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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Biedermann goes to the attic, where he finds Eisenring stringing a cord. Eisenring asks Biedermann if he has seen the detonator cap. Biedermann takes it as a joke. He tells Eisenring he has a sense of humor, but does not like his idea of a joke. Eisenring replies that he has learned that a joke acts as a camouflage. It is either a joke or sentiment that works best. Eisenring finds the detonator, and when Biedermann asks, Eisenring tells him the cord in his hand is the fuse. Biedermann again takes it as a joke and tells Eisenring that he cannot scare him. But he warns Eisenring to be careful, because not everyone has a sense of humor like his.
There is a brief encounter with a man who is called the Professor. Eisenring talks to him, but the Professor does not respond. The scene ends with Babette telling the Professor that she understands what he has to say is urgent, but she is busy fixing the dinner. The chorus then concludes by saying that the Professor sees no barrels and does not smell the gasoline because he deals only in abstractions, until it all explodes.
Biedermann is in the living room with Mrs. Knechtling, telling her he has no time to think about the dead. The widow leaves. Biedermann tells Anna to make the table setting simple—no table cloth, no silver, and no candles.
Biedermann walks to the front of the stage and addresses the audience, telling them that they can think what they want, but he knows that as long as the two men are well fed and are kept laughing, he is safe. He then says the idea that Schmitz and Eisenring are arsonists came on him slowly, although he was suspicious from the start.
Biedermann jokes with Schmitz and Eisenring at the dinner table and tells Babette that she has no sense of humor when he tells her that he helped Eisenring measure out the fuse. He laughs and says the next thing they probably will do is to ask him for some matches. Eisenring and Schmitz ask Biedermann if he has a table cloth and silverware. Biedermann tells Anna to bring out all the silver. Anna comes in with a card from the Professor, telling Biedermann that he wants to see him. Anna says the Professor says he is waiting because he wants to expose something.
Schmitz says he was once an actor, before the theater burnt to the ground. Schmitz had two lines in a play: "Who calleth?" and "EVERYMAN! EVERYMAN!" Then Schmitz calls out Biedermann's name and continues repeating it. When Biedermann asks who they are, Schmitz answers that he is the ghost of Knechtling. Eisenring reprimands Schmitz, telling him that he is making Biedermann shake. Eisenring says Biedermann is a good man. After all, he employed Knechtling for fourteen years.
Sirens are heard outside. Babette calls out "Firebugs! Firebugs!" Biedermann says he is glad the fire is not at their house. Eisenring explains that that is how they do it. They distract the fire department with one fire, so they can set another one. Biedermann asks them to stop joking. Eisenring says he is not joking. They are firebugs. They chose his house because it is situated close to the gas works. Biedermann refuses to admit that he believes they are firebugs. Instead, he thinks of them as his friends. The men say they must leave. Biedermann thinks they are leaving because they do not believe him, and he wants to know what he can do to get them to believe him. Eisenring tells him that he can give him some matches. Biedermann does. The men leave, and the Professor enters. In very academic language that is hard to understand, the Professor reads a statement, then hands the paper to Biedermann. He says he wanted to improve the world. He watched Eisenring and Schmitz and knows exactly what they are doing. What he just recently discovered, though, is that they are doing it for the pure joy of it. The Professor then walks off the stage and sits in the audience.
Babette and Anna quiz cannot believe Biedermann gave them matches. Biedermann says that if they were firebugs, they would have had their own matches.
The play ends with the chorus. They say the story is useless because arson does not accomplish anything.
Anna is the maid in the Biedermann household. She does what she is told, whether it makes sense or not. Anna is probably a bridge between the Biedermann couple, with all their wealth, and the firebugs, who do not even have a place to live. Anna lives in the house but is not of the same social ranking as the Biedermanns, but she is better off than the firebugs who roam from one house to another in search of shelter and food. She is an objective observer of what goes on in the house; but like the Biedermanns, Anna does nothing to stop the firebugs.
Babette is the wife of Gottlieb Biedermann. She is not easily persuaded to trust the two homeless men. However, she is completely devoted to her husband and will go along with whatever he says. Thus, she too is caught up in the trap that Schmitz and Eisenring are setting.
Schmitz, one of the firebugs, easily lures Babette into accepting his presence in her house by telling her about his difficult childhood. Babette, who was, at first, on guard of this stranger, gives in to Schmitz because he has touched her heart. However, whereas her husband thinks that the firebugs are just joking around about setting fires, Babette sees no humor in the firebugs' statements. She is more level-headed than her husband, but in spite of this, she takes no action against the firebugs. Although she may be more honest and more instinctual in her responses to the firebugs than her husband, she submits to her husband's authority, denying her own instincts.
Gottlieb Biedermann (referred to as Biedermann for most of the play), is the central character. Biedermann is a successful businessman, living a very comfortable life. It is in Biedermann's house that the play takes place.
Biedermann represents the middle-class citizen who, according to this play, tends to turn away from imposing danger because he is torn between wanting to look like an ideal citizen who maintains a sense of humanity in spite his wealth, and his own natural suspicions that something happening around him might be terribly wrong. He wants to appear to be good-hearted but only when his interests are at stake. On the one hand, Biedermann feels he has a right to dismiss a long-time employee because he believes the man is being greedy. The situation with the homeless men, however, becomes more personal. Charity, Biedermann believes, is a good trait; but his focus is narrow.
Because Biedermann does not want to appear to lack understanding when it comes to the homeless, he denies to himself what he instinctively knows to be happening right in front of him. He does not want to be called cold-hearted, at least not by either of the firebugs. He wants to be seen as someone who does not jump to conclusions when considering the poor. Biedermann represents the middle-class citizen who is comfortable in his life and therefore does not want to put himself out of his comfort zone by standing up for any kind of social injustice.
The Chorus is a group of men dressed as firemen. Their role is to set the background of what is happening in the play, to fill in missing details, and to summon up a conclusion of what has already happened. As firemen, they fail, as it is assumed that the Biedermann house does burn. The Chorus might represent government officials who fail to stop the spread of Nazism in Europe.
Willi Eisenring is the second firebug to show up at Biedermann's home. Eisenring's manner of manipulation of the Biedermanns differs from Schmitz's. Eisenring is more direct, using truth, which he states is the best camouflage. When, for instance, Biedermann asks what Eisenring is looking for in the attic, Eisenring tells him he is looking for a detonator cap. Eisenring's dead-serious answers to Biedermann's questions make Biedermann think the man must be joking. Eisenring also manipulates Biedermann by siding with him when Biedermann criticizes Schmitz. For example, when Biedermann says Schmitz has gone too far by inviting Eisenring to also stay in the attic, Eisenring agrees with Biedermann, criticizing Schmitz's manners. Eisenring might stand for the atrocities that were committed by the Nazis, such as the killing of millions of Jewish people. These actions were so out of the scope of ordinary citizens, they had difficulty believing the stories they heard, just as Biedermann had trouble believing Eisenring.
Mr. Knechtling is the employee of Mr. Biedermann's who invented the hair tonic that Biedermann sells. Knechtling asks for a percentage of the profits and he gets fired for doing so. Knechtling commits suicide by sticking his head into a gas oven. Knechtling could represent the Jewish population that was gassed in the concentration camps in Germany under Nazi rule. At the end of the play, Schmitz pulls the table cloth over his head and pretends that he is the ghost of Knechtling who has come back to haunt Biedermann.
Mrs. Knechtling appears briefly in the play to talk to Biedermann after her husband has killed himself. Biedermann tells Mrs. Knechtling he has no time to talk about the dead.
See The Professor
The professor appears in the attic to watch the firebugs, as if he were studying them. Before the play ends, however, the professor declares that he wants to be disassociated from the firebugs because they are setting fires and destroying lives just for the fun of it. The professor is a satirical representation of those who live in an academic setting and study theories without fully engaging in the real world.
Although his friend Eisenring sometimes calls him Sepp, throughout this play he is referred to as Schmitz. Schmitz is the first to knock on the door of the Biedermann's house, asking if they have an extra bed. He is a very clever man, who mocks Biedermann without Biedermann knowing it. Schmitz also weasels his way into the house by making Biedermann feel guilty for all that he has accumulated. Schmitz tells stories about hardship in his youth. He does this to work on the Biedermann's empathy. When the Biedermanns are close to throwing Schmitz out or calling the police, Schmitz compliments them. In particular, when Schmitz first starts talking to Biedermann, he even compliments the man for saying that all the firebugs should be hanged. He tells Biedermann that he has done "exactly the right thing." Then Schmitz adds, "You're the old-time type of solid citizen." Schmitz also tells Biedermann that he is the kind of man with a conscience. Schmitz, along with his friend Eisenring, are the firebugs, the metaphor for Nazism. They represent evil, chaos, and ruin of society for pure self pleasure.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research Swiss involvement with the Nazis during World War II. Did Swiss businessmen, particularly Swiss bankers, in any way aid the Nazis? Did the Swiss government have a relationship with Germany's Nazi government? Write a paper reflecting on your findings and present the information to your class.
- Frisch won awards for his work as an architect. Find out, by researching Frisch's life, what these awards were and what they were for. Copy pictures of the buildings he designed and present them to your class, along with any other interesting details about Frisch's architecture.
- Frisch's play has been produced in every decade since it was first staged. In each decade, there have been different reasons that this play was pertinent to the audience. How do you think audiences would relate to the play today? Lead a discussion in your class on this topic. Be sure to address the following questions: What issues do you think the firebugs would symbolize in your culture today? What unaddressed dangers are currently threatening society?
- In Frisch's play, there are no scenes that are only between Schmitz and Eisenring. Create a scene between the firebugs. Stay true to their personalities but expand on what they might be thinking. Keep their sharp wit as they discuss why they are arsonists, how they expect to get away with the crime, and what they plan to do next. You might even add an introduction and conclusion by a chorus. When the scene is complete, ask a classmate to join you in delivering the lines to your class.
The theme of self-deception is played out through Biedermann, the main character of The Firebugs. Biedermann wants to believe certain things about himself that are not necessarily true. Biedermann reportedly shouts out in a pub that all firebugs should be hanged, and then later he reads a story in the newspaper about another fire in the city and repeats his sentiments about hanging any arsonist. When Schmitz later reminds Biedermann of these statements, Biedermann weakly tries to explain himself, especially when Schmitz agrees with Biedermann that all firebugs should be hanged. Of course, Schmitz is playing with Biedermann and even goes so far as to compliment Biedermann, saying that he is one of the few men left who still have a conscience. Biedermann is so flattered by Schmitz that he offers the man breakfast. He goes along with Schmitz's idealized vision of him, even though he has recently fired a loyal employee who merely asked for a bonus. Instead, Biedermann begins to believe he is this rare man with a conscience, even though he shows no concern when Knechtling commits suicide over the loss of his job. Neither is there a sign of a conscience in Biedermann when Knechtling's widow comes to the house. Biedermann's only words for her then is that he has no time to talk about the dead. And yet, Biedermann continues to insist that he is a man with great humanity. Humanity is the reason Biedermann gives to his wife for allowing both Schmitz and Eisenring to stay in their house.
In order to keep himself self-deceived and to justify his assumptions about himself, Biedermann refuses to see what is happening right in front of him. When he finally admits that maybe Schmitz and Eisenring are arsonists, he is so strung up in wanting them to think he is a compassionate man, he convinces himself that if he makes friends with them, they will spare his house. Biedermann's ridiculous self-deception goes so far that he gives the firebugs a match. He cannot deny them the match because if he did, or so he believes, they will think he does not trust them, which he does not. Biedermann is easy to manipulate because he is so filled with his own self-deception.
The theme of apathy is also played out through Biedermann but with a little help from the chorus of firemen and the Professor. One definition of the word apathy is a lack of concern. Actually the professor, despite his small role in this play, may be the most apathetic character. He studies the firebugs on an abstract level. They make an interesting subject. He wants to observe them to figure out why they do what they do. In other words, he tries to define them, which requires that he take an objective stance. But when cities are burning down around him, it would seem that he might want to come forward and show some concern. However, he does not. The only concern he demonstrates is for his own benefit, at the end, when he jumps off the stage. He has discovered that the firebugs act for no better reason than for their own enjoyment, which offends the professor. His subjects no longer interest him after this discovery, and he signs a statement to make it clear that he does not want to have anything more to do with them. But he does not try to stop their actions.
The chorus of firemen do not take action either, although they warn Biedermann to watch out because danger is lurking around him. They know what Schmitz and Eisenring are doing in the attic and yet they do not stop them. A chorus is not usually directly involved in the actions of a play, but this chorus is made up of firemen, which was done for some specific purpose. If they are firemen, why do they not stop the arsonists? This may be due to the fact that Frisch wanted to use the firemen as another example of apathy.
Biedermann, Babette, and Anna are also apathetic. Anna does merely as she is told, though she senses the firebugs are up to no good. Babette, though seemingly more suspicious than her husband, allows her husband to soothe her into a state of apathy. And Biedermann, who is even more fully aware of what is going on, convinces himself that the best thing to do is to do nothing at all. A policeman comes into the attic, for example, and still Biedermann does not take action. He could have easily turned Schmitz and Eisenring over to the authorities then. But he does not. Biedermann hopes that in doing nothing, his life will remain undisturbed.
Need for Approval
Biedermann also demonstrates a need for approval. He works very hard to make Schmitz and Eisenring his friends by laughing at what he thinks are their jokes (even though the firebugs are telling Biedermann very important truths, Biedermann cannot believe them and thus thinks they are joking with him). Though the humor comes at Biedermann's expense, Biedermann dismisses his own sense of danger and laughs at the arsonists' insistence that they are indeed planning to burn down Biedermann's house. Biedermann also removes all signs of affluence, such as table cloths and silverware from the dinner table, believing that this will make the men (who are used to prison meals) feel more comfortable. When the men ask for the luxuries, Biedermann jumps up and complies with their wishes. It appears that Biedermann will do almost anything for the men so they will think of him as their friend, even giving them the matches to set his house ablaze.
It is Biedermann through which another theme is played out. This time the theme is that of guilt. Although Biedermann is guilty of many things, most of which he does not acknowledge, there are two specific instances in which he clearly demonstrates that he feels guilty. The first is when the policeman shows up in Biedermann's attic. At this point, Schmitz and Eisenring have stacked several barrels of gasoline in the attic and are setting a fuse.
Prior to the policeman's appearance in the attic, Biedermann had been having a conversation with the firebugs, asking them what was in the barrels. Although he smells the gasoline and senses that that is what the barrels hold, when the policeman notices the barrels and asks Biedermann what is in them, Biedermann lies. He tells the policeman that the barrels are filled with hair tonic. Why does he do this? It is because he feels guilty. He wants to believe that Schmitz and Eisenring are innocent, that they merely need a place to sleep and to find food. But he cannot fully accept this, even though he tries to laugh at the men, as well as at his own foolishness. But when the policeman appears, Biedermann is awakened to the truth. He is force to fully realize the truth. But he cannot turn the firebugs over to the police. By allowing Schmitz and Eisenring to stay in his house and for turning a blind eye toward their activities, Biedermann has become an accomplice to their arson. That is why he feels guilty. Why had he not called the police earlier? How could he have allowed the men to carry all those barrels to his attic? How could he not have known what they were doing? Circumstantial evidence makes Biedermann look like an accomplice, and he knows this.
Another time that Biedermann exhibits guilt is when he strips the table of all luxuries. He has Anna set the table for dinner without the refinements, such as silver knife rests. Who but a wealthy man could afford a silver knife rest? So all the silver candle sticks and linen table cloths and napkins are stored away. All signs of Biedermann's wealth are hidden before he invites Schmitz and Eisenring to the dinner table. There are various reasons for this. Biedermann might have wanted the men to feel welcome, believing that the men were not used to having such a finely set table. However, Biedermann might have done this because he felt guilty for possessing so much wealth, so much more than the homeless men own. Biedermann wanted, in as many ways as possible, to prove that he and the firebugs were on equal ground. That was Biedermann's definition of humanity.
The theme of manipulation is played mostly through the firebugs. They manipulate both Biedermann and Babette throughout the play. They do this through different techniques, depending on the situation and the conversation that is taking place. Schmitz is especially good at manipulation. He begins his first conversation with Biedermann insinuating that Biedermann might be afraid of him because of his build. He tells Biedermann that he is a wrestler. In other words, Schmitz is telling Biedermann that he should not even think of throwing him out. This is very direct manipulation by intimidation. Then when Biedermann offers Schmitz some bread, Schmitz asks if that is all Biedermann has. This is slightly less direct manipulation, but nonetheless it makes Biedermann feel foolish. Of course he has more, but he had not intended on offering it. However, after being asked such a direct question, how can Biedermann lie? When the bread is offered, Schmitz asks if he can also have some cheese, meat, and tomatoes, then adds: "If it's no trouble." Of course it is no trouble, so his request is honored.
Schmitz also manipulates Biedermann by complimenting him, making Biedermann confused, not knowing if he should acknowledge the compliment or refute it. Schmitz knows that Biedermann will accept it, and thus Schmitz will get his way again. For example, when Biedermann threatens to put Schmitz out of his house, Schmitz plays on Biedermann's inflated sense of self-importance, telling Biedermann that he is a good-hearted man, one of the few that know how to be generous with strangers. Through this tactic, Schmitz manipulates Biedermann by daring Biedermann to admit that he is, in fact, not good hearted, which Biedermann cannot do. As the play nears the end, Schmitz's manipulation gains strength. It begins to grow a bit more sinister. With a table cloth draped over his head, Schmitz pretends to be Knechtling, Biedermann's former employee who committed suicide. Schmitz insinuates either that Knechtling has come to haunt Biedermann or else that Knechtling is the Angel of Death, come to claim Biedermann's life. It is at this point that Schmitz is about to leave so he really no longer needs to persuade Biedermann, so the manipulation becomes more intimidating.
The Use of a Chorus
The use of a chorus (a group of actors, or an individual, on stage who often speak in unison) in drama dates back to the ancient Greek tragedies from around the fifth century b.c.e. In the Greek plays, most of the action took place off-stage, and thus the chorus was used to fill the audience in on details of what supposedly was happening away from the stage. In ancient times, the chorus did not consist of trained actors but rather singers and dancers. That is one reason why the lines for the chorus are written in a specific meter, or beat. Seldom if ever did the chorus enter into the actions of the play, although the chorus did empathize with what was going on. Rather, the chorus represented a kind of general voice of humanity. A chorus can also been seen as a narrator, such as readers find in a novel, a voice but not a character in the story. Sometimes a chorus might also provide an analysis of what is going on in the drama. In Greek tragedy, it was customary to have twelve to fifteen members in the chorus. However, in Shakespearean plays of the sixteenth century, the usual form of a chorus was a single actor narrating the lines. Bertolt Brecht, a playwright of the twentieth century and a man who heavily influenced Frisch, also used a chorus in some of his plays. Brecht believed drama was to be used to educate audiences, and his chorus was used to make the message of his play very clear. The chorus was also used to interrupt the action of the play, to purposefully remind the audience that the play was not intended as an escape from reality, but rather to think about real issues that were occurring in ordinary life outside of the theater.
Bertolt Brecht influenced Frisch's form of drama in many ways. One of these was through Brecht's use of Epic Theater, which Frisch sometimes emulated. In traditional dramatic theater, the audience sits back and is basically entertained by the play. However, in Epic Theater, the audience is drawn into the play. Frisch did this in different ways. He has his characters talk to the audience directly on several occasions. This would not usually be done in traditional drama, where the illusion of an invisible wall (sometimes called the Fourth Wall) between the audience and the stage is assumed. In a traditional staging, it is as if the audience is eavesdropping on private conversations. Not so in Epic Theater. Toward the end of Frisch's play, for example, one of the characters (the professor) actually jumps into the audience, which serves to break the imaginary dividing line between the audience and the players on the stage.
Another difference between the two forms of theater is that traditional dramatic theater tends to appeal to the emotions, whereas in Epic Theater, the emphasis is on appealing to the audience's intellect. In other words, the play's purpose is to make the audience think. Rather than identifying emotionally with the characters, in Epic Theater, the playwright wants the audience to reflect on their own lives and how their lives are affecting society. Although Epic Theater does entertain—there are humorous moments in Frisch's play, for example—the driving force behind the play is to teach the audience lessons that might cause social change. Epic Theater entails setting up the stage and performing in such a way that the audience is constantly aware that the drama is a re-enactment of reality, not reality itself. This is supposed to encourage the audience to be more critical about the material that is being presented. Very few, if any, props are used. Very bright lights flood the stage. And choruses, or cards with messages, are displayed and are often employed to interrupt the flow of dialogue and to emphasize the play's message.
Ever since the theater of the ancient Greeks, satire has been used in drama to cleverly (and openly) criticize certain aspects of society. Today, political satire is quite evident on stage, on the radio, and on television (for example the political satire of the The Daily Show). In Frisch's play, the satire is social, aimed at the playwright's (in particular that of Europe and the United States) middle-class societies who were very slow to take action against the Nazi agenda of genocide. Satire used in this play is aimed at correcting a lack of morality—or as the character Biedermann often refers to it—a lack of humanity. Satire is a tool that the playwright uses to open the eyes and minds of his audience. Satire can use comedy, but the message underneath is often biting—a sharply pointed criticism. Satire can be used as a form of education, as the playwright presents mockingly humorous situations that nonetheless hit home, causing the audience to leave the performance still laughing but hopefully changed in the pattern of their thoughts. Besides including clever dialogue and humor, satire often uses exaggeration to make a point. For instance, Biedermann's character is an exaggeration of how people tend to look away from some event they do not want to think about. Biedermann comes across as a buffoon in the process. This is done on purpose because the playwright wants to make sure that his satirical criticism is not missed.
Switzerland is a centrally located country in Europe (approximately 16,000 square miles in size) that comes under the cultural influences of the countries that border it, namely, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and Liechtenstein. The land surface is made up of mostly mountain ranges and valleys, and the country has few natural resources. Politically, Switzerland is divided into twenty-six cantons (similar to states) and is governed by what is referred to as a direct democracy (voters have the right to present the government with referendums to void laws they do not agree with). Although there are many languages and dialects spoken in the country, there are only four officially recognized languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. As of 2007, Switzerland, which is considered an isolationist country by tradition, had not joined the European Union.
Historically, Switzerland did not have a unified government until the French took control in 1798 and created a constitution that brought the governance of the country together and dissolved the cantons. This proved very unpopular, as the citizens of this region relied heavily on tradition, which the French government was trying to destroy. In the next decades, there were civil uprisings as well as invasions from Russia and Austria. However, through the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Switzerland regained its independence and was declared by the then-European powers a permanently neutral territory. One more small war broke out in the Swiss territory, this time a civil uprising between the Catholics and Protestants. This uprising lasted only one month, and at the end, in 1849, the leaders of both sides created a new constitution. That was the last battle that was ever fought on Swiss soil.
During World War I and World War II, Switzerland proclaimed neutrality. Although Swiss armies guarded the borders and may have been the determining factor for German forces not entering the country during World War II, the Swiss soldiers were not involved in any battles. However, there have been allegations that the Swiss neutrality might have been compromised in that they banked money stolen from the German Jewish population by the Nazis. Also interesting to note, Switzerland housed many Allied officials who spied on Germany, which some have claimed aided in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1950s: The world is recovering from the damage caused by the spread of Nazism, its planned genocide of non-Aryan people, and World War II.
Today: Although outlawed in many European countries, Neo-Nazi groups still exist on the fringe of society, and they continue to recruit new members, mostly in Europe and in the United States. Websites, music bands, and other media produced by Neo-Nazis reflect the philosophy of anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia.
1950s: Frisch's play Firebugs is staged in Europe and the United States as a statement against the social pressure to go along with the war policies of the Nazi regime. The play is influenced by the atrocities of World War II.
Today: Tim Robbins, a famous actor and playwright, is loudly criticized after his play Embedded opens in Los Angeles. The play is meant to raise the audience's consciousness about, and be a protest against, the war in Iraq.
1950s: Switzerland creates a five-year plan to build its military in order to defend its right to neutrality.
Today: Swiss voters attempt to abolish the Swiss militia entirely. The bill does not pass. However, the number of active members in the militia, as well as the military budget, is significantly reduced.
Switzerland is one of the more affluent countries in Europe and enjoys one of the lowest rates of unemployment. Banking is a large industry in Switzerland, and because of its nondisclosure agreement (people can deposit money in Swiss banks without fear that their finances will be disclosed to government authorities), large sums of money are deposited in Swiss banks, sometimes for reasons that are not legal, such as money laundering in the drug trade or tax evasion by wealthy foreigners. Also, because the Swiss have to import much of their food and other products, it has been inferred that in the past, one reason Switzerland may not have become involved in trying to stop the spread of Nazism during the 1940s was because their largest trade partner was (and still is) Germany.
Nazism and Adolph Hitler
Nazism generally refers to National Socialism, or the ideology held by the National Socialist German Workers' Party, for which Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) was appointed the chancellor, in 1933, and was given dictatorial rights. Nazis reigned in Germany from 1933 to 1945, when the Allies outlawed the Nazi party after the defeat of Germany at the end of World War II. Nazism was a totalitarian form of government under which everything was controlled by the governing body. Nazism has its roots in various ideologies, but one of the major beliefs is of a pure Aryan race made up of people of Nordic ancestry. Nazis attempted to purge the German population of people who were not of Nordic heritage, thus purifying the German society. Nazis believed that the Aryan race was superior to all other ethnicities. Hitler worried that if Germans were allowed to marry people of other ethnicities, the Aryan race would be polluted. Hitler's ideas were recorded in a publication called Mein Kempf (1925-1926). In this book, Hitler claimed that there was a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Hitler was intent on stopping this from happening. Hitler was very much opposed to democracy and believed that a successful government was best run by one wise leader. Other groups that Hitler did not approve of included people of African descent, the Romani tribes, homosexuals, and people with physical impairments or illnesses.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany, and World War II had begun. Germany pressed on to invade Norway and Denmark. France was Germany's next conquest. Germany also heavily bombed England and gained land in northern Africa and Yugoslavia. In 1941, German troops entered the Soviet Union (Russia). There seemed no chance of stopping the Nazis. Only a few European countries remained clear of the German threat, and this included Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain. After the United States declared war on Japan as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States. As the countries in Europe came under the control of the Nazis, the Nazi policy of ethnic cleansing began in each newly-overrun country. The persecution, especially of Jews, in all conquered countries, was pointedly pursued.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
Bertolt Brecht, one of Germany's most famous playwrights and poets, was a strong influence on Frisch's dramatic writing. Threatened by the rise of Nazism, which caused strict censorship of his work, Brecht went into self-exile, living in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the United States during World War II, a time during which he wrote most of his successful plays. Brecht developed his own theories for drama, including his Epic Theatre concept. Brecht also believed in what he called the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt in German), through which he constantly kept his audiences distracted so they would not become emotionally involved in the plays. For example, actors might change characters right in front of the audience in the middle of a scene. Brecht wanted his audiences to remain detached emotionally so they would be able to critically analyze the messages his dramas were portraying. Some of Brecht's plays that are translated into English include The Three Penny Opera (1928); Life of Galileo (1938); and Mother Courage and Her Children (1939). Some of Brecht's influences in drama included the Japanese form of drama called Noh and Greek tragedy, both of which use choruses to put forward a narrative on stage.
Frisch's satirical drama The Firebugs is often referred to as a commentary on the spread of Nazism across Europe during the 1930s and 1940s and the willingness of some middle-class citizens (especially the Swiss middle class, of which the author was a part) to ignore the dangers inherent in this political philosophy. Although not widely reviewed, the play has also been called an absurd comedy about moral depravity and self-deception. Other comments that are often repeated in regards to this play concern the play's ability to remain relevant in contemporary society, fifty years after it was first staged.
The first U.S. production of Frisch's play was reviewed by Howard Taubman, writing for the New York Times. The play was produced off-Broadway, which means it was not staged in a major theater. The response to the play was mixed at this time, some reviewers, such as Taubman, remark on the fact that some of the effects of the play, such as the Chorus, might be a little too European for U.S. audiences. However, Taubman praises the play, which he finds to be "so broad that it often resembles a burlesqued charade." However, Taubman adds that "the subject is no laughing matter. Mr. Frisch's lightest banter is dusted with ironic fallout."
Vincent Canby, also writing in the New York Times, states that the play "is not so much a conventional play as an eight-scene climax, a dramatized convulsion that cannot be stopped any more easily than can a sneeze once started." Canby was reviewing an Americanized version of Frisch's play, in which the firebugs are black and the Biedermanns are white, thus adding the theme of racism to the drama. Canby finds the racial issues in this version to be "quite valid."
There was also a German-language production of Frisch's play in the United States in the late 1960s, a time when the country was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Henry Raymont, writing for the New York Times, quotes Maria Becker, the leading actress of this production, as saying that in previous years, the play may not have been as pertinent to people in the United States, but "the dehumanization of the Vietnam war, has changed all this." Raymont describes the play as one that "probes piercingly into the subject of individual responsibility for social and political condition."
Bruce Weber, writing for the New York Times, states that Frisch's play is "an acrid comic parable about the lily-livered middle class." Weber continues his description by referring to the play as "Frisch's condemnation of Swiss neutrality during the rise of Nazism," further commenting that it "decries the complacency of comfortable citizens in threatening times." Weber says that despite the fact that the audience immediately understands who the bad guys are, the play is not a simple one. On the contrary, Weber claims that Frisch was not afraid of dealing with ambiguities. His characters are both scorned for their ignorance and empathized with for their misguided actions. The "themes of denial and self-justification," in the play still "have resonance today."
Joyce M. Hart
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is a freelance writer and published author. In this essay, she examines how Frisch uses satire in his drama, bringing humor, wit, sarcasm, and tragedy together to deliver his message.
Frisch uses satire in his play The Firebugs to deliver his commentary on middle-class society, and to waken audiences to the problems he saw in relationship to the lack of action made toward abating the rise of Nazism. Indeed, the purpose of satire is not to entertain. Rather, satire is most often meant to bring about social or political change. In Frisch's play, humor, sarcasm, irony, and tragedy are employed as a means to communicate a moral lesson.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Frisch's novel I'm Not Stiller was originally published in 1954. The story is about Anatol Stiller, a wanted man who disappears from his home town in Switzerland and then apparently reappears seven years later. Police question the protagonist of this novel, who denies that he is the man they are looking for. Readers come to their own conclusions as to whether or not this man is, or is not, Stiller. The story is full of angst and psychological depth.
- Friedrich Dürrenmatt was a contemporary of Frisch's and is often mentioned along with Frisch as one of Switzerland's most famous playwrights. Dürrenmatt's Physicists (1962) is a play about three men living in a mental institution who claim to be famous scientists. The play is centered on the role of science and its potential to destroy the world, a theme that is just as current today as when the play was first conceived.
- Switzerland's neutrality during World War II and its influence on the literature and society of this small country is examined in a series of essays in Switzerland and War (2000), edited by Joy Charnley and Malcolm Pender. Although Switzerland remained neutral during the war, the country was affected by the war around them, and continues to defend itself against accusations that the Swiss government aided Nazi Germany's war efforts.
- Frisch published two sketchbooks (Sketchbook: 1946-1949  and Sketchbook: 1966-1971 ). These are collections that Frisch kept of his reflections on economics, politics, and society. Also included are interviews and ideas for future stories and plays. They provide an inside look at how the playwright thought and felt.
- Bertolt Brecht was a mentor of Frisch's and also a very celebrated dramatist. One of Brecht's plays that has been popular in the United States is The Caucasian Circle, first produced in 1947. The play was adapted from a thirteenth-century Chinese drama in which two communities fight over a piece of land.
In scene 5 of The Firebugs, just as Eisenring is laying out the fuse that will light the barrels of gasoline in Biedermann's attic, Biedermann questions Eisenring about why he continually tells jokes. Eisenring responds: "That's something we've learned." When Biedermann asks for more information, Eisenring adds: "A joke is good camouflage." Indeed, this is also the approach that Frisch has taken as a dramatist. The object, or victim, of much of the play's humor is Biedermann, who, in this case, stands for middle-class society, those who are comfortable with life. Their basic needs are met, and they can afford small luxuries. Because of this, they may forget about those who do not live as they do; nor are they compelled to political action in the same way as people whose basic needs are not being met. By ridiculing Biedermann, the stand-in for the middle-class, Frisch uses humor to camouflage his message that complacency is a dangerous stance that will ultimately lead to tragedy.
Biedermann is a man without a backbone. He makes grand statements, such as his opening remarks that all arsonists should be hung. But as soon as Schmitz begins questioning Biedermann's sense of humanity, Biedermann capitulates. Schmitz does this by using wit. First he agrees with Biedermann for believing that arsonists should be put to death. Then he praises Biedermann for saying so. Whereas Biedermann felt righteous in making his statements at first, now that he hears Schmitz agree with him, Biedermann begins to question himself. Schmitz continues by stating that Biedermann has a conscience. But Frisch cleverly switches this statement from meaning something positive to becoming insulting. As soon as Schmitz makes the comment that Biedermann might be one of the last men with a conscience, he adds a story about the circus owner he used to work for. The owner reportedly said "If anybody has a conscience, you can bet it's a bad one." This statement makes Biedermann a bit uneasy and the comment that the circus owner died in a fire makes Biedermann change the subject.
Just a few lines later in the same scene, Schmitz ridicules Biedermann, quite subtly and quite effectively. He relates that Anna has told him that there is not an empty bed in the house. It is obvious to Schmitz that this is not the truth. He probably had been watching the house for several days and knew that there were only three people living in the large home. So Schmitz tells Biedermann that that is what everyone says. So Schmitz turns the tables on Biedermann again, by telling him that it does not matter. Schmitz is used to sleeping on the floor. In doing this, Schmitz has stolen Biedermann's excuse for turning him out. Saying that there are no empty beds is an easy (and supposedly gentle or at least non-confrontational) way of turning homeless people away. In case Biedermann is still thinking of getting rid of Schmitz, the firebug mentions that he was brought up poor. Everyone in the audience probably recognizes Schmitz's tactic of using pity to get his way, but not Biedermann. Biedermann is upright and proud of himself. He will not allow himself to be considered one of those people who mistrust poor people. Schmitz is both making fun of Biedermann and manipulating him at the same time. Schmitz is taking full advantage, through his wit, of Biedermann's inflated self-image, and, slowly but surely, he is exposing Biedermann as the fool that he is.
Sarcasm comes into play when Biedermann discusses Mr. Knechtling, the employee he has recently fired. Knechtling tries to speak with Biedermann, but Biedermann tells Anna that Knechtling can "stick his head in the gas stove or get a lawyer!" Biedermann becomes self-conscious when he remembers that Schmitz is sitting in the room with him. And Schmitz jumps right on the opportunity. He immediately asks, "Who'd have thought you could still find it, these days?" When Biedermann asks what he is talking about, Schmitz replies, "Humanity!" Of course, Schmitz pretends to be referring to the fact that Biedermann has not yet thrown him out of his house and has graciously offered him food. However, Schmitz is also being sarcastic. No one with any sense of humanity would tell a depressed person to stick their head in a gas stove. Schmitz also adds the phrase, "God will reward you!" Schmitz is sarcastically referred to the fact that he is planning on burning down Biedermann's house. Biedermann tries to collect himself, telling Schmitz that he should not think of him as being inhuman, especially after his obvious comment about Knechtling. And once again, Schmitz uses Biedermann's concern to his advantage. Schmitz challenges Biedermann, again using sarcasm, by stating what has not yet been proven to be true. Schmitz says: "Would you be giving me a place to sleep tonight if you were inhuman?—Ridiculous!"
Irony is used when Babette enters the play. She hears a noise in the attic and is at first frightened (as she should be). But then she remembers her husband, and his attentiveness (or so she thinks) to the problem of the firebugs. She comments to the audience that ever since the threat of arson has become so widespread, her husband vigilantly checks the attic every night to assure her that their house is safe. She is very thankful for this. He does this so she can sleep well at night. Babette's fault is her innocence and her complete trust in her husband. Rather than trusting her own intuitions, she relieves herself of any responsibility for her own safety. Instead, she relies on her husband's good sense, which the audience already knows does not exist.
The tragedy of the play is not that Biedermann's house will be burnt down, but rather than he does nothing to stop it. He takes no action, not because he is incapable of doing so or does not know what is going on, but because of his own tragic flaw: weakness. He has built himself up on the labor and wit of others. When it comes time for him to truly face a situation, he is not able to react. Biedermann is manipulated by people who are smarter than he is; people who understand the flaws in his character. Biedermann has constructed his sense of self in a manner that does not reflect his true personality. He has lied to himself, and Schmitz and Eisenring, the firebugs, can see right through him. In some part, Biedermann understands this, and he does not want the firebugs to expose him to anyone else. It is bad enough that they know that he is a fake. And so the house will burn. Biedermann, Babette, and Anna may die, as might the community around them, all because of Biedermann's tragic flaw.
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on The Firebugs, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Bahr gives a critical analysis of Frisch's life and work.
German drama during the 1950s would be unthinkable without the works of Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt; the lack of postwar drama in West Germany was made up for by these two Swiss playwrights between 1945 and 1960. They were the best qualified to fill this vacuum because they were writing in German and were so close to the situation in postwar Germany, yet they were not politically compromised by previous accommodation with the Nazi regime. Furthermore, they had stayed in close contact with the development of modernist drama—in particular German exile drama, which had found a haven at the Zurich Schauspielhaus (Playhouse). Plays by exiled dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht, Ferdinand Bruckner, Ödön von Horvàth, Friedrich Wolf, and Carl Zuckmayer had been produced there during the 1930s and 1940s, and some of the best German actors and directors had found employment in Zurich after 1933. The Zurich Schauspielhaus was thus an ideal place for young dramatists to learn their trade. Dürrenmatt and Frisch made use of the opportunity offered to them in the 1940s, and they found inspiration for their own works from the plays produced at the Schauspielhaus. By the 1960s Frisch and Dürrenmatt were internationally recognized dramatists whose plays were translated into many languages and performed in many countries. Although Frisch became increasingly disappointed with the inertia of the technical apparatus of the theater and neglected drama in the 1970s and 1980s in favor of prose, he never abandoned it.
Frisch was born in Zurich on 15 May 1911 to Franz Frisch, an archictect, and Lina Wildermuth Frisch. His mother's family had immigrated to Switzerland from Württemberg, Germany. Frisch studied German literature at the University of Zurich from 1931 until his father died in 1933; he then left school and became a freelance journalist, writing mainly for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (New Zurich Newspaper). In 1936 he took up the study of architecture at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich. After receiving his degree in 1941 he opened an architectural office. He married Gertrud Anna Constance von Meyenburg in 1942; they had three children. In 1944 Frisch was invited to assist at rehearsals and write for the Schauspielhaus. After World War II, in which he served as a gunner on the Swiss border, Frisch won an architectural competition for a public outdoor swimming pool in Zurich, the Freibad Letzigraben, which was built from 1947 to 1949. The first play he wrote, Santa Cruz, was performed in 1946 and was published in 1947; his first play to be performed and published was Nun singen sie wieder (performed, 1945; published, 1946; translated as Now They Sing Again, 1972). They were followed by Die chinesische Mauer (performed, 1946; published, 1947; translated as The Chinese Wall, 1961).
Santa Cruz is a dream play. Santa Cruz is not a geographical place but a realm of dreams and self-fulfillment. Its opposite is a castle in a wintry European landscape that stands for reality, marriage, and renunciation. Past and present are synchronized in the dream action of the play. An adventurer and a cavalry officer court the same woman; she opts for marriage and reality but cannot give up her dreams. Neither can her husband, whose alter ego is the adventurer. Only when the adventurer within him dies can the officer and his wife find peace in their life in the castle. Frisch's first play shows the influence of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Paul Claudel.
Nun singen sie wieder, subtitled Versuch eines Requiems (Attempt at a Requiem), deals with war crimes and the vain hope of a moral change. After ordering the shooting of twenty-one hostages, Karl deserts from the army and hangs himself. His wife and child perish in an air raid. The members of the enemy air force are killed in action. The dead celebrate their symbolic requiem with bread and wine. They are committed to a change in spirit, but the survivors do not hear their message. Their deaths will have been in vain unless the audience listens to the song of the hostages, who died singing. Frisch's stage directions specified that scenery was to be present only to the extent that the actors needed it; in no case was it to simulate reality. The impression of a play on a stage was to be preserved throughout. Showing the influence of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), the play fails as a Zeitstück (play dealing with current events) because neither time nor place is defined.
Die chinesische Mauer, revised in 1955, 1965, and 1972, is a farce. Its subject is the endless cycle of human self-destruction. The construction of the Great Wall of China around 200 B.C. is an allegory for the atomic bomb. Anachronism is the main principle of the play; the characters include "Der Heutige" (Today's Man), Romeo and Juliet, Napoleon Bonaparte, Christopher Columbus, Don Juan, Pontius Pilate, Brutus, Philip of Spain, Cleopatra, Emile Zola, and Ivan the Terrible. Instead of traditional dramatic conflict, there is a constant exchange of quotations, referring to events of the past. Even with his knowledge of history, Der Heutige cannot stop the cycle.
In 1948 Frisch met Brecht, whose theory of the epic or anti-Aristotelian theater would continue to exercise considerable influence on Frisch's dramatic production until the early 1960s. Frisch's fourth play, Als der Krieg zu Ende war (When the War was Over, 1949), is set after the fall of Berlin in 1945. Agnes, a German woman, plans to kill a Soviet colonel while her German husband hides in the cellar. Although neither understands the language of the other, the colonel and Agnes overcome prejudice and fall in love. When the colonel learns that Agnes's husband had participated in the massacre of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, he leaves rather than arresting her husband as a war criminal. Brecht wanted Frisch to take a stand in favor of the Soviet "liberation" of Germany, but Frisch considered the conflict between humanity and inhumanity the main theme of the play.
Frisch spent 1951 and 1952 in the United States and Mexico on a Rockefeller grant. His next two plays were Graf Öderland (1951; translated as Count Oederland, 1962) and Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953; translated as Don Juan; or, The Love of Geometry, 1967). Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1958; translated as The Fire Raisers, 1962), first written as a radio drama, is one of Frisch's most provocative plays.
Graf Öderland, which underwent two revisions after its premiere in 1951, was a failure because it does not provide convincing motivation for the protagonist's actions. An ambitious state prosecutor changes into an ax murderer with romantically anarchistic notions. But as he overthrows power in order to be free, he is taking over the opposite of freedom: power. Finally the revolutionary takes over as dictator of a new government. At the end Öderland desperately wants to wake up from the nightmare of murder and anarchy he has created. Frisch expressly rejected an interpretation of the play as an allegory about Adolf Hitler or a critique of modern democracy.
In Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie Don Juan is an intellectual in search of his identity. He tries to escape his destined role as a seducer by loving geometry more than women, but the power of the myth catches up with him. He stages his death and descent into hell so as to escape to his first love, geometry. This escape is denied to him, but he experiences his own hell after he marries Miranda, a former prostitute. He becomes a prisoner in his own castle: he cannot leave the castle because he would then have to live as Don Juan again. He ends up as a henpecked husband and father, reading about his own legend in the 1630 version by Tirso de Molina.
Biedermann und die Brandstifter, subtitled Ein Lehrstück ohne Lehre (A Didactic Play without a Lesson), is the first of Frisch's parable plays. Biedermann is not an individual but a type: the businessman who combines pleasant behavior with ruthless brutality in order to succeed in the capitalist world; he is an opportunist and a coward. Because of lack of courage Biedermann allows two suspicious vagrants to camp in his attic, even though there have been newspaper reports about arsonists disguised as peddlers asking for a place to sleep. The vagrants store gasoline barrels in Biedermann's attic and openly handle detonators and fuses in front of him. He cooperates because he does not want to make them his enemies. On the other hand, he has no scruples about driving his employee Knechtling to suicide, because he has nothing to fear from Knechtling. Concerned only with saving himself and his house, Biedermann serves the arsonists a sumptuous dinner; in the end he provides them with the matches they use to set his house on fire. Biedermann and his wife perish in the flames. A chorus of firemen provides commentary in a parody of Greek tragedy. In 1959 Frisch added a "Nachspiel" (epilogue) showing Biedermann and his wife in hell, unchanged and as foolish as ever. Frisch rejected any political interpretation of his "didactic play" as an allegory of the Nazi burning of the Reichstag in 1933 or the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Unlike Brecht, who wanted to change the world with his theater, Frisch did not believe in the revolutionizing effect of the stage. Also, in spite of the absurd aspects of the plot, Frisch did not want his play to be understood as theater of the absurd. Denouncing Eugène Ionesco and his followers, Frisch declared in 1964 that a public that finds satisfaction in absurdity would be a dictator's delight.
Die groβe Wut des Philipp Hotz (The Great Madness of Philipp Hotz, published, 1958) is a "Schwank" (slapstick farce) that premiered together with Biedermann und die Brandstifter in 1958. The conventional stereotype of the intellectual who is unable to act, Philipp Hotz attempts to break out of the prison of his daily life by locking his wife in a closet, destroying the furniture that symbolizes the bourgeois existence from which he wants to escape, and enlisting in the French foreign legion. Hotz even fabricates an adultery that he has not committed. All his efforts to be taken seriously end in failure. Rejected by the foreign legion because he is nearsighted, he returns to his wife and home and the routines of his daily life.
In 1958 Frisch was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize by the German Academy of Literature in Darmstadt, the Literature Prize of the City of Zurich, and the Veillon Prize of Lausanne. In 1959 he was divorced from his first wife. In 1961 he moved to Rome. That year he had his greatest success on the stage with Andorra (published, 1961; translated, 1964). The twelve scenes of Andorra are linked by statements made by various characters as they step out of the action of the play to give accounts of their deeds and motivations from a witness box in the foreground of the stage. With the exceptions of Andri and Barblin, the characters are mere types without names. Andri is a young man who is thought to be a Jew who was rescued from persecution by the Schwarzen (Blacks) across the frontier and adopted by the local teacher. Andri is, however, the teacher's illegitimate son by the Señora, a woman from across the border. Although he is not Jewish, the prejudices of his social environment impress on Andri the supposedly Jewish characteristics that he finally accepts, even after he learns of his non-Jewish origin. When he falls in love with Barblin, who—unknown to him—is his half sister, Andri believes that his foster father objects to the affair because he is Jewish. Andri perishes as a Jew when the Schwarzen invade Andorra and take him away, while Barblin's head is shaved because she is considered the Judenhure (Jew's whore). Nobody offers any resistance to the invasion by the Schwarzen. Everybody is guilty, including the teacher, who invented the pious lie of adopting a Jewish child instead of confessing to his illegitimate son; he hangs himself in the schoolroom. The Andorra of this play has nothing to do with the actual state of this name; Frisch said in his notes to the play that Andorra is the prototype of a society ruled by prejudice and fear. There are unmistakable allusions to Switzerland and its relationship to Nazi Germany, even though Frisch stressed in his stage directions that, for example, in the uniform of the Schwarzen any resemblance to the uniforms of the past should be avoided. Andorra was criticized for "obscuring rather than analyzing the aberration of anti-Semitism" and of minimizing the Holocaust.
In 1965 Frisch moved to the Ticino, in southern Switzerland. That same year he received the Schiller Prize of Baden-Württemberg. His comedy Biografie: Ein Spiel (published, 1967; translated as Biography: A Game, 1969) was first produced in 1968. The play, whose subtitle means both "A Play" and "A Game," is introduced by a "Registrator" (chronicler), who reads the stage directions at a lectern. Kürmann, a professor of psychology, wants to start his life over again, like an actor repeating a scene during a rehearsal. He is convinced that he knows exactly what he would do differently. The Registrator and Kürmann's wife Antoinette agree to let him repeat the scene, but it leads to the same result. All other attempts to change the outcome of his life also fail: he is invariably confronted by death from cancer within seven years. Kümann is limited by his own identity; any particular scene of his life could have been different, but Kürmann cannot adopt a different personality. As Frisch said in his notes to the play, the theater grants an opportunity that reality denies: to repeat, to rehearse, to change.
In 1969 Frisch married Marianne Oellers; the marriage ended in divorce a few years later. After traveling to Japan he was a guest lecturer at Columbia University in New York in 1970-1971. In 1974 he received the Great Schiller Prize of the Swiss Schiller Foundation and became an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1975 he traveled to China. He received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1976. His Triptychon: Drei szenische Bilder (translated as Triptych: Three Scenic Panels, 1981) was published in 1978 and premiered in 1979. Triptychon consists of three loosely connected scenes dealing with a common theme, that of death. The first scene deals with the embarrassment caused by the death of a seventy-year-old man; the second is a conversation among the dead, who find eternity banal; the last scene deals with the insoluble relationship between a man and his dead lover.
In November 1989 there was to be a referendum on the abolition of the military. Frisch had been a critic of the Swiss army and its ideology since 1974, when he attacked the Swiss arms industry, Swiss resistance to the immigration of political refugees, and the concept of defense by withdrawal behind an Alpine Maginot Line in his Dienstbüchlein (Service Booklet). His extended dialogue Jonas und sein Veteran (Jonas and His Veteran), which premiered in 1989, and his pamphlet Schweiz ohne Armee? Ein Palaver (Switzerland without an Army? A Palaver), published the same year, were Frisch's contribution to the debate on the future of the Swiss army. Jonas und sein Veteran consists of a ninety-minute conversation between a Swiss army veteran of 1918 and his grandson Jonas, who faces the alternatives of army service or civil disobedience and emigration. Neither alternative appeals to the young man, who is more interested in a career in computer science. His grandfather is of no help, because his advice consists of historical reminders of Swiss failures and sarcastic analyses of the army as part of Swiss folklore, as an elite unit to protect Swiss capitalism, or as a prop to shore up Swiss national identity. The dramatic dialogue discusses alternatives but does not provide a conclusion. Passages from Frisch's Dienstbüchlein are quoted at great length by the grandfather. The proposal to abolish the military was defeated; but it was supported by 35.6 percent of the voters, forcing the army to consider reforms.
In 1989 Frisch was awarded the Heinrich Heine Prize of the City of Düsseldorf. He died in Zurich on 4 April 1991. Although he wrote extensive notes and suggestions for staging his plays, Frisch never provided a comprehensive theory of drama. He questioned the didactic effectiveness of Brecht's epic theater, doubting that anyone would ever change his or her viewpoint as a result of a stage performance. What Frisch had in common with Brecht was his rejection of attempts to imitate reality; the audience is never supposed to forget that what is happening on the stage is make-believe. Throughout his career Frisch was concerned with reminding his audience that his plays were not representations of the world but of our consciousness of the world.
Source: Ehrhard Bahr, "Max Frisch," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 124, Twentieth-Century German Dramatists, 1919-1992, edited by Wolfgang D. Elfe and James Hardin, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 138-47.
Walter E. Glaettli
In the following excerpt, written in 1952, Glaettli discusses Frisch as an emerging playwright. This review explores the very themes in Frisch's earlier works that would later reappear in The Firebugs, thus providing further insight on the play.
… One of the outstanding representatives of modern German drama whose reputation as a playwright is becoming increasingly widespread is Max Frisch, a native of Zurich who has thus far written five plays, Santa Cruz, Nun singen sie wieder, Die chinesische Mauer, Als der Krieg zu Ende war and Graf Oderland. We may somewhat discount Frisch's Swiss citizenship as a factor in his career as a writer, since none of his works has its setting in Switzerland. It has, on the other hand, no doubt proved an advantage by giving him, in contrast to young authors in Germany, the opportunity of observing and keeping in touch with the trends of literature in the West. An architect by profession, Fisch [sic] began his experiments in playwrighting during the war, and so he gained a lead which made it at least difficult, if not impossible, for his fellow-playwrights in Germany to overtake him in the years immediately following it.
I have used the term "experiment" deliberately, not to imply that Frisch concerns himself principally with technical devices, but rather to indicate that he attempts in each of his plays to find the form of expression that will affect the reader or spectator most deeply. He is aware that the present-day author who does have something to say can fail utterly to reach his public when he uses conventional dramatic forms. What Max Frisch has to say is not new; his message is the eternal one of truth and humanity. Precisely because he is imbued with great seriousness of purpose, he has resorted to surrealistic, expressionistic, and other such techniques to express his ideas.
Die chinesische Mauer, Frisch's third play (first performed in Zurich in 1946) could, like his first, Santa Cruz be labeled a "dream play." He himself calls it a comedy, but what he presents is a tragedy thinly disguised as a masquerade—a peculiar combination of profound thought and light, playful outward form. The setting is the court of the Chinese emperor Hwang Ti, who is giving a garden party at which there is much talk both of the completion of the Great Wall and of a glorious victory in battle. Among the Emperor's guests are such historic and fictitious celebrities as Columbus, Cleopatra, Don Juan, Napoleon, and Romeo and Juliet, and one can scarcely help noticing that the Emperor's speech about the unequaled heroism of his army has the empty ring of Hitler's ravings.
The setting of the play is thus in actuality the entire world; the time is all times, past and present.
… Though Die chinesische Mauer is not a problem play, the innumerable anachronisms perform somewhat the same function. The fusion of all times and places is used to show that man remains essentially the same irrespective of when and where he lives. Frisch's characters are, however, by no means stripped of their personal characteristics and reduced to mere "existences." They are completely portrayed people whose rich variety gives the play its comedy-like atmosphere. The apparently gay mood is heightened still further by the visors worn by the participants. These masks are the visible symbols of the spiritual mask that each of us wears. The mask motif and the concept that "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" may be derivative, but for Frisch no divine being assigns roles in the drama of life; man himself dons his mask and wears it well enough to deceive even himself. Upon occasion Frisch lifts the veil for a moment: the "actor" falls out of his role to reveal not a hidden divine order but a bare, meaningless Nichts. Just as the mask is the symbol of man's self-deception, so the great Chinese Wall is the symbol of all false illusions fettering mankind. But one character in the play wears no mask: the poet Min Ko, ein junger Mann von heute. He alone is aware of the falsehood and delusion entangling man and—to return to the plot—writes revolutionary songs in an attempt to arouse the nation against the despot who built the Great Wall and hence is responsible for the general deception. Yet he too fails at the crucial moment. The tyrannised masses finally rise and storm the Emperor's palace, but the revolution achieves only the completion of the fateful cycle: the hero of the people comes to power as the new dictator, and one may well prophesy the replacement of the Great Wall with a bigger and better one.
Als der Krieg zu Ende war (1948) is a more realistic drama. It takes place in 1945, immediately after the war, in the living room and cellar of a partially bombed house in Berlin. The living room is occupied by a group of Russian officers and soldiers; the cellar is the hiding place of the previous owners of the house, Captain Anders, a Heimkehrer, and his wife Agnes. Discovered by the Russians, Agnes, in order to save her husband, sacrifices herself by consenting to visit the Russian colonel each day on the condition that the cellar is not to be entered. In contrast to the other Russians, of whom we hear only acts of cruelty and bestiality, Colonel Stepan Iwanow proves to be a man of noble mind. In the course of time Agnes' feelings toward him develop into true love. One day Captain Anders, leaving his hiding place, is caught and identified by a Jewish Russian soldier as a war criminal of the worst sort. Stepan Iwanow, believing that Agnes has merely trifled with his love to protect her husband, leaves the house without speaking to her. She, on her part, has no full understanding of what has occurred. The import of the tragedy is apparent when Anders forgives Agnes her love affair on the grounds that her action was conditioned by the war situation and justifies his own responsibility for the slaughter of thousands of Jews in Warsaw on the same grounds. The fact that her husband can so casually equate these two very differently motivated actions is sufficient to drive Agnes to despair and suicide.
While Frisch's previous plays were slow in gaining recognition, Als der Krieg zu Ende war rapidly conquered the stages of Germany and was performed in New York in the winter of 1950-51. Its success in Germany can be accounted for on the basis of topical interest. Its lack of equal success on the American stage may be due, in part, to the lack of subjective experience of the conditions described and to the time that had elapsed since the conclusion of the war.
The play is generally understood to report a tragic incident of the chaotic conditions of the early post-war months and appears, at first glance, to have little in common with Die chinesische Mauer. On closer inspection, however, we find the basic problem to be the same. The relationship of truth and falsehood, poetically but vaguely expressed in the bewildering chaos of Die chinesische Mauer, becomes a far more clearly defined issue in Als der Krieg zu Ende war. Frisch probes various human relationships to discover how genuine and honest they are. He reveals the falsehood of conventional social life, man's inability or unwillingness to perceive his own or another's guilt, and his tendency to belittle or even disregard the horrible. The strongest and most dangerous opponent of truth is the man with convictions.
… In this apparently more realistic work Frisch has the heroine deliver a monologue in which she gives expression to a consciousness transcending that of the individual—one elucidating the plot and breaking through its surface like that of the chorus of Greek tragedy. Thus, in spite of all obvious differences, both plays are typical expressions of Frisch's dramatic work. Both deal with the same fundamental problem; both reveal the author's profound pessimism; both embody outstanding experimental techniques. Moreover, both have similar defects. Die chinesische Mauer has virtually no coherent plot, and the net of questions in which the author becomes entangled bewilders the spectator. In Als der Krieg zu Ende war the basic question is clearly stated and satisfactorily solved but Frisch appears to have been so completely occupied with it that he has either overlooked or purposely neglected the questions arising in the reader's mind about the motivation of Agnes' deceit of her husband and about the extent to which her love for Stepan is more than physical desire. Such unanswered questions weaken the effectiveness of the drama. This same weakness appears in all of Frisch's works; all suffer from a certain lack of clarity because the basic problems are overshadowed by vaguely defined secondary problems which the author fails to solve satisfactorily …
Source: Walter E. Glaettli, "Max Frisch, a New German Playwright," in German Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4, November 1952, pp. 248-54.
Barnes, Clive, "Cocteau Repertory Does Max Frisch's Firebugs," in the New York Times, March 27, 1975, p. 32.
Canby, Vincent, "Theater: A Transformed Firebugs," in the New York Times, July 2, 1968, p. 36.
Frisch, Max, The Firebugs, Hill and Wang, 1963, pp. 4, 7, 9-10, 13-14, 21, 33, 49, 76, 79.
Raymont, Henry, "Theater: The Firebugs Gives Lesson," in the New York Times, November 27, 1969, p. 52.
Taubman, Howard, "The Firebugs Opens Off Broadway," in the New York Times, February 13, 1963, p. 7.
Weber, Bruce, "An Acrid Comic Parable about Nazis," in the New York Times, June 18, 2002, p. E3.
Bessel, Richard, Nazism and War, Modern Library, 2006.
Bessel, a noted historian, presents an in-depth look into Nazism in Germany and its effects on the world, providing a detailed perspective on the political, economic, and social environment that helped to foster the overwhelming sweep of Nazism across Europe.
Brecht, Bertolt, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of An Aesthetic, translated by John Willett, Hill and Wang, 1977.
Brecht revolutionized theater just as Frisch began bringing his plays to the stage. Brecht's influence was very strong not only in Germany but all over the Western world. Brecht's concepts of theater are fully explained in this collection of essays.
Lichtenstein, Claude, Playfully Rigid: Swiss Architecture, Graphic Design, Product Design, 1950-2006, Lars Müller Publishers, 2006.
Frisch was an architect in Switzerland (as was his father) before he became a full-time writer. This book provides a perspective of what architecture looked like in Frisch's time as well as how it has changed over the decades.
Wistrich, Robert S., Hitler and the Holocaust, Modern Library, 2003.
Wistrich argues that the indifference of many European societies aided Hitler in his determination to exterminate the Jews. In this book, Wistrich explores a 2,000-year history of anti-Semitism leading to the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Germany. In the process, Wistrich attempts to answer why the Holocaust happened and how it differs from other forms of twentieth-century genocide.