After The Arsonists, a play by Max Frisch
25 September 2021
The Arsonists is a celebrated play of the post-war period, written in highly ironic tone, adopted by the playwright to ridicule the naivety and foolishness of the gullible bourgeoisie. The work of the Swiss writer Max Frisch is strongly marked by social engagement, found also in The Arsonists, initially subtitled »burlesque« and later »an instructive play with an epilogue«.
The plot is fairly simple. Biedermann is a well-to-do middle-class businessman living with his wife in a one-family villa. Out of bourgeois pity, he takes in Schmitz, who at first sight is the embodiment of the arsonist stereotype. Even though the town is regularly attacked by arsonists, Biedermann believes that the newcomer is not an arsonist. In brilliantly written scenes, Frisch constantly forewarns of the smouldering danger, which is blatantly evident, especially when Schmitz gets a helper, Willi, to pile high oil drums full of petrol in the attic of the villa. However, Biedermann is oblivious to the warnings and seems blissfully unaware that there is an impostor, barely trying to disguise his ominous intentions, living in his house. Underlying Biedermann’s confidence is a naive self-confidence, a lack of understanding of social differences and an apparent sense of social justice, which only occasionally masks Biedermann’s prejudices against members of other classes. As a person in a certain position of power, Biedermann wants to create the impression of a good man, as his name ironically suggests (German adjective bieder meaning conventional, conservative, worthy, upright is frequently used in a pejorative or ironic context), but there is a peculiar irony at work here. Biedermann’s awareness of social inequality is not real, so Schmitz and Willi are able to constantly challenge him precisely by emphasising their own class inequality. In doing so, they even get him to want to befriend them, which turns out to be a completely misguided project.
The current production of Frisch’s play adds to the textual corpus the conceptual framework of a posthumous late-night talk show hosted by Schmitz and Willi, the arsonists from the original text. They all died in the fire, but no one knows why the fire happened – thus the story and the search for who is responsible is revealed through an analytical dramaturgy. Biedermann and his wife Babette try to remember what actually happened. What is interesting and enigmatic is the dual role of the arsonists, who act as characters from memory, but also as the hosts of this unusual programme. The central point of the adaptation is that the positions of good and evil in today’s world are not clear. At the same time, the production highlights the question of what the social responsibility of the individual in today’s world is and, in the end, establishes the possibility of an attitude based on ethical and moral responsibility beyond the intimacy of the family unit.