Biedermann and the Fire Raisers: a Morality without a Moral (Biedermann Und Die Brandstifter: Eine Lehrstück Ohne Lehre, Mit Einem Nachspiel)

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BIEDERMANN AND THE FIRE RAISERS: A MORALITY WITHOUT A MORAL (Biedermann und die Brandstifter: Eine Lehrstück ohne Lehre, mit einem Nachspiel)

Play by Max Frisch, 1958

The play The Firebugs was written in several stages, first appearing in Max Frisch's Sketchbook 1946-1949. In the entry under the title Burleske , he recorded the first version, beginning with: "One morning a man comes to your house, a stranger, and you cannot help yourself, you give him a plate of soup and some bread. For the injustice he has suffered according to his own account, cannot be denied, and you don't wish him to take it out on you. And there is no doubt, the man says, that he will one day have his revenge …" In the first completed prose version, a radio play completed in 1952 and published in 1955, Biedermann is portrayed more as a capitalist exploiter than in the final stage version, Biedermann and the Firebugs: A Learning Play without a Lesson (U.K. title, Biedermann and the Fire Raisers: A Morality without a Moral, published in 1962), which premiered on 29 March 1958, at the Zurich Schauspielhaus.

The protagonist in the play is the hair-lotion manufacturer Gottlieb Biedermann, a middle-class, small capitalist, who wants to be considered by the world as a kind man although he has driven his employee, who has provided him with the successful formula for his business, into suicide. Biedermann lets two vagrants, actually arsonists, into his house. He feeds them and lets them sleep in the attic, where they store gasoline canisters. Although the two terrorists actually tell Biedermann the truth about themselves, he does not believe them, and when they become overly demanding, he is too much of a coward to throw them out of his house. When asked, he even gives them matches with which they ignite the canisters and burn down not only Biedermann's house but the whole town, setting in motion an armageddon.

Biedermann does not want to see the truth, although it is literally driven home to him, and in that he is reminiscent of the German attitude toward Adolf Hitler, who clearly laid out his intentions to wipe out the Jews in Mein Kampf and in his speeches. Hitler's contemporaries did not take him and his threats against the Jews seriously; their naive disregard ultimately led to the Holocaust, which even the intellectuals did not foresee. This last point is indicated in the words of the doctor who was intent on improving the world, but who misjudged the murderous activity of the terrorists.

The impossibility of preventing or reversing the tragedy is evident in the lines of the chorus, which informs the audience of the morality of the play without a moral and also that the happenings are not inevitable fate but brought on by the people themselves: "For arson, once kindled,/Kills many./Leaves few,/And accomplishes nothing… Fate—so they call it!"

—Gerd K. Schneider

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Biedermann and the Fire Raisers: a Morality without a Moral (Biedermann Und Die Brandstifter: Eine Lehrstück Ohne Lehre, Mit Einem Nachspiel)

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