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The Visit (incomplete)

I’ve just returned from watching Project Yum!’s production of The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. At the end of the play I was considerably off-equilibrium.

I’m not going to comment very much on the staging, because it only infrequently detracted from the ideas and themes being communicated, and because I’m under-qualified to comment on production matters anyway. I am going to comment on said themes and ideas, because of the effect the play had on me and the thought it aroused. The rest of the post will mostly only make sense if you’ve seen The Visit performed, but you can find a blurb or plot summary at the Facebook page for the event or the Wiki respectively.

One word I used to describe my emotions after I’d walked out of the theater was ‘horror’, because the theme that stood out the most for me was our potential for depravity. It was odd that I’ve been reading Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh again, and here I quote:

‘Human perversity is greater than human heroism […] or cowardice […] or art, […] For there are limits to these things, there are points beyond which we will not go in their name; but to perversity there is no limit set, no frontier that anyone has found. Whatever today’s excess, tomorrow’s will exceed-o it.’

In Rushdie’s novel, the narrator evinces a horror at his life and his family’s during his frequent surges of self-disgust and regret that is not always compelling; often it seems that he has those feelings only after reflection on the events he recounts and after attempting to reconcile them with some norm of behavior which he was not mindful of as a participant. In any case, there is a certain distance between the text and the reader to begin with, and the reader can participate at his own pace. Watching a play is different in that the audience is subject to the pace the playwright and performers set, and the impact of the players’ words and actions are immediately felt. We are subject for as long as the performance lasts, and in The Visit, the accelerating descent of the people of Guellen provides the drama and the horror.

Up until the intermission, the behavior of the Guelleners was easily dismiss-able as greedy and false. They were merely wretched, of a type, and types do not convince. (‘Meh,’ is one possible word.) The frightening descent only became evident as the Guelleners’ individual meanness progressed through angry self-justification and eventually to a collective and unanimous fervor.

False hospitality towards Claire Zachanassian in the hope of cash becomes something else altogether as the townspeople attempt to persuade Alfred Ill to docility. Their attempts to persuade Ill are as much attempts to convince themselves that they are not complicit in whatever treachery they fully expect someone else to perpetuate; they refuse to feel responsible, and rebel against their guilt. In their expectation that the billion-dollar bounty on Ill’s head will prove irresistible to at least one poor soul, they begin to buy things on credit, and in their collective expectation, they sink deeper and faster into debt, binding themselves to Claire’s contract, yet having to constantly and loudly protest that they will do good by Ill to avoid being elected to actually carry out the killing.

The Guelleners are bound, but, having protested their humanism too long and too loudly (‘This is Europe!’), are unable to deliver a death unless its consequences are mutable; it cannot be murder, but it can be justice served, or even repentance, or redemption. At the town meeting, they passionately pledge their commitment to humanity and justice for the cameras – twice. It is creed and ritual, and old Ill’s death, alternately for his sins and from joy, is their redemption and salvation; the corruption is complete, for in their fervor for salvation, they worked the opposite.

It is the townspeople in their final, monstrous state that I tried and failed to reject. Is that a human potential we see fulfilled, or are they monsters? The problem with denouncing them is that they damned Ill; could I damn them for the same reason they damned Ill, namely to avoid having to accept the truth of what they were capable of?

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