In Arifa Akbar’s review of Tony Kushner’s new adapation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit on the Grauniad’s site—I feel I should be able to work some more Proper Noun possessives in there somehow—she refers to the character of Claire Zachanassian as a prodigal daughter, returning with riches.

That sounded absolutely terrible to me, just shockingly wrong. Does it to you? Is it?

In the Christian Scripture, the story of the prodigal son is, of course, not of a child returning with riches, but of a child who leaves with riches and returns in poverty, degradation and remorse. Claire left town in penniless disgrace and returns, to put it zeugmatically, with great wealth and a vengeance. The Scriptural story is about forgiveness; the Dürrenmatt play is about… well, I will save some mild spoilers for the next paragraph, but it is certainly isn’t about forgiveness. Presumably the Kushner play has not changed that.

On the other hand, the plot of the play (these are the mild spoilers) involves Claire’s willingness to give away a vast fortune, with certain conditions. It’s an act of prodigality, looked at a certain way. It’s pretty much the opposite of the Scriptural story, but maybe that’s the joke? Maybe the prodigal son goes out rich and prodigal and comes back poor and repentant, but the prodigal daughter goes out poor and disgraced and comes back rich and prodigal?

I’m inclined to think not—I’m inclined to think that this is a just misuse of the phrase. But on the other hand, I’ve been inclined to think about it for several hours now, so that’s a thing, anyway.

Somewhat, but not entirely, related: I nearly referred to Claire as the titular character in The Visit, in accordance with the Lex Hartmania. The original title is Besuch der alten Dame, and Claire is definitely the titular character in that, and so I think of her. The full title of Mr. Kushner’s adaptation (currently at the National) is The Visit, or The Old Lady Comes to Call, and it certainly sounds wrong to refer to Claire as the subtitular character.


5 Responses to “Prodigal”

  1. Frederic Bush

    Did you mean to call it “a just misuse” of the phrase?

    • -Ed.

      Er, no. I’m inclined to think this is “just a misuse” of the phrase.

      I blame Hartman.


  2. irilyth

    Hm, I think that I tend to think of “prodigal” as having something to do with “prodigy”, and don’t remember what the biblical story is about, because I am forgetful.

    The phrase “prodigal daughter” to me mostly evokes the Indigo Girls. (

  3. Jed

    I agree that the phrase in question is a misuse of prodigal daughter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a fairly common misuse.

    For many years, I assumed that prodigal meant something like “prodigious,” because I was unfamiliar with the Bible story. Combining that with what Irilyth said above makes me suspect that a lot of people don’t know or don’t remember what the word means.

    So although I haven’t done a study of use of phrases like prodigal son, it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people use prodigal to mean returning, with connotations connected to lavishness in some vague way.

    MW11’s sense 2 of prodigal is the Biblical meaning: “recklessly spendthrift.” But sense 1 (appeared chronologically earlier in English) is “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure : lavish,” as in “a prodigal feast.” And sense 3 is “yielding abundantly : luxuriant.” Only sense 2 is directly relevant to the phrase prodigal daughter, but I suspect that a lot of people have a general idea that prodigal has something to do with lavishness, and it’s an easy step from there to richness.

    But I’m just speculating here.

  4. -Ed.

    Ironically, Lucy Mangan’s review of Prodigal Son on the Grauniad’s site begins with the admonition that the phrase in question does not simply mean “returning after a long time away”. Although Wikipedia does describe the titular character as a disgraced former FBI profiler, so perhaps there is some prodigality, after all.



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