The Visit

The Visit Summary and Analysis of Act 2

Act 2 opens with a view of the balcony of the Golden Apostle Hotel and Alfred Ill's general store. The scene is ominous: the town is clearly a grimy place, and Roby and Toby are passing by, carrying funereal flowers. Ill, feeling relatively confident that the townspeople are on his side, speaks briefly with his son and daughter, asking them where they are going. His son, he learns, is headed to the railway station, and his daughter is going to the Labour Exchange. They are both seeking jobs.

Claire stands on the balcony of the hotel, looking for her prosthetic leg. A townsman enters Ill's store to buy cigarettes, and the audience learns that Ill frequently allows the townspeople to purchase anything that they need on credit. From the balcony, Claire asks Roby to play an Armenian folk-song, and comments that her husband Zachanassian had been "a great teacher, and a great dancer; a real devil. I've copied him completely" (232). More women from the town enter Ill's store to buy milk, butter, bread, and chocolate - all on credit. Some men, watching as Claire smokes an expensive cigar on the balcony, vocally criticize her extravagance. The men also reinforce the idea that Ill is the most popular man in town, and discuss the fact that he will be elected mayor in the spring. Suddenly, a half-naked girl, Louisa, rushes across the stage, chased by Toby. Husband VIII (or "Hoby," as Claire calls him), joins Claire on the balcony. He is a film star: tall and slender, with a red moustache.

Suddenly, Ill notices that the townspeople in his shop are all wearing new yellow shoes. Shocked by this unexpected display of wealth, he begins to feel fearful and goes to the Policeman, demanding that he arrest Claire for the incitement of his murder. The Policeman, however, says that no one is taking her offer seriously, and that there is no real threat. Ill looks down, and sees that the Policeman himself is wearing new yellow shoes. He exclaims that the town is running itself into debt, and that the standard of living is rising. Soon, there will be an even greater need to kill him. The Policeman begins to protest, and Ill notices a gold tooth flashing in his mouth.

Ill rushes to the Mayor, who sets a revolver down upon Ill's entrance. In response to Ill's visible dismay, the Mayor explains that he has armed himself because Claire's black panther is on the loose. The Mayor is smoking expensive cigarettes, and Ill again expresses his nervousness about the rising standard of living. He complains that the Policeman wouldn't do anything about his concern. The Mayor chides Ill: "You're forgetting you're in Guellen. A city of Humanist traditions. Goethe spent a night here. Brahms composed a quartet here. We owe allegiance to our lofty heritage" (243). He continues: "If you're unable to place any trust in our community, I regret it for your sake. I didn't expect such a nihilistic attitude from you. After all, we live under the rule of law" (244). The Mayor then adds that there is no way that Ill can expect to be voted into his office in the coming election: "The post of Mayor requires certain guarantees of good moral character which you can no longer furnish" (244). Additionally, the Mayor has decided that the matter of Claire's gift should be kept out of the press. Alfred responds: "For me, silence is too dangerous" (245).

As Claire discusses her coming wedding with her new fiance, he declares that Guellen is boring: "And nothing else is happening at all, either to the landscape or to the people, it's all a picture of deep, carefree peace and contentment and cosy comfort. No grandeur, no tragedy. Not a trace of the spiritual dedication of a great age" (246).

Ill goes to the Priest and alerts him to the "rise in the standard of living." The Priest answers enigmatically: "It's the spectre of your conscience rising" (247). The Priest goes on to declare: "You are your own Hell. You are older than I am, and you think you know people, but in the end one only knows oneself...You impute your own nature to others. All too naturally. The cause of our fear and our sin lies in our own hearts. Once you have acknowledged that, you will have conquered your torment and acquired a weapon whereby to master it" (247). When Ill expresses his fear about the fact that the townspeople are buying new washing machines and radios that they can scarcely afford, the sound of a new bell tolls. The Priest ignores Ill's alarm and declares the bell "rich and powerful. Just affirming life" (248). Ill realizes that even the Priest is complicit in his slaughter.

Gunshots ring out, and the Butler informs Claire that the black panther has been killed. She commands Roby to play a funeral march on his guitar, and the balcony disappears from the stage. The scene then shifts to the railway station, where there is a new poster that reads "Travel South" and is decorated with a sun. Ill appears with his suitcase. Strangely enough, the Mayor and the townspeople are also gathered there. The Mayor greets him amiably, and asks him where he is going. Ill says that he's planning to go to Australia. Everyone seems confused. Ill explains that he wrote a letter to the Chief Constable in Kaffigen, and that the Post Office refused to send the letter. The Mayor again tells Ill that no one wants to kill him, and the townspeople echo the Mayor's sentiment. Ill, however, notices that they are all wearing new trousers. The train pulls into the station, and everyone flocks around him to wish him a good trip ("Long life and prosperity!"). However, Ill doesn't seem to be able to board the train. He is convinced that someone will stop him, and wonders who it will be. In the end, he cannot bring himself to leave, and collapses in the crowd, crying: "I am lost!" (252).


Act 2 opens with a scene reminiscent of the balcony scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. However, whereas in Romeo and Juliet the love scene is romantic and idyllic, [The Visit] offers a darkly comedic, grotesque interpretation: the lovers are old and ugly, and their youthful love affair ended in a sordid manner that invalidates the romantic notions espoused by Shakespeare's work. Duerrenmatt destroys idealistic notions of romantic love by revealing the grotesque monstrosity that it can be transformed into.

At the opening of Act 2, Claire sits on the balcony of her hotel room, looking down on the town below and watching as Ill and his wife manage the everyday doings of the general store. The audience learns that Ill, the most popular man in town and the likely successor to the Mayor of Guellen, has won the hearts of the townspeople largely because he facilitates their survival by permitting them to purchase goods and supplies from his store on credit. This relationship has given him a sense of solidarity with the town, and he feels confident that they will reject Claire's proposition in return for his history of generosity.

Act 2 also offers the audience a glimpse of Ill's son and daughter, both of whom are leaving in search of employment. In Act 1, Ill complained to Claire that his children had no ideals. Duerrenmatt uses the children to illustrate his belief that ideals become weak in the face of poverty; indeed, in impoverished children it is near-impossible to breed any sense of idealism whatsoever: their key concern is survival. Impoverished children search for work and worry about money; education and ideals are only a secondary concern. The condition of Ill's children hints at the more general status of the town of Guellen. At the end of Act 1, the Mayor rejected Claire's proposal with a grand declaration of idealism, asserting that the town would rather be poor than have blood on its hands. However, Duerrenmatt forces the audience to consider how strong this idealistic commitment really is.

As Act 2 progresses, Ill begins to notice a disturbing pattern in the behavior of the townspeople. When he vocalizes his worries, however, everyone else around him refuses to "see" the truth, denying that anything is amiss. Ill worries about the fact that the townspeople are wearing new shoes, and that they are purchasing increasingly expensive items on credit, while at the same time hypocritically denouncing Claire's extravagance and Louisa's debauchery. The contrast between Louisa and Claire serves as a visual and symbolic arc depicting Claire's life. The townspeople criticize both figures, but in a manner that suggests unconscious envy: they wish to be sexual and free in their youth, and then wealthy and famous in their old age.

Ill, seeing the rise in the standard of living, suspects that the townspeople are spending beyond their means in subconscious anticipation of Claire's gift. The townspeople are purchasing more and more items in the expectation that they will soon be given the money needed to pay off the debts and to generally live a far more comfortable life. The changes in the townspeople's behavior allow Ill to "see" the possibility of his own death.

Ill seeks help from three prominent townspeople: the Policeman, the Mayor, and the Priest. These three characters represent the law, the government, and the Church, social bodies that have traditionally functioned to protect the weak and to prevent injustice. Each of the men, however, fails Ill. Duerrenmatt clearly believes that these institutions are just as susceptible to corruption as the "average" person. The Policeman, like the rest of the townspeople, wears new yellow shoes and has a new gold tooth in his mouth, but insists to Ill that there is nothing to fear, because no one is taking Claire's proposition seriously. Indeed, the Policeman even rejects Ill's request that he arrest Claire, thereby underscoring the fact that Claire is, indeed, above the law. Claire's plan for vengeance, it seems, is a clever one, because she has merely made a "suggestion" that the townspeople can easily pretend is not real.

The Mayor, while not wearing new yellow shoes, is smoking more expensive cigarettes than usual when Ill comes to see him. He essentially tells Ill that he ought to have faith in the town and its citizens, and that Guellen's humanist history would never allow the townspeople to accept Claire's conditional gift. At the same time, however, the Mayor is holding a gun, and tradition holds that whenever a gun is seen in a play, it must eventually be fired. It is implied that the gun will be pointed, either literally or figuratively, at Ill. In other words, the appearance of the gun renders Ill's death even more probable. From the Mayor, Ill receives three crucial pieces of information. First, he learns that Claire's black panther is on the loose and is a danger to society (hence the Mayor's possession of a gun). "Black panther," however, was the term of endearment that Claire used for Ill when they were lovers; the town's reaction to the panther therefore suggests their attitude towards Ill himself. Second, the Mayor informs Ill that, because of his past indiscretions, he no longer has a future in politics. In other words, his past has destroyed any possibility that he will rise to a position of power in the town. While this is of course a characteristic of modern politics, the irony lies in the fact that even though the Mayor faults Ill for his misdeeds, he (and by extension, the political system) is just as corrupt. The Mayor's expensive cigarettes and the fact that the townspeople are considering murdering one of their own (with the Mayor's approval) both stand as evidence of the corruptibility of the political system. Finally, the Mayor tells Ill that news of Claire's proposition will not be published in the newspapers. This, Ill quickly realizes, is a dangerous development: such secrecy ensures that he will be unable to gather support from outside of the town. Silence, in other words, isolates Ill, locking him into a figurative "cage".

The Priest's garments have not been visibly altered, so Ill entertains the brief hope that he has found help at last. The Priest, however, simply offers Ill a speech that sounds profound, but at core is vague and wholly unhelpful. Duerrenmatt uses the character of the Priest to suggest that the Church is just as corruptible as its secular cousins, and is in fact an institution that espouses empty rhetoric and is slow to take action. When Ill hears the tolling of a new bell, he realizes that even the Church has been spending money in expectation of his death and Claire's resulting gift. The Priest's words, "Rich and powerful. Just affirming life," overtly refer to the sound of the bell, but in fact is a rationalization of Claire's conditional gift. Claire is rich and powerful, and her gift will "reaffirm life" by saving the townspeople of Guellen from their impoverishment and misery. Ill realizes that he will not find help even in the Church, a place that ought to have offered him solace and served as a check on the power of the government and the law. While it is perhaps unsurprising when institutions fashioned by men to govern society suffer from corruption, Duerrenmatt expresses the belief that the Church is just as susceptible to the temptations of wealth. By the end of Act 2, Ill is the very picture of a condemned man: isolated, bereft of sympathy and aid.

The news of the black panther's death cements the inevitability of Ill's fate. While Ill has spent the entirety of Act 2 toying with the possibility of his imminent death, the slaughter of the black panther makes his demise a certainty. In the final scene Ill, propelled by fear, appears at the train station where he had previously awaited Claire's arrival. He hopes to flee the town, but finds a surreal scene awaiting him: all of the townspeople are gathered at the station to "see him off". He attempts to leave, but recognizes that his efforts are futile: although the townspeople bid him farewell, he is convinced that someone will prevent him from boarding the train, and also realizes that escape will bring him only temporary relief, given the breadth of Claire's power (recall that she was able to locate Koby and Loby at the very ends of the earth). In the end, he can do nothing; he is rendered utterly powerless. The effect is not unlike the powerlessness created by poverty; an impoverished individual, though autonomous in the ideal sense, is boxed in by his or her circumstances. The only hope for release and redemption lies in forgiveness, but Ill recognizes that he is beyond help. The townspeople have gone too far: they have tasted wealth, and are unwilling to surrender the joys of plenty.