Friedrich Duerrenmatt's The Visit premiered in Zurich in 1956. Duerrenmatt was 35 at the time, and the play's performance immediately won him international acclaim, cementing his reputation as a dramatist.
Duerrenmatt describes "The Visit" as a "tragic comedy" that offers a pessimistic social vision of post-war Europe, and especially of Switzerland. A criticism of Swiss neutrality during World War II, the rise of fascism, the 1950s rise of capitalism, and the general corruptibility of justice, "The Visit" powerfully asks whether it is possible to buy justice on the one hand, and whether murder and personal revenge can constitute justice on the other.
The play's power is drawn particularly from the progression of rationalization that is delineated through the scenes that consider the possibility of purchasing justice for a million dollars. As circumstances come to light, the town engages in a collective justification of the murder of Alfred Ill for the money offered by Claire Zacchanassian. The town is poverty-stricken, and Ill, the citizens realize, has not proven to be a particularly upstanding fellow. In fact, the injustice that he committed against Claire during her youth is the precise cause of the town's misery. In the end, the town enacts justice for both itself and for Claire by killing Ill.
The play also elucidates the corruption of justice by wealth. In the past, Ill purchased false witnesses against Claire in a paternity suit. Claire responds to this misdeed by enacting her own version of justice. It is important to note that "Boby", Claire's butler, was once a judge, and has been bought into her service by the lure of a high salary. Roby and Toby, who were condemned to death by electric chair in America, have also been bought into her service; clearly, Claire's power bridges international borders. Extraordinary wealth, it seems, can place one far above the ordinary dictates of the law.
The play originated in an earlier prose piece entitled "Lunar Eclipse", which remained unpublished until 1981. The prose piece held the kernels of the plotline for "The Visit", though the arrangement of elements was quite different. The original narrative told the tale of a man who returns to his village after making his fortune, only to learn that his girlfriend from his youth has given birth to his son and then married his rival. The man returns to the village to demand the death of his rival in exchange for a large monetary donation.
The new arrangement entitled "The Visit" proves far more effective at generating and sustaining dramatic interest. In this later version of the story, the question of whether Claire will donate money to the town is transformed into the question of whether the town will kill Ill for the money. The exaggerated quality of the play is reminiscent of both Greek tragedy and German Expressionism, and is a stirring rendition of the human drama of trial and punishment.