The Visit of the old Lady / Der Besuch der alten Dame

Friedrich Dürrenmatt‘s 1956 dark-comic story of Claire who returns to her decaying hometown as a billionaire and wants revenge for her once broken heart and honour, and sets in motion a tragi-comic social experiment of moral values, has been revamped in a post-Wende rendition directed by Armin Petras at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin.

She offers the town’s people one billion in exchange for “justice” – that is, if someone kills Alfred Ill, her former lover. While the town’s people are outraged at first, claim that “justice cannot be bought,” and stand up for Alfred, very soon, one by one, they begin to acquire hitherto unfordable goods and purchases, going deeper and deeper into debt, and thereby making Alfred’s sacrificial death inevitable.

The implied parallels to Berlin’s self-proclaimed “poor, but sexy(-ness)” and the rising debts that the city accumulated in its efforts to gentrify (thereby driving rents and costs of living up and selling off its treasured spaces of freedom, such as Tacheles) are quite fitting.

As the debts grow, and the town’s people become more desperate, the question on everyone’s mind becomes: will they kill Alfred?

Suspending the theatrical illusion, the mayor of the town says:  “We are one nation (quoting the 1989 reunification slogan: Wir sind ein Volk); we want to become one at last (wir wolles es auch wieder werden! – perhaps ironically pointing out that they aren’t yet)! If you (to Alfred Ills) don’t trust our city, I feel sorry for you. That also goes for you!” (addressing the audience, he climbs into the audience over the arm rests, à la Roberto Benigni, and squats there. He then asks a man from the audience whether he remembers how the play ends, whether the town’s people will indeed kill Alfred or not. No one in the audience seems to be able to remember. This little chatter with the audience ends with the mayor’s conclusion that participatory theater is quite normal, that we are not, after all, in Switzerland (Dürrenmatt’s home country).

Finally, the mayor concludes this interlude by stating: “The heart of democracy is…” someone in the audience calls out: “in Switzerland!” – everyone including the actor who plays the mayor laughs. The mayor continues: “The heart of democracy is open discussion, and you have just missed your chance!”

  

I remember watching Schiller’s Die Räuber in Nürnberg around Christmas 2005 and some of the actors (after throwing water into the first few rows of the audience) called out into the audience “Du bist Deutschland!” (“You are Germany” – a very controversial social marketing campaign that circulated throughout the country in the year leading up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and was widely quoted in the media).

This goes hand in hand with Dürrenmatt’s mayor sitting on someone’s lap in the audience (later in the play he gets to sit on Alfred’s face, wearing nothing but underwear) and chatting about the current state of Berlin affairs – the heart of democracy!

 

Other deviations from Dürrenmatt’s original text include Claire’s final words: “Diese Welt verwandelte mich in eine Hure. Diese Welt ist ein Bordell.” (This world made a whore out of me. This world is a whorehouse.) While the original reads: “Die Welt machte mich zu einer Hure, nun mache ich sie zu einem Bordell.” (The world made a whore out of me, now I will turn it into a whorehouse!) Dürrenmatt’s original Claire was a capitalist hungry for vengeance, treating the world (the town) as she was treated once. In Petras’ version, everything has been turned into a (global) capitalist whorehouse, no one is outside of it, not even a billionaire, no one person is pulling the strings anymore.

 

Armin Petras’ version of Dürrenmatt’s dramatic experiment about the economic limits of moral discourse is translated into the post-1989 landscape. A town in conflict of values: the fragility of life, the unreliability of political values, and the appeal of money stand in direct opposition with each other. One of them will lose.

What does that mean for Berlin? Who wins – who loses here? Who is being whored? Who will get sacrificed?

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