The Rear-View Mirror: The Visit (1956)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

If you grow up around here in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, you will be confronted with the oeuvre of one Friedrich Dürrenmatt, if you want to or not, at some point during your school years. You might read some of his shorts, like The Tunnel (1952), or one of his crime novels, such as The Judge and His Hangman (1950, made into a 1975 film directed by Maximilian Schell and starring Jon Voight, Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bisset and Martin Ritt). There is Max Frisch with his questions about identity, but it’s Fritz who has a slight advantage of seeing his plays performed in front of droves of school classes.

While I prefer the much shorter play Der Mitmacher from 1974, you will be most likely to see The Visit on stage from all his plays. There is an old, very rich lady returning to her run-down hometown. She offers to put the place back on its feet, provided the man in the village who got her pregnant and then dumped her is put to death. The play is about crime and punishment, about justice and the law (two very distinct things in Dürrenmatt’s world), and about women’s rights – Switzerland introduced women’s vote as late as 1971. I think the secret of the play is how cowardly and half-assed the villagers react to the rich lady’s offer. There is initial outrage about her demand that one of theirs should be sacrificed, but slowly, slowly, something very Swiss will shine through: something that permits even the most perverse suggestions to have its pros and cons weighed. And look at how much money it will bring the decrepit town if only one guy, and a womanizer at that, is brought to justice. It’s the death sentence for him, sure, but only for him, not as a general rule. And at the same time, the prodigal daughter returns and buys up the place. Tit for tat, why not?

There is something very Swiss about even considering such a deal. It’s not just a foul compromise, but a death sentence that gets played down because it’s for the greater good. It happens every day.

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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