by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Theatre UNB / English 2170
Memorial Hall, November 2002
I was happy to hear that UNB's English 2170 production this year was going to be Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, which I remembered from university drama courses as a complex, challenging and impressive work, one drawn from a dramatic tradition fairly alien to what most undergraduates would have encountered -- a worldly, cynical, mordantly funny tragicomedy with a Brechtian sense of unreality and farce and just a touch of Beckett's surreal black humor. Like last year's 2170 production, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Visit looks deceptively easy: all the characters are caricatures or clowns, exaggeration and anti-realism is the order of the evening, and the settings are so varied as to make elaboration and authenticity not only undesirable, but impractical.
Further, the ethical dilemma and the social satire at the play's heart are extraordinarily obvious: Dürrenmatt uses a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel, and simply getting through all the play's lines will leave his object in smithereens, never mind the delicacy (or lack of it) with which they're delivered.
The premise is straightforward. The village of Güllen (a Swiss slang term for shit) has fallen on hard times -- indeed, been economically devastated -- and its only hope seems to be for some sort of financial help from a millionairess who was born there, is regularly bestowing massive gifts on various charities, and is coming back to visit. Their chances are pretty good, they think, because the current mayoral candidate was once the woman's sweetheart.
It turns out that, yes, she's prepared to give the village an overwhelming amount of money -- but the price is that the "sweetheart" has to be dead for the village to collect. Her fond memories include being abandoned, betrayed pregnant by perjured testimony in a paternity suit, and driven into prostitution by the disgrace. Oh, no, of course not, say the villagers, you couldn't buy our virtue, our loyalty; justice can't be purchased. "I'll wait," she says, and does. Later, in one of the play's classic lines, she says, "You made me a prostitute; now I'm making the world a brothel."
The rest of the play traces the way the village deals with the challenge: how to strike sanctimonious moral poses and still get the money. Theatre UNB chooses to play the story primarily for comedy, allowing the serious issues to rise out of the clowning and slapstick, and to push the anti-realistic nature of the script hard. This seems an eminently sensible strategy, and gives them an opportunity to play stock characters -- for instance, Koby and Loby, the now blinded and castrated men who had been bribed to testify that they'd slept with Claire, or Roby and Toby, the silent gangsters bought from the electric chair to carry Claire's sedan chair -- as broadly as Dürrenmatt seems to have intended them to be played. Indeed, most of the over 40 characters in the script (played at Memorial Hall by a cast of 25), are one-note cardboard cutouts, needed to fill out a satiric structure, and as such need mainly to be clearly defined.
The play's central characters, however, are more complex issues. Claire Zachanassian herself (Gillian Gallant), her lover and victim, Alfred Ill (Nicholas Cole), Güllen's mayor (Michael Parsons), and a few others, are almost as exaggerated and cartoonish, and yet the audience is invited to have conflicting and sometimes sympathetic feelings about them. In fact, however, in this production it's pretty difficult to generate much sympathy and understanding.
Claire, for example, is an ageing harridan with a wooden leg and an ivory hand, who is carried around in a sedan chair by two gangsters who look like the Blues Brothers, and goes through three husbands in the course of the play. In spite of this, she is also the victim of a completely outrageous betrayal, and one of the only characters in the play who says things we agree with. There are moments when we're invited to think what she's doing makes a crazy kind of sense. But Gillian Gallant chooses to give Claire a gravelly screech of a voice, a deafening holler that sounds rather like a cross between Carol Channing and a hog caller, with just a hint of fingernails on a blackboard. This makes it virtually impossible to take anything she says as other than a cartoon. Her physical presence and her movements seem perfectly appropriate, but she is precluded from interacting with other characters in any authentic way.
On the other hand, Alfred Ill is (or at any rate is introduced as) a thoroughly repellent caricature. Even before we know what he did to Claire all those years ago, he's presented as an arrogant, insensitive swine who assumes that his charisma and savoir-faire will certainly charm a huge gift out of the poor innocent. Unfortunately, Nicholas Cole has decided to underplay him, to restrain his movements and signal emotions primarily with his voice, and the result is that we neither detest him enough at the beginning, nor empathize sufficiently with his awful punishment -- his increasing isolation and desperation toward the end, as it becomes clearer to us (and to him) that the villagers are all assuming someone is going to kill him. One of the central moments of the play, a conversation between Claire and Alfred on a bench where they meet for a strange sort of semi-reconciliation, doesn't throw off the sort of sparks it might have, because we don't have the intensely conflicting feelings about the two of them that Dürrenmatt wanted us to have.
Another difficulty with the production was that there seemed to be a number of conflicting conventions at work, and the audience was never able to be sure which might be coming next. Sometimes there were stylized backdrops; sometimes there weren't; sometimes there were props, sometimes things were mimed. Some characters were intensely stylized (like Claire); others seemed almost naturalistic (like Alfred). A couple of examples: Ill's shop door was no more than a location in the middle of the stage, "though" which people "entered" the shop: each time someone opened the door a shop bell rang. The convention seems to be, if we don't need a prop we can imagine it. But on the other hand, the most demanding prop in the script, an entire (but very stylized) automobile, is wheeled laboriously up a ramp (built, clearly, only for that purpose), and effortfully maneuvered around the stage carrying all four members of the Ill family as they "drive around" on a sort of anticipatory Chinese funeral. In this case the prop is so elaborate, so central, so obvious, that its very existence becomes the audience's entire focus. Neither extreme succeeds very well: the automobile with its "moving crew" straining to get it up the ramp, move it around the stage, and finally tip it down the ramp (its weight sending it careening down the main aisle, to everyone's consternation), distracts from what the family are doing. On the other hand, the mimed door broadcasts that we don't need to have concrete objects -- and at the same time poses a challenge to the company that almost no one meets. Mime isn't easy; everyone (including the audience) needs to know exactly where that nonexistent door is, and even which way the knob turns, but in fact the door seemed to be wherever anyone thought it might be, and the bell was correspondingly random.
Such things seem trivial, but in fact they can add up to a lowering of the dramatic temperature, a loosening of our attention. In this case it seemed to me one consequence of all this was that, though we laughed, and though we got the point, and though we enjoyed the comedy, we didn't care much about Ill and Claire, and missed a good deal of the potential power of the play.
It remains a production eminently worth seeing, and as much worth doing. Stretching the resources of the facility and the company is what university theatre is best at, and this production, like pretty much all the others Len Falkenstein has mounted at UNB, does that in spades.