Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Old Lady's Visit

Der Besuch der alten Dame - an old play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (OK, let me be specific - first performed in January 1956 - I realize that there are lots of plays that are approximately two thousand some years older than that, but this already feels old to me) - (Oh, and to be even more specific - my further research online tells me that the actual title in English is just The Visit - and that English speakers know it well because it is studied in high-level German classes, but somehow I missed out).

I must have read about a production of this - I don't read hardly any German newspapers or magazines but every now and then one shows up under my nose and I read some, so it could have been there or was there something in the New Yorker about a production in English? Anyway, it was a rave, wherever I read it, so I went to get a copy and immediately saw that there were WAY too many characters for my play-reading group to do it and, even if we all double- and triple-teamed up, the thing is outrageously long.

So I read it myself. Reading a play is such a wonderful way to read, it's generally I find a very satisfying story with some serious plot going on, it's lively, it's quick . . .

And this play, the Old Lady's Visit, is unbelievable. Not sure how much I should tell you. OK, I'll tell you everything. Spoiler alert - if you are hoping to go see the play or read it yourself and you really want to get the full effect of the plot twists on your own, I guess you might not want to keep reading.

So there's this tiny town somewhere, in a kind of fairytale-ish not-quite-specified middle Europe, and everybody and everything there is bankrupt. And they're waiting at the train station for a visit from this unbelievably rich old lady, who's been handing out small amounts of money to people in towns all around Europe (she's back from the States on a visit it seems). And it quickly becomes clear there's one man who used to be her childhood sweetheart and everyone is counting on him playing on their old affections to get her to give their town a huge amount of money.

Well, she arrives, and she does the rich old lady thing of cutting through the baloney and pulling the emergency cord on a train that wasn't supposed to stop in their little town so she gets there when they aren't expecting her, and she doesn't really want to hear the long speeches and the children's choir, and she's happy to go for a walk and talk with her old sweetheart and ready to give the town way more money than they dreamed of and she plans to stay a while and they're thrilled and everything's great. 

And then there are just all these shocks and weirdnesses in sometimes quick, sometimes slower succession. Some of it is just absurd: she marries and divorces men ridiculously, sometimes she divorces them 15 minutes after she marries them. Some of it turns you on your head: she offers the town the unthinkable amounts of money that she does on the condition that they kill the man who was her childhood sweetheart; then it comes out that he had gotten her pregnant way back then and paid two buddies to say it wasn't him who got her pregnant, and she ended up I think a prostitute somewhere else and her life went sliding away from there.

This is the trauma at the heart of the story. She is surrounded by retainers and it slowly comes out: her butler was the judge in the trial where the buddies said the old sweetheart wasn't the father and she later hired him away to be her butler. The perjuring buddies themselves she hunted down all over the world and had them blinded and neutered (I may be getting some details down, I'm writing this from memory) and then also kept them with her as constant retainers. 

There are at least two more very interesting things that happen. It was just so surprising to me reading this play, because at first I was just reading along and it was a story like any other, and then there was the twist of her implacable search for vengeance against Monsieur childhood sweetheart and the story of the long-ago betrayal, and so I thought: wow, OK, this is a completely different kind of story than I thought. But then I thought I was done and I had seen what the deal was.

The next thing that I think is just unexpected and worthwhile is the way the town first absolutely refuses to kill the man, and then slowly you watch relationships change, loyalties change, and his own sense of his place in the world and what he can expect from people change. It is still the case that nobody is willing to kill him. But pressures rise for him to kill himself. It's much more subtly and multifacetedly done than that (you see, you do still have to read the play, sorry). 

And then, finally, there is one more twist that kind of took my breath away, albeit in a slightly slighter way than the earlier twists. It has to do with the history of the bankrupt town and its institutions, and the constriction of its options, and the reach of wealth, and I think I'll leave that one undisclosed.

If you got this far, thanks! And go read the play!

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