5 Jun 2013 

The sacrifices we make for the promise of wealth
  • by Philip J Cunningham

There's a tragicomic story about the power of money to corrupt absolutely. A billionaire comes back home from exile to share the wealth and exact revenge. Purse strings are pulled even before the billionaire's triumphant return, to ensure the people suffer and languish until their once-scorned saviour returns.
During the fanfare that accompanies the return of the billionaire, it transpires that a billion will be gifted to the community, but there is one odious condition. The well-known individual who caused the billionaire to lose face and scurry out of town in disgrace must be executed.
At first no one agrees, the idea is too cruel and whimsical to think about, but eventually it starts to sink in. People start to buy things they cannot afford, money starts to flow, or rather more ominously, credit is extended to individuals on the understanding the devil's deal will be done.
Naturally there are those who disagree, but one by one friends, family and neighbours are bought off. What's the life of one person compared to the prosperity of an entire community? The doomed man is transformed into an obstacle standing between the people and the huge sum of money promised.
A schoolteacher, fearful that money is changing the way people think, tries to broker a humane solution, but the billionaire is not swayed by humanitarian considerations and the deal remains unchanged _ the community will get the cash only if it sacrifices the said individual.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of The Visit, a play written by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1956, originally published as Der Besuch der alten Dame.
Durrenmatt used dark humour to illustrate the ravages of capitalism and the way a seemingly civilised society could be eroded by the power of money. In this short, concise work, long popular among students of the German language, Durrenmatt imagines a world where people betray one another and discard their ideals out of unenlightened self-interest.
Everything can be bought or sold, even justice itself. One by one, the villagers fall victim to greed, setting the scene for the billionaire's revenge. There's even a balcony scene, befitting of Shakespeare, where the billionaire triumphantly looks down on the town full of fools.
One interesting twist of the story is its play on gender. The billionaire is a woman, not just any woman, but a woman who suffered the injustice of being driven out of town on charges of being a prostitute. As a billionaire, she returns to reclaim her reputation with an unrelenting mean streak and a manipulative vengeance, and in doing so, becomes a much worse person than a poor, broken woman forced to sell her body.
Throughout the tale, the promise of wealth is so compelling that personal and collective dignity are willingly sacrificed. The billionaire named Claire appears magnanimous at first, founding and funding "hospitals, charitable institutes, art projects, libraries, nurseries and schools". She even buys back the lives of men sentenced to death, not for the humanity of it, but to acquire loyal personal servants who will help her carry out her plan to convince the villagers to kill the hapless Albert, the man she identifies as her nemesis.
It takes but a few spare lines of dialogue to express the essence of corruption:
"I have no need of you at the moment," she tells the policeman. "But I think there may be work for you by and by. Tell me, do you know how to close an eye?"
"How else could I get along in my profession?" the policeman answers.
"You might practise closing both," she says.
(The policeman bows).
The community's willing executioners overturn the law banning capital punishment. They even go through the formality of vote  --the result is in favour of taking the money -showing how democracy dysfunctions under the spell of populist schemes predicated on greed.
As if this weren't bleak enough, the author mocks the press, too. Journalists cover the vote and money handout in droves, but get the story backwards, portraying the victimiser as good and the victim as lucky. The doomed Alfred is killed out of view and it takes just one corrupt doctor to convince the easily placated press that he died of a heart attack, a lie they accept unquestioningly while being treated to refreshments.
The play is didactic but not without real world parallels. Many ancient societies practised human sacrifice in the vain hope of ensuring the prosperity of the community. In more modern times, there are far too many examples of ordinary people, driven by fear and greed, who sell out and betray stigmatised individuals in the vain hope of self-advancement and saving themselves.
One need only think of otherwise upstanding European citizens who looked the other way as Jews were loaded onto trains or those opportunists in Stalin's thrall who sought advantage in denouncing others, or Khmer Rouge who thought the madness would stop after they killed people wearing glasses, or craven Maoists publicly denouncing and voluntarily beating to death landlords, capitalists and other hapless individuals in the vain hope of pleasing the penultimate leader.
In 1964, The Visit was made into a movie of the same name, starring Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman. Despite superb acting, the storyline of the film is somewhat hampered by Bergman's benevolent beauty - she seems too naturally gracious to play such a wicked character - and the "happy" ending, unfaithful to the book, reeks of Hollywood crowd-pleasing.
But Bergman herself was ostracised from Hollywood for many years because of a sex scandal, so the film was not without resonance with her own life. And the "happy" ending has a demonic twist of its own; Claire spares the man's life on the condition that he live with the people who, out of greed, condemned him to death. Is that not punishment enough?

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.