justice" was tragic: Claire gave birth to a baby that lived for only one year (228), and became a prostitute in Hamburg. Now, she tells the townspeople, she wants someone to avenge her by killing Ill. She turns to the man that she loved in her youth and says, "You decrepit, and me cut to bits by the surgeon's knives. And now I want accounts between us settled. You chose your life, but you forced me into mine" (229). The Mayor steps in and says, "You forget, we are not savages...I reject your offer; and I reject it in the name of humanity. We would rather have poverty than blood on our hands" (229). The assembled crowd applauds loudly, but Claire ominously declares, "I'll wait" (229).
The opening of Act 1 is ominous and dramatic, and effectively foreshadows the tragedy to come. Beginning the play at the train station gives the audience a wide view of the town of Guellen, and reveals how its humanist, cultured history sharply contrasts with its present state of impoverishment. The tragic state of the town forces the audience to question how this has come to be. The figure of the painter is particularly notable against the barren city landscape, in part because Duerrenmatt was once a painter, but also because the painter in the play was a brilliant student of art, and has now been reduced to fashioning a welcome sign at the train station. The painter is clearly intended to serve as a meter for the town's cultural prosperity or poverty. Additionally, the very fact that the painter is talented yet unable to express his ability indicates the "waste" that is stifling the city. The image of a factory no longer in use also underscores this "wasted potential." In other words, the town and its citizens are not without potential or skill; their artistic proclivities and talents have merely been crushed by circumstance. The name "Guellen" refers directly to liquid excrement, and while the allusion may appear overt to the point of being grotesque, it also successfully enhances the tone of the play, assaulting the sensibilities of the audience on a number of levels: the characters are comic, grotesque, and macabre, and the idea of "justice" has been sullied almost beyond repair. However, this strategy forces the audience to question the world in which they themselves live, a world which, while not necessarily as grim as Guellen, may share with the town a number of disconcerting qualities.
The scene at the train station also introduces several of the town's key figures. The townspeople are all in a state of excited anticipation, and discuss the fact that the approaching visitor, Claire, is their only hope for survival. Here, the audience learns several key facts: (1) Claire is the richest woman in the world; (2) Claire is a native of Guellen; and (3) Claire and Ill were lovers in their youth. Ill nostalgically describes her as a delicious young girl, "slim and supple as a willow." This description is set against a pastoral vision marked by the landmarks of Petersen's Barn and Konrad's Village Wood. Claire's physical arrival at the station, however, sharply contrasts with the idyllic image that Ill has painted: she is, of course, older - 63 - and though her red hair is still a notable characteristic, everything else about her strikes the audience as "monstrous" and "artificial". She is "ostentatiously dressed," and her false limb, combined with her odd declaration that she is "unkillable", create an impression of surreal, almost grotesque power over the natural order. Through Ill, the audience learns that Claire used to be fresh, alluring, and innocent, and was most likely a good-hearted girl, but it is implied that over time something has caused her to grow into a monster. At the very least, she is virtually unrecognizable.
As Claire and Ill revisit the pastoral sites of their youthful liaisons, the four men from the train station metamorphose into trees. Over the course of the play, these four men repeatedly metamorphose into trees, and then back into humans, suggesting the transitory nature of their environment. This device alludes to the pastoral innocence upon which society is built; also, Claire, whose father was a "builder" in Guellen, has a history rooted in the town's birth. It is implied that modernity and urbanity "corrupt" nature, just as Ill corrupted Claire. It is, however, suggested that this metamorphosis did not have to be so tragic: something that is "built" can also be "just" and in harmony with nature. The play suggests that an idyllic human existence transpires at that unseen point where nature and society meet. Ill's unjust act, however, disturbed that delicate balance and thrust Guellen into its current state of disrepair.
Claire's early arrival signals that something unexpected is about to happen to the town. The manner in which she arrives is especially telling: she pulls the emergency brake on an express train. In other words, her refusal to follow the rules upon which others rely is an expression of her inflated sense of power, and her belief that her needs take precedence over the dictates of society. In her view, she has every right to pull the emergency brake - not because it is an emergency, but merely because doing so is easy and convenient. The rationale behind this action is rooted in Claire's status as the richest woman in the world. The characters of Roby and Toby, whom Claire saved from the electric chair, reveal that Claire is not afraid to use the power of her purse to subvert society's rules, even in situations where the "goodness" of her actions can be called into question. It seems likely that Claire did not rescue Roby and Toby because she felt that they were being slain unjustly, but rather because she simply desired a strong pair of bodyguards. In the past, her money has given her the power to make her own rules; however, at this point in the play it remains unclear whether Claire is a benevolent "goddess" who assists the troubled and poor with her magnanimous donations, or is a monster who gleefully engages in the blatant abuse of her power.
Claire's numerous husbands suggest her willingness to abuse the social institution of marriage, and also imply that Claire's ability to love has been "corrupted" by Ill. She renames each of her husbands so that their monikers rhyme with the rest of her entourage in a manner that is reminiscent of Adam renaming the animals in the Bible. In other words, Claire believes that she exists on an entirely different plane from those whom she employs - a category that includes her husbands. (It is important to note here that her first husband has retained his full name in her memory: he is a kind of creator-figure whom she has come to emulate and almost deify. Along these lines, Claire's decision to dehumanize each of her subsequent husbands through the process of re-naming can be thought of almost as a homage to her deceased husband). Claire developed her understanding of marriage based on Ill's example: he chose money over love, disregarding the welfare of others. Ill used marriage as a ladder to climb up in the world; Claire, who at the outset of the play has already climbed as high as she can go, cycles through husbands as though they are mere consumer goods. Overall, the corruption of the town, Claire's literal artificiality, and the grotesque tone of the play combine to suggest that Claire is not the benevolent "goddess" that the townspeople are hoping to meet.
Act 1 culminates in a celebratory gathering in honor of Claire. At the celebration, Claire announces to the townspeople that she is ready to offer them a generous gift, on one condition. She declares that she wishes to buy herself "justice". The Mayor's reply that justice cannot be bought is the crux around which the rest of the play revolves. We know from Ill's previous statement to the Mayor that Claire "loved" justice when they were young; but, like her ability to love, her reverence of justice has evolved into a monstrous obsession. Her butler, Boby, and the blind eunuchs Koby and Loby also underscore Claire's perverse sense of justice. She bought justice by offering Boby the Butler a large salary to become one of her employees, thereby forcing him to sacrifice his authentic position in a high court (though the infallibility of the judicial system is, at the same time, brought into question, since it seems possible for the average citizen to fool a judge, as Ill did in the paternity suit). In the case of Koby and Loby, Claire exacted justice in the manner of the Old Testament by tracking them down to the far corners of the earth and blinding and castrating both of them. The irony in Koby and Loby's characters is twofold: (a) they are eunuchs, who are traditionally considered to be protectors of a woman's chastity, while here the two men were bribed to claim that they had slept with Claire; and (b) they are blind, and the traditions of Ancient Greek drama (from which Duerrenmatt draws many of his symbols and plot devices) hold that the blind are "seers", in the sense that they "see" the truth. Koby and Loby "see" the truth, ironically, only because they were the ones who lied in the first place.
In keeping with the theme of "seeing," the Schoolmaster is the only one who "sees" Boby the Butler's true identity. As the drama unfolds, the Schoolmaster assumes a distinctive role as a "seer" of truth. The question that Duerrenmatt proposes is whether a humanist education and strong sense of values is enough to enable the Schoolmaster - or, indeed, anyone - to resist temptation.
In this play, Duerrenmatt grapples with the very nature of justice: he critiques its corruptibility, and studies the relationship between "justice" (which is impersonal), and "revenge" (which is personal). In Claire's mind, "justice" past wrongs: Claire believes in "an eye for an eye." In their youth, Ill "forced" Claire into her circumstances by contaminating the justice system with false witnesses and lies, thereby revealing the system's inability to discern the truth. While her lifestyle, at the time of her visit, may appear enviable, she is furious because she was not permitted to choose it for herself. Her life has been wholly determined by the actions of another.
Seeking retribution, Claire returns to the town and offers the townspeople a conditional gift. Over time, her fury has been magnified, and she has come to view the town itself as complicit in Ill's unjust act. To that end, the townspeople must repay her debt by sacrificing their values. Her version of justice virtually discards the system that has been developed over time: in Claire's world, justice is meted out in pure accordance with her will. This power causes Claire to take on the status of a mythical, omnipotent god or goddess. In fact, Duerrenmatt explicitly stated that readers ought to consider The Visit in the context of Medea; he intended the work to be a contemporary manifestation of the angry, sorrowful woman who was betrayed by her lover.