In The Visit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt places his characters in an extraordinary moral predicament. The townspeople were faced with the choice of killing a man for the sum of a billion units of currency, and the man was forced to continue living with that bounty on his head. These two crises, though different, are related, and from them, a dark and dramatic tale is born.
In The Visit, Dürrenmatt writes his characters into a moral crisis– the bounty of Alfred Ill; this crisis and the characters’ reactions to it create drama in the story, establish the story’s dark mood, and demonstrate that mankind is easily corruptible. Alfred Ill is the man that is affected the most by Claire Zachanassian’s deal. Before the bounty is announced, Dürrenmatt establishes Ill and Claire as old friends. Keeping this knowledge in mind, audiences are not at all expecting Claire’s deal with the people; they are not expecting the drama to come about in the way that it does.
As the audiences’ views of Ill and Claire’s past are shattered, the true conflict arises– one billion for Güllen in exchange for the death of Alfred Ill. This bounty places Ill and his fellow townsfolk into a situation of crisis and the drama begins. Dürrenmatt demonstrates that Ill and the town are horrified with Claire’s offer. The mayor argues that they “are still in Europe; [they are] not savages yet” (Dürrenmatt 35). Without much thought, the mayor rejects the offer in the name of the town. However, the ordeal does not end there. Dürrenmatt has characters react disgusted with Claire’s original offer at first to show their humanities, but he brings about tension as the characters’ views of the deal change.
The darkness that captures the rest of the story is first demonstrated in Ill’s fit of terror as he “starts throwing his merchandise at the customers” and shouts at his customers, “How are you going to pay? How? How?” (44). He fears for his life, as he believes the townsfolk will kill him for the money. Dürrenmatt’s primary source of creating drama is the bounty placed on Ill’s head and the reactions of the characters to the bounty. The townspeople all have similar reactions to the bounty placed on Ill’s head. Dürrenmatt’s characters each take a slightly different outlook, and they each represent a different kind of ordinary person. The policeman, who represents the average working man, faces Ill calmly and attempts to convince him there is no trouble. Preceding the scene, Ill seems panicked upon his realization that “it’s [him] they’re going to use for payment’ (42).
Afterward, the policeman gives calm responses, seemingly unaware of Ill’s internal problems. The policeman refuses to take the situation seriously; he avoids suggesting that Ill’s life is in peril. He nonchalantly states that Ill’s plight ‘doesn’t concern the police” (48). Dürrenmatt writes this juxtaposition of attitudes to brew drama. Readers and audiences alike can see Ill’s panic and sympathize with him, while they are appalled by the policeman’s lax attitude. Dürrenmatt writes the pastor to represent the religious of ordinary people.
In Ill’s encounter with the pastor after the birth of the bounty, more drama is stirred. Dürrenmatt starts their dialogue by having the pastor weasel his way out of directly answering Ill’s pleas. Rather than listen to Ill’s woes about the purchases of the townsfolk, the pastor encourages Ill to “worry about the immortality of [his] soul” (58). The pastor is avoiding the question while still attempting to remain the Christian figure of the story. Dürrenmatt has the pastor avoid helping Ill because he is attempting to convey that the ordinary religious are susceptible to temptation as well. At the climax of this conversation, the pastor is forced to tell Ill the truth: “[people] are weak, Christians and heathen alike” (59). He urges Ill to “flee, and lead [the people] not into temptation by staying” (59).
The pastor, the good Christian, is the character that audiences would expect to help Ill most. In revealing the pastor’s weakness, Dürrenmatt seals Ill’s fate, displays the inherent corruptibility in the heart of man, and promises drama for the rest of the play. As the weight of the deal remains in the air, even Ill’s family turns on him. Audiences can feel the dark tension between Ill and his children as they discuss their new luxuries. Ill’s daughter has not one, but two new dresses. Ill’s son is driving what is presumed to be a new car. Mrs. Ill is wearing a fancy fur coat. The fact that Ill’s family has given in to Zachanassian’s deal displays that the ability to corrupt a human goes beyond familial ties. To create drama in a tense scene, Dürrenmatt uses verbal irony as dark humor.
Mrs. Ill states that her son is a good driver and that Ill is “in safe hands with him” (92) driving. Dürrenmatt written words say that Ill is safe in the Son’s hands, but in reality, the Son has accepted the deal. He drives his father to the meeting that will result in his death; it will also result in the Son’s ability to pay for the car. Dürrenmatt communicates that the corruptibility of man is stronger than familial ties. The corruption of the mayor truly captures the darkness of The Visit. After being presented to the deal, he immediately states that the town “[rejects her] offer. In the name of humanity” (35).
However, as the mood of the story shifts and Dürrenmatt’s message of corruption becomes clearer, the mayor becomes the greatest example of both the mood and the message. Like the rest of the townsfolk, the mayor makes plans and purchases assuming that he will acquire the money upon Ill’s death. The mayor denies that there is any threat behind Ill, but the mayor’s actions indicate otherwise, allowing the drama to continue to elevate. The mayor’s ultimate proposition, though, fully reveals Dürrenmatt’s message as the drama heightens even further. The darkness of the Mayor and Ill’s meeting begins when the Mayor threatens “to do the whole thing without a community meeting” (88). The true corruption of the Mayor is revealed when he demands that Ill kill himself. Upon Ill’s refusal, the corrupt Mayor makes the statement that Ill has lost “a chance to redeem [himself] and become a halfway decent human being” (90).
As the Mayor claims that Ill’s refusing of suicide is indignant, the Mayor becomes the savage he once claimed he was not, and the drama reaches a new high. This drama casts a dark shadow on the final act of the play. Dürrenmatt’s message on how easily man can become corrupted becomes most evident in this scene. In another dramatic scene of the play, the teacher approaches Ill with his advice. The teacher, an ordinary man, confesses to Ill that he feels himself ‘turning into a murderer’ (85). Dürrenmatt reveals the internal conflict of the townsfolk in this dialogue. Though they want to keep their morals straight and their hands clean, the townspeople are going down the path of evil.
Keeping this conversation between the teacher and Ill in mind, the ending of the play becomes more dramatic. Some characters seem tense as Ill is set to be murdered in the dark assembly hall. The internal conflicts of some townsfolk are made clearer when audiences remember the conversation between Ill and the teacher. When the pastor prays ‘God have mercy on us’ (108), Dürrenmatt reveals his inner qualms over the murder. He prays for mercy, knowing his actions are evil, but continues anyway. The mayor still treats Ill with some respect before joining in his murder; this final kindness, telling the policeman to control himself whilst dragging Ill, shows that the mayor still views Ill has a human and sees his Ill’s murder as the killing of a human.
Dürrenmatt has his characters retain a fraction their humanity to display their internal conflicts. When audiences know that the ordinary townsfolk are suppressing their consciences, their act of murder adds to the drama of the finale. The drama Dürrenmatt writes in The Visit is meant to convey the inherent corruptibility of man. Through the play and its drama, Dürrenmatt is able to make his message clear. As each townsperson falls to greed, they come to choose money over the life of a man. Each man has an ordinary background, and the drama is created as each man falls to corruption in his extraordinary circumstances. Darker yet, drama arises as a man realizes his sealed fate. Dürrenmatt creates drama by placing his characters in a moral crisis, and because of the crisis, his characters reveal that mankind resorts to evil in times of temptation.