What significance does the village station take on in Durrenmatt’s play?
On reading the play, The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt, it is quite evident that the playwright intended the village train station of the town of Guellen to hold special significance.
It is at the village train station that the play opens; where we are introduced to four characters who would go on to play an important role each as the events unfold. It is through the conversation of these men- the schoolmaster, the Mayor, the Priest and a man by the name of Alfred Ill, that we learn of the past and present conditions of this town. The town was once the picture of prosperity, culture and heritage. The four men are gathered around a painter who is painting a welcome sign for a woman named Claire. The men rue the present conditions saying that the town has deteriorated beyond repair and there is little to show for its rich past.
Here we learn about the impending visit of Claire Zachannasian who used to live in the town many years ago and was now a millionairess. Her visit is supposed to bring relief to the townspeople as she may make large donations, pulling them out of their misery. In other words, the station is the place where we meet the city, its people and their lives.
To understand the importance of Claire’s visit, we must go back in time. Claire (whose last name at that time was Wascher) and Alfred Ill were lovers when young. However, Claire had brought a paternity suit against Ill which was rejected since the latter had produced false witnesses to defame Claire’s character. It was then that she left the town in shame and humiliation while Ill married Matilda whose father owned the general store, which now he ran. He had also, gone on to become the most popular man in town. Claire, on the other hand, moved to Hamburg and became a prostitute. She also, went on to marry many men, discarding them quickly, as if in contempt of what Alfred had not given her.
The station is the location for Claire’s arrival. She catches the townspeople by surprise by arriving early and making quite an impact. She is quite unlike her image of younger days, however, she does begin to flirt with Alfred, who has been entrusted with the task of persuading her for a donation.
The significance of the station as a location is heightened once again at the end of Act II when Alfred Ill , whose life Claire has demanded in return for a donation of one million, is about to board a train. (According to Claire, she is here to purchase justice, to overturn the wrong done to her so many years ago by Ill.) The people of the town along with the Mayor are also, surprisingly, present at the station. It is as if they would want him to leave so that they would not be faced with the agony and difficulty of having to execute him. Alfred has noticed a change in the lifestyle of the people. They are buying on credit and have given up their gloomy expressions for one of cheer. It is as if they are looking forward to receiving some amount of money in the future and Alfred knows in his heart that that money would be the donation Claire would be making, in the event of his execution. He is hurt and betrayed by this lack of support.
However, Alfred is caught between wanting to run and wishing that someone would make him stay. The station is the point of departure and arrivals. This Act brings out the significance of the train station as an entry and exit. Even though Alfred has the chance to leave and avoid his possible execution at the hands of the people whom he has lived with for so long, he is ambivalent. It is quite evident that Durrenmatt intended for the station to be the point where we are wishing for Alfred Ill to take a decision. Eventually, he is unable to board the train. No other location would probably have been more appropriate for this. Each time we take a decision in life, we enter a situation while exiting another. That is exactly what the situation at the station brings out at the close of Act II. Alfred Ill has decided to remain at the mercy of the townspeople whose desire for the one million is clearly more powerful than their love for him while leaving behind the opportunity to remain alive.
The importance of the train station is probably the most in the second Act. It is here that the townspeople are gathered for no apparent reason, other than probably wanting to see Alfred leave.
Just as the play opens on the train station, at the end of Act III, we find Claire standing at the station with the coffin holding Alfred Ill’s body. That is the closing scene and one which is both poignant yet grotesque. There is something unsettling about the fact that a woman would want to keep her former lover’s dead body with her, but at the same time, it is also, touching because this was a man who had betrayed her and humiliated her, for no fault for hers and she was treating his body with reverence.
The station is significant also, because it is the point of arrival and departure for Claire Zachannasian. She brings with her hopes of a better tomorrow for the people of Guellen. She also, brings with her memories of an unhappy, unjust past. And she takes back redemption.
The significance of the station in this play unfolds as the action takes place, forcing us to think of it not just as a location but also, as an entity symbolizing the process of decision making, where people choose to either stay or leave, knowing the consequences of their actions.
To conclude, I would say that the train station is the centre of activity, a focal point where the people of the town gather to reminisce and discuss anticipations of the future. We meet the key players here and we learn about the past of this little town. We peep into the hearts of the people and understand their hopes and fears for the future. The station, in my opinion, is the hub that witnesses the entries and exits of the most important figures in this play. We meet Alfred Ill and Claire at the train station and we bid goodbye to them here. They may have arrived separately but they have left together, both at peace, in their own unique way.