Recent Reading: Plays

I. The Visit [1956] by Friedrich Dürrenmatt – ★★★★★

A story is not finished, until it has taken the worst turn” (Friedrich Dürrenmatt).

“…feeling[s] for humanity…is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine, [one] can afford a new world order” [Claire Zachanassian in Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, Grove Press, 1956/94: 67].

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921 – 1990) was a Swiss author and dramatist, and his play The Visit is considered one of his best works. The play is set in a small, poverty-stricken town of no importance Guellen. Its forgotten-by-everyone people can barely make their ends meet, and it is to this scene comes Claire Zachanassian, an elderly multi-millionairess who owns Armenian Oil and Western Railways, among other things. Guellen is her home town, and she brought with her for this visit an unbelievably large amount of money, as well as her husband, her future husband, her sedan-bearers, who are actually convicted gangsters, a panther and…a coffin, because…”she may need it”. It seems that everyone in town reckons that Claire would want to become a much needed benefactor to the town and its desperate community. However, the millionairess makes one shocking proposition: she wants justice for money, and the matter has something to do with her past and with her childhood sweetheart, Alfred Ill, now the town’s most esteemed citizen.

Dürrenmatt’s absurdist play is an uncompromising study of collective conscience, madness and dangers of self-interested crowds and joint conspiracies, showcasing the terrifying collision of individual and collective interests, and demonstrating the evils of greed and hypocrisy. The story is also a nuanced satire on the authority and eccentricity of monetary fortune, and, at least solely thematically, the play falls somewhere between Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game [1939] and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery [1948]. What action justifies the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Reading this play, cynical and cold-blooded proponents of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism may smirk, Immanuel Kant’s deontologists may weep, and the rest must be greatly impressed.

II. Veronica’s Room [1973] by Ira Levin – ★★★★

This play was probably first recommended to me by M.C. Tuggle (thank you), and see also my list Ira Levin’s Novels: Ranked. Veronica’s Room is a play in two acts with four characters: The Woman, The Man, The Girl and The Young Man. Susan and Larry are recently-met young “couple” who visit another middle-aged couple the Mackeys. There seems to have been some kind of tragedy that happened in the past in the house that is now occupied by the Mackyes and it concerns the family Brabissant, the previous owners of the house. The duo of middle-aged caretakers then persuades the young girl Susan to impersonate a long deceased member of the Brabissant family in the hope to placate the now very ill and dying member of that family – Cissie. The less one know about this play, that mixes reality and make-believe to astonishing effects, the more entertaining it would seem by the end. Perhaps it is very unfair to judge a 1973 play by the “entertainment” standards of the year 2022, but that is the reality, and this play by Levin felt undoubtedly more impressive in 1973. It is still a twisty and thrilling treat that could have been penned only by the master of subtle horror that was Ira Levin (see his other mind-blowing play The Death Trap (1978)), but now it also feels as though some of Veronica’s Room’s core twists could have been taken much further and some of its more unbelievable aspects – “polished” better.

III. Dancing at Lughnasa [1990] by Brian Friel – ★★★★

Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out” (Anton Chekhov).

This gentle memory play is about five sisters living in impoverished Ireland in the 1930s. The narrator is a man who looks back at his own self as a seven-year old boy Michael who lives with his mother Chris, and his aunts: Kate (school-teacher), Maggie (housekeeper), and Agnes and Rose (knitters) in the village of Ballybeg. Michael’s uncle Jack has only recently arrived from Africa after working there as a missionary priest for many years, and is now riddled with diseases, as well as displays some disturbing mental and pagan tendencies. Then, there is also Michael’s wayward father Gerry, who never married Michael’s mother Chris, and who is always away for prolonged periods of time, giving empty promises to come back at some point.

Amidst little squabbles and daily gossip, the sisters live in a relative harmony with each other, striving for financial independence at whatever cost and always trying to put on a brave front, even if trapped in domestic mediocrity and inertia, and being completely without the so-called male “anchor” in their lives. One of their few joys is dancing as they have recently acquired a new wonder apparatus which is a radio, and dancing not only gives the sisters a much needed momentary release from their worries and chores, but also, more symbolically, stands for their attempts at daily happiness. However, the sisters’ hopes and dreams are short-lived – they are no match for the indifference of the opposite sex or the increasingly industrialised society. This slightly underwhelming play by Friel can be compared to Robert Harling’s play Steel Magnolias [1987], with which it shares similar themes of female friendship and resilience, and on some level, Dancing at Lughnasa can also be viewed as a parable of the disintegration of a close community and traditional values by yet unseen forces, as well as of the world and neighbouring countries’ indifference regarding Ireland’s domestic problems at that time.

12 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Plays

  1. I have not read the three plays you discuss, but I do like reading plays. I suppose Shakespeare got me started reading plays. Besides Shakespeare, my favorite playwright is Eugene O’Neill. There is a 1973 film version of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ starring Lee Marvin and Frederic March that is absolutely stunning. But all of O’Neill’s plays are excellent.
    There are many other playwrights I have appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, I will try to find some plays by O’Neill to read. I will try to find the film you recommend, too. I love films based on plays. There are many great examples in this category, aren’t there? A Street Car Named Desire, Rope, Doubt and The Browning Version (1951) are just a few that come to mind, and I have recently watched Death of a Salesman (1985) (originally made for TV) with Dustin Hoffman and enjoyed that one too. Perhaps I love those films over others because they have certain “intimacy” to them, as well as close character interactions.

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