The author often emphasized that The Visit is intended first and foremost as a comedy. However, it is difficult to ignore the serious, dark points being made about human nature throughout the play. The use of unsettling humour was popular among German-language authors of this period as a method of pointing out concerns they considered important. The main theme is that money corrupts even the most morally strong people.
Women did not achieve full suffrage in Switzerland until 1971 (in one canton until 1990), along with neighboring Liechtenstein, the only European country to limit women's voting rights at the time. Women still lacked voting rights when the author refashioned the play as an opera libretto for Gottfried von Einem (premiered 1971). The sham vote at the end, where Claire has no say, followed by the false ascription of the town's new wealth to Ill, highlights this injustice in Swiss society. Symbolically, Claire lacks a hand and foot – tools to control her destiny. She has been thrown by men into prostitution against her will.
The Visit raises the question of the corruptibility of justice by asking whether it can be bought in return for material wealth. As a young man, Ill himself bought "justice" at Claire's expense by presenting false witnesses during the paternity suit that she brought against him. The result, for Claire, was a life that she would never have chosen for herself and one causing her now to seek revenge.
When Claire visits the town, she offers an extraordinary monetary gift—but only on the condition that the town rectifies its past failure by putting Ill to death. In her mind, Claire equates Ill's punishment with "justice". The drama of the play unfolds as a kind of "proof" of Claire's assertion: that everything, including justice, can be bought.
In the past, Claire has purchased justice many times. Boby the butler, for instance, was previously a judge in Güllen, but ultimately opted out of the profession in order to enter into Claire's personal service. The salary, he explains to the town, was so high that he couldn't refuse her. This foreshadows the town's experience with Claire's conditional gift: the gift is so generous that the sacrifice of personal and collective dignity is not too high a price to pay in return.
In an ironic inversion of Claire's decree, Claire has rescued the characters Roby and Toby, former American gangsters who had been sentenced to death in the electric chair. She purchases each man's life, thus proving that her wealth can be used to alter the very essence of the American justice system.
It is important to note that the political institutions helpful in fashioning and enforcing an idea of "justice" in society are corrupted and rendered passive in "The Visit".
Prostitution is expressed in a number of different ways throughout the play. In the wake of her failed paternity suit, Claire became a prostitute and fell into a degraded state in which she lived outside of societal norms. She was branded a corrupt woman and learned an intense lesson about the sexual marketplace: male sexual desires can be satisfied in exchange for wealth. In other words, sex can be purchased. The ability to purchase sex is a physical manifestation of power and presses the one whose favors are purchased into a corrupted, degraded state. For Claire's first husband, the elderly Armenian billionaire from whom Claire inherited her fortune, wealth was exchanged for a beautiful, young wife, that is, wealth enabled him to acquire sex.
Now that Claire has risen out of her prostituted state, she attempts to turn the world into her own, personal "brothel", as she announces to the doctor and the schoolteacher at the beginning of the third act. Once, she was a prostitute, an outcast; now, she is the opposite: she hovers above society in a mythic, almost goddess-like position by imposing her own "rule of law" to exact her own idea of "justice" on the town of Guellen. She employs the lessons that she learned in the sexual marketplace: all objects of desire can be bought, if one has the money.
The rule of law
The "rule of law" is what governs society; it lends order and shape to a culture by tending to the idea of "justice". The rule of law is something to which all citizens of a society submit, and it is generally understood to be imposed on the citizens by the citizens via governing bodies and the political system. Claire, however, arrives in the town of Guellen and immediately imposes her own personal version of "the rule of law". She interrupts the usual judicial process, and forces the townspeople to satisfy her personal desire for vengeance.
In the first act, the audience learns from the Priest that there is no capital punishment in Switzerland. Claire's gift, however, is conditional upon the townspeople's willingness to apply capital punishment to Ill. The townspeople collectively keep Claire's decree a secret, implying that they intend to eventually carry it out. Claire's personal, almost tyrannical "rule of law" has the effect of a secret extrajudicial proceeding. The question is whether the result of such a proceeding can ever fairly demonstrate "justice", given that the process lacks accountability and occurs outside of the generally accepted laws. For Claire, however, "justice" in the ideal – that is, legal – sense is not really the issue. Her idea of justice has been conflated by her desire for personal vengeance.
Vengeance as justice
Claire's notion of justice has been transformed into the frighteningly powerful force of vengeance. "An eye for an eye" becomes Claire's guiding principle: Ill forced her into a life that she did not choose, and in return she forces Ill into a situation that ultimately results in his death. Ill states early on in the play that Claire was formerly a lover of justice; now, however, having suffered injustice herself, she has little faith in the judicial process. Just as her love for Ill changed into something monstrous, her love of justice became a strangling fixation on personal revenge.
The fates of Koby and Loby illustrate Claire's view of justice. She tracks down both of Ill's false witnesses on the opposite ends of the earth. Roby and Toby, her employees, blind the two men and castrate them. Claire sentences Ill to an existence characterized by suffering and fear. Ultimately, the death that Claire selects for Ill is one inspired by the same material desires that drove her former lover to betray her in the first place.
Even though Claire purchases amnesty for Roby and Toby in a kind of divine gesture of forgiveness, she is nevertheless incapable of forgiveness when it comes to Ill and the injustices he committed against her when he denied her paternity claim and married Matilda. The townspeople of Guellen also refuse to forgive Ill for the collective suffering his initial actions against Claire have caused them. Neither Ill's wife Matilda nor his children are willing to forgive him or offer him their support and protection. The drama implies that perhaps the only figure capable of forgiveness is Ill himself: by recognizing his own guilt and understanding both Claire's motivations and the motivations of the townspeople, Ill accepts his fate. He genially proposes a drive in his son's new car with the entire family, and sits in Konrad's Village Wood to share a few last, intimate words with Claire. He then submits respectfully to the judgment of the town, and in the end preserves an idealized image of himself in his own heart. The troubling aspect of the drama, however, is that the ideal dies with him; it is not an image that the townspeople honor, or even see.
The events in the drama unfold in a cold, logical manner that leads to a predictable outcome. Given the initial presentation of Guellen, Claire's power, the history between Claire and Ill, and the nature of Claire's decree, Ill's death appears almost inevitable. Just as Boby the Butler explains that he became Claire's employee because of the high salary she offered him, the townspeople convince themselves that Claire's offer is, in fact, impossible to refuse. The townspeople could have stood by their initial reaction to Claire's decree and preserved their dignity, but Dürrenmatt offers a cold perspective on human nature by demonstrating how Ill's death was, given the circumstances, the only possible outcome.
The townspeople of Guellen engage in a powerful process of rationalization before deciding to kill Ill. Throughout the play, they consistently – though never explicitly – justify meeting the conditions of Claire's gift. At first, they are repulsed by the idea of sacrificing a popular local figure's life in exchange for wealth and prosperity, but as their subconscious desires are fed by the slow rise in their standard of living, and once it becomes clear that Ill is the cause of the town's suffering, the townspeople come to the decision that it is just, fair, and reasonable to kill Ill. By slaying Ill, they will both appease a powerful figure and restore the town's well-being.
Dehumanization versus humanism
Claire's peculiar habit of giving each of her husbands (except for the first) and each of her employees rhyming nicknames suggests that she is systematically dehumanizing everyone around her. In a technique that recalls the Biblical "naming" of animals, Claire renames each member of her entourage, thereby relegating each to a status far beneath her own and illustrating her relative power.
Claire's physical artificiality (as evidenced by her prosthetic leg and her ivory hand) reinforces the idea that Claire is "unkillable"; not quite human. As a prostitute, her status was not much higher than that of an animal; now, she has risen to the status of a god. Claire's identity raises the question of what is fundamentally human. Dürrenmatt expresses humanist ideals using the history of the town of Guellen and the character of the schoolteacher. These values, while sincere, have little stamina in the face of someone as wealthy and powerful as Claire. In other words, Dürrenmatt appears to believe that as society becomes increasingly capitalistic, humanist ideals are very unlikely to survive.
Like "justice", romantic love is another ideal that Dürrenmatt exposes as weak in the face of market forces. Ill had initially chosen to marry Matilda for material gain rather than to marry Claire. Claire's idea of love is further sullied by her exposure to men's sexual appetites during the time she spends working as a prostitute. Claire's marriage to an elderly millionaire only reinforces what she has already learned: sexual relationships have little to do with romantic love. This belief leads Claire to cycle through a comical string of marriages, suggesting the essential emptiness of the institution. In "The Visit", husbands are treated as little more than consumer goods.
Stereotypical romantic love in the story exists in a pastoral setting. Claire and Ill conducted their romance in the idyllic, nostalgic locales of Petersen's Barn and Konrad's Village Wood: perfect symbols for the beauty and innocence of their youthful infatuation.
Over time, however, Claire's love for Ill grew into an evil, monstrous thing. Filled with rage, Claire demands her own version of justice: revenge. Dürrenmatt reveals how deeply perverted her love has become with Claire's conditional gift to the town; ultimately, however, what she wishes is to take Ill away with her to an island in the Mediterranean Sea where they will be able to spend all eternity together. Her desire is romantic, but simultaneously monstrous.
The second act positions Claire and Ill in a perverse reconstruction of Shakespeare's famous balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. In this scene, however, Claire stands on the balcony of her hotel with her newest husband, gazing out over the town, while Ill manages the general store below. The scene is no longer an expression of young love: here, the woman looks down on the man from high above more like a tyrannical queen than a lover.