Based on The Visit, Maurice Valency's English-language adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit of the Old Lady).
When she was 17, Claire Zachanassian was driven from her hometown, Brachen (in Switzerland), in disgrace after being impregnated by her lover, Anton Schell. Anton bribed other men in town to claim that they had also slept with her. She left the town with no way to survive at first except as a prostitute.
Many years (and seven husbands) later, she returns to Brachen as one of the richest women in the world. She is beautifully dressed, but has a wooden leg, as a result of having been injured in a plane crash. The town is now in a state of abject poverty. She offers to donate a huge amount of money to the town, as well as a substantial amount to every citizen. In return, she demands that the town grant her justice for her betrayal by Schell by executing him.
At first the townspeople indigantly refuse, but Claire bides her time, creating the circumstances under which the townspeople will start to buy expensive goods on credit. Anton soon realizes that the townspeople will turn on him, even if they don't yet realize it themselves.
Eventually, Claire reveals that she has brought about Brachen's destitute state by having bought up every factory and business in town and then having shut them down. Anton makes one attempt at escape, but finds himself somehow unable to actually do so when the townspeople meet him at the train station, even though they don't actually physically prevent him from getting on the train. They don't have to. He chooses to remain and to accept his fate.
A trial is held. Anton is executed. Claire leaves, with his coffin now among her belongings.
Trivia & History
The original source material was previously adapted as an opera, Der Besuch der Alten Dame (the title of the original German-language play), music by Gottfried von Einem.