Drama for Students

The Firebugs

The Firebugs

MAX FRISCH
1958

INTRODUCTION
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
PLOT SUMMARY
CHARACTERS
THEMES
STYLE
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
CRITICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICISM
SOURCES
FURTHER READING

INTRODUCTION

Max Frisch's The Firebugs (first published in German as Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter, and sometimes translated in English as Biedermann and the Firebugs), is one of the playwright's most enduring plays. It was first conceived of in a short entry in one of Frisch's diaries (Tagebuch, 1946-1949; Diary, 1946-1949). The original concept was similar to the final play—a parody about middle-class people who pride themselves on their generosity and open-mindedness to the point of being blind to the dangers that are threatening them. Frisch revised the diary entry into a radio play in 1951. The radio play turned out to be popular, so Frisch reworked it for the stage. The play was performed on stage for the first time in 1958.

Although the plot of the play is predictable, the clever dialogue has maintained the play's popularity. As a parable exposing the threat of Nazism, the play is also meant to lead audience members into questioning their own moral characters. The exchanges between the firebugs (two homeless arsonists who have intimidated Biedermann into allowing them to spend the night in his attic) and Biedermann are especially funny, as well as very revealing of Biedermann's attempts to hide his real feelings. The firebugs talk their way into Biedermann's home and then manipulate their host to the point that they are given beds, generous meals, the best wine and cigars, and finally the match that will bring the firebugs' arsonist plans to fruition. Biedermann

is so blind to the firebugs' intentions that his inability to deal with them reveals Biedermann to be a man who is having a moral crisis. He must not turn away a homeless person from his home on a rainy night, must not deny a hungry person food, and must not believe that strangers will do him harm without first giving them a chance to prove themselves otherwise. Of course, the firebugs do prove that Biedermann's initial suspicions are correct, but by the time Biedermann discovers this, it is too late. He is so preoccupied by his own fear of the arsonists that he can no longer take any action except to appease the firebugs.

An English-language edition of the play was printed by Hill and Wang in 1963.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Max Frisch was a Swiss architect by training but gave up this profession when he became a successful author. He was a prolific writer throughout his life, producing plays, novels, and diaries. Many of his plays continue to be performed around the world, including his one-act drama, The Firebugs.

Frisch was born on May 15, 1911, in Zurich, Switzerland. His father, Franz Bruno Frisch, was Austrian. His mother, Karolina Wildermuth, was German. At college, Frisch took classes in German literature and philosophy. But after his father died in 1932, he had to drop out of school to support his mother. He turned to journalism for his first job. This gave him the opportunity not only to hone his skills as a writer but also to travel around Europe. However, after attempting to produce literary works, he became dissatisfied with the results and gave up his dream of becoming a writer. Later, with the support of a generous family friend, he returned to school and majored in architecture, which had been his father's profession.

In 1942, Frisch opened an architect office and married Constanze von Meyenburg. They lived together for twelve years, during which time they had three children. The couple separated and then officially divorced in 1959. By this time, Frisch had written several novels, but it was his work in drama that brought him the most critical attention. His first play, Santa Cruz (1944), involved a journey through a dreamscape. But with his next plays, such as Now They Are Singing Again: Attempt at a Requiem (1945), The Chinese Wall (1947), When War Was Finished (1949), as well as The Firebugs (1958), Frisch began to focus more on problems he saw in the world around him, especially the effects of war. As his skill in drama improved, he had a chance to gain the acquaintance of Bertolt Brecht, famed German playwright, whose work Frisch had studied in school. Brecht's work would highly influence Frisch's writing as the playwright matured.

Frisch's success with drama gave him confidence to return to his novel writing. He wrote three major novels in the next ten years: Stiller (1954; I'm Not Stiller), Homo Faber. Ein Bericht (1957; Homo Faber: A Report), and Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors). However, it was Frisch's plays that brought him the most international fame. In 1958, he won the prestigious Georg-Buchner Prize, the greatest honor given for German-language literature. In the 1960s, Frisch's work was translated for English-speaking audiences as his Firebugs and his other more famous play Andorra (1961), a play about racial prejudice, were staged in London and in the United States for the first time. In 1985, he was given the Common Wealth Award for distinguished work in literature for his life's work.

In 1987, Frisch was invited to attend the Moscow Peace Congress, where he delivered a speech about working toward world peace. He died of cancer on April 4, 1991. He was living in Zurich at the time.

PLOT SUMMARY

Scene 1

Frishch's The Firebugs is a one-act play divided into eight scenes. All scenes take place in the main character's (Gottlieb Biedermann's) house. The play opens with a dark stage. Then a match is lit. All the audience can see is Biedermann's face in the flame of the match. Biedermann lights a cigar. Then the stage lights come on, and the audience can see that Biedermann is surrounded by firemen wearing helmets. Biedermann complains that no one, nowadays, can even light a cigar without thinking of the possibility that their houses might burn down. He throws away the lighted cigar, disgustedly, and leaves the stage.

The firemen act as a chorus (an old drama technique from ancient Greek tragedies in which a group of actors fill in the background of a play by reciting lines, often in poetic stanzas). The firemen explain that they are there to watch and listen. They are looking for dangers that others might not see. There have been many fires in the recent past, and not all of them were a matter of fate. Some fires occur because of stupidity.

Scene 2

The setting is now in the living room of the Biedermann house, where Biedermann is reading the newspaper. He complains about a report he has just read about another fire. "They ought to hang them!" he shouts. The story is about a peddler, who somehow gets himself invited into a person's home, where he is invited to spend the night in the attic. Anna, his maid, tells him that someone is waiting to talk to him. Anna refers to this person as "the peddler." Biedermann tells Anna he does not want to talk to him. He asks Anna what the peddler wants. Anna says the peddler wants kindness and humanity. Biedermann says he will throw the man out himself. But then he recounts. He is not, after all, inhuman.

Before Anna can leave, Schmitz (the peddler) enters the room. He is athletic and dressed in an outfit reminiscent of a prison uniform. Schmitz tells Biedermann not to worry. He is not a peddler. Rather, he is an unemployed wrestler. He came inside the Biedermann's house to get out of the rain. He then apologizes for intruding.

Biedermann slowly changes his tone of voice. He offers Schmitz a cigar and some food. As Schmitz waits for Anna to bring the food, he tells Biedermann that he saw him the night before at the pub. He says that Biedermann was right to believe that all the firebugs should be hanged. He says Biedermann is the old-fashioned kind of citizen, who has a conscience. Then Schmitz asks if Biedermann has an empty bed he could spare. But before Biedermann can answer, Schmitz laughs and says he does not really need a bed. He is used to sleeping on the floor. Schmitz changes the topic, mentioning how everyone, nowadays, is so suspicious of each other. But not Biedermann, Schmitz insinuates. Biedermann still believes in people. Any one else might give him some food but then would secretly call the police to have him taken away. But not Biedermann, Schmitz says.

Anna enters the room and announces that a Mr. Knechtling is there and would like to speak to Biedermann. Knechtling is a man who used to work for Biedermann. Knechtling invented the formula for Biedermann's hair tonic. Biedermann has fired him. Knechtling has a sick wife and three kids that he has to feed, but Biedermann has no sympathy for him. Biedermann tells Anna to tell Knechtling to get a lawyer if he wants anything from him. Biedermann hears his wife coming in, and he invites Schmitz up to the attic. His wife has a heart condition, and he does not want her to be concerned about seeing Schmitz in the house.

In the attic, Biedermann shows Schmitz where he can sleep. Before Biedermann leaves, he asks Schmitz to assure him that he is not a firebug. Schmitz laughs. Downstairs, Babette hears a noise in the attic, then tells the audience that she is so proud of her husband because he faithfully checks the attic each night to make sure there are no firebugs up there.

The chorus closes the scene by reminding the audience they are always watching what is happening.

Scene 3

Biedermann and Babette are discussing Schmitz while Biedermann is preparing to leave for the office. Biedermann tries to reassure his wife that Schmitz is not a firebug. When Babette questions her husband about how he knows this, Biedermann says he asked Schmitz "point blank." He says she should not be so suspicious. Babette tells her husband he is too good. But she promises to give Schmitz breakfast before she tells him to leave.

Babette offers Schmitz breakfast. Babette tries to bring up the subject of Schmitz leaving, but Schmitz cleverly guides the conversation so that Babette begins to feel sorry for him. He tells her that she still thinks he is a firebug. Babette denies this. Schmitz then brings up a story about his childhood, during a time when he was in an orphanage. Schmitz then tells Babette that he will leave. He will go out in the rain. Then he mentions his friend Willi. Willi has told him that no one is willing to offer charity these days. Schmitz says Willi would really be surprised to see how nice Babette and her husband have been treating him. And just then the doorbell rings, and Schmitz announces that it is probably his friend Willi.

The chorus ends the scene with the statement that there are now two firebugs in the house. They talk about cowardice and fear and how blind weak people can become. They know there is evil about them, but they secretly hope they will somehow avoid it. The weak are defenseless, so that in fact, they welcome evil with open arms.

Scene 4

Schmitz and Willi Eisenring are in the attic. They are rolling big barrels into the attic. They remind each other to keep quiet, for Schmitz fears Biedermann may call the police. Eisenring does not think so. He says Biedermann is just as guilty as they are. The reason is that Biedermann makes too much money.

Biedermann bangs on the door. When the door is opened, Biedermann tells Schmitz to leave immediately or his wife will call the police. Biedermann is angry because of all the noise. When Biedermann sees Eisenring, he is taken aback. When he asks why there are now two of them, Eisenring turns to Schmitz and says "Didn't I tell you? Didn't I say it's no way to act." Schmitz hangs his head in shame. The more Biedermann chastises the men for taking advantage of him, the more Eisenring berates Schmitz, as if Eisenring is taking Biedermann's side.

Biedermann notices the barrels and asks where they came from. Eisenring reads a label and says they were imported. When Biedermann complains that the whole attic is filled with the barrels, Eisenring blames Schmitz for his poor calculations. He claims that Schmitz thought the attic was much bigger. When Biedermann asks what is in the barrels, Eisenring tells him, gasoline. Biedermann thinks this is a joke, until he smells it.

A policeman appears and says Knechtling has committed suicide. When the policeman asks what is in the barrels, Biedermann lies, saying it is hair tonic.

As Biedermann attempts to leave the house, the chorus blocks his way. They try to warn him about the gasoline. Biedermann says it is not their business. He asks them why they must always imagine the worst. He tells them that he is free to think whatever he wants to think, even if that means he does not want to think at all. All he is doing is trying to be good hearted. When the chorus asks if he smells the gasoline, Biedermann replies that he smells nothing. The chorus comments on how quickly he has become used to the smell.

Scene 5

Biedermann tells Babette to fix a goose for dinner. Then he says if he reports Schmitz and Eisenring to the police he will make the two men his enemies, and then all it would take would be one match and the house would go up in flames. So he decides to invite them to dinner. …