Aurora Theatre Company’s provocative production of Max Frisch’s classic absurdist play The Arsonists is a cautionary tale in which apathy, greed and weakness allow evil to flourish. The play is set in a nameless country, in a nameless city, at an unidentified time. It is, however, a time of civil unrest. Arsonists roam the streets setting fire to numerous, yet seemingly arbitrarily chosen, buildings.
The main character of the play, Biedermann, which translates as “bourgeois man,” is masterfully portrayed by Dan Hiatt. The conventional Biedermann lives a moral double life. Although he is smug about his correct, polite and decent family life, he is ruthless and brutal in his business life. In that regard, he could be a Soprano family member, performing vicious criminal acts during the day and kissing his kids in the evening.
When two self-acclaimed arsonists (first-rate acting by Michael Ray Wisely and Tim Kniffin) breach the boundaries of Biedermann’s home cum castle, he accedes to their cunning request to stay in the attic. His decision appears to be based on a combination of outward civility, appeasement and fear. After all, Biedermann seems to reason, if the arsonists are “guests” in his home, they may continue their mayhem elsewhere, but they will not harm his family. He’s unaware of Hamlet’s realization, “… one may smile, and smile, and be a villain …”
The audience sees Biedermann’s naiveté immediately and watches in consternation and incredulity until the predicable fiery dénouement. Yes, the play is an extended metaphor, but it is a bit too extended and too obvious, even in 90 minutes (no intermission). But to put it in context, The Arsonists is part of the exaggerated “theatre of the absurd” in which people are victimized by outside forces or they are reacting to a world that no longer has meaning. Think of Durrenmatt, Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and Genet.
A welcome addition to the play is the Greek chorus of three firefighters (well done by Kevin Clarke, Tristan Cunningham and Michael Uy Kelly) who accompany the action. They say that they are prepared to act against the arsonists, yet, like others, make no move to do so.
Award-winning director Mark Jackson and the other members of the production have done outstanding work with this imperfect parable. The acting, pace, sets, lighting and Alistair Beaton’s new translation all combine to modernize and enhance The Arsonists. For example, nice touches are the use of a cell phone, modern references and an aside to the audience.
Although Swiss architect and writer Frisch conceived the ideas in The Arsonists as a sketch in the 1940s, it was not until 1958 that The Arsonists was first produced theatrically. In 1940s, one can suppose that the arsonists symbolized Nazi Germany and Biedermann, English Prime Minister Clement Atlee. After 1948, the arsonists may denote the USSR and Biedermann, Czechoslovakia.
The list of evils continues today — environmental damage, nuclear weapons, loss of civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror. Frisch’s theme still has resonance.
The Arsonists runs through May 12, 2013. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.
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Based on a story that Frisch included in Sketchbook, 1946-1949 and adapted into a radio play in 1953, The Firebugs premiered at the Zurcher Schauspielhaus on March 29, 1958. An immediate success, the play sharply satirizes capitalism and middle-class values through the person of Gottlieb Biedermann, whose last name in German translates as “conventional man.” A great deal of speculation has been made about the political overtones of the play: Is it referring to the takeover in Germany by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party; to Switzerland’s neutrality during World War II, which allowed the country to benefit economically, both from the Nazis and the Allies; or to the accession of the West to Communist demands after World War II and the creation of the Soviet bloc? Frisch referred to The Firebugs as a morality play without a moral, which implies that in a general, and not a topical, way it exposes the inability of any democracy built on middle-class values and pretended liberal ideals to deal effectively with terrorism because of its lack of moral courage and need to appear respectable.
Andorra, like The Firebugs, grew out of a story idea Frisch included in Sketchbook, 1946-1949, entitled “Der andorranische Jude” (“The Andorran Jew”). Premiering at the Zurcher Schauspielhaus on November 2, 1961, the play attracted international attention as a study of the effects of racism. Frisch said that the country of Andorra was meant to be a model, a simulacrum or exemplum of any society, anywhere, in which identity can be determined by social context. Andri, one of the play’s characters, is as much an Andorran as anyone else in the play. He was told since childhood, however, that he is a Jew and his identity is determined by society’s prejudices, despite his attempts to free himself from these imposed limitations.
Homo Faber illustrates what Frisch called the “dramaturgy of permutation,” a story in which the identity of the protagonist mutates from a fixed and settled point to becoming more complex and protean, more fully reflecting the moral and existential complexity of the modern world. Throughout his journeys, Faber invents and reinvents himself, as events force him to reevaluate who he is and form a new understanding. The dramaturgy of permutation operates at some level in all of Frisch’s works.
First produced: Biedermann und die Brandstifter, 1953 (radio play; first produced on stage, 1958; first published, 1958; English translation 1959; also translated as The Fire Raisers, 1962)
Type of work: Play
A middle-class businessman does not have the courage to evict three arsonists from his home, ultimately resulting in the destruction of his house and his city.
Gottlieb Biedermann is a captain of industry whose wealth comes from manufacturing a brand of hair tonic invented by his former valet, Knechtling, whom Biedermann dismissed when he asked for a share in the profits. The play begins at a moment when arsonists are setting houses on fire throughout the city. Although Biedermann suspects that Schmitz, a homeless stranger who insinuates himself into the Biedermann household and asks for shelter, could be an arsonist, he offers him dinner and allows him to move into his attic.
During dinner, Biedermann is disturbed by the arrival of Knechtling, who pleads through Biedermann’s servant, Anna, for financial assistance because he has a sick wife and three children. Biedermann will not admit Knechtling and tells Anna, “Let him put his head in the gas oven or instruct a solicitor—go ahead—if Herr Knechtling can afford to lose or win a case.” Schmitz witnesses Biedermann’s callousness but flatters his show of humanity. Biedermann allows Schmitz to stay, after asking for reassurance that he is not an arsonist. Schmitz is able to manipulate both Biedermann and his wife, Babette, by playing on their need to appear kind and compassionate. Soon Schmitz is joined by two more strangers: Eisenring, a former waiter, and an unemployed doctor of philosophy, who is driven to join the conspirators by political ideology, whereas the other two appear drawn to their arson because they merely enjoy starting fires.
The scenes in the Biedermann household are punctuated by the speeches of a chorus of firemen, who warn the city’s residents of the “stupidity” of allowing fires to start. They are the guardians of the homes and lives of the citizens and attempt to bring Biedermann to his senses about the danger presented by the barrels of gasoline the three conspirators bring into the attic, along with paraphernalia to detonate an explosion. Biedermann, however, asserts his right as a free citizen “not to think at all” and proceeds with his plan to win the friendship of the arsonists by sponsoring a sumptuous family-style dinner. Biedermann has all the middle-class accoutrements removed from the dining room—the silver candelabra and wine bucket, damask napkins and tablecloth—in order to create an informal atmosphere. However, the conspirators had been expecting such trappings, and the embarrassed Biedermann calls for their return.
The meal culminates with Schmitz and Eisenring asking Biedermann to supply them with matches, which he does. At the end of the play, the stage is engulfed in red light, with sirens blaring and alarm bells ringing, and the audience knows that the conflagration has started. The culpability of Biedermann and his disingenuous life are evidenced in his treatment of Knechtling, who followed Biedermann’s advice to commit suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. During the course of the play, Knechtling’s widow visits Biedermann, since the bill for the funeral wreath sent by the Biedermanns is sent to the Knechtlings by mistake. Sure that Mrs. Knechtling will ask for financial assistance, Biedermann refuses to see her. Though morally responsible for Knechtling’s death, Biedermann smugly clings to his pretense of innocence.
After the initial production, Frisch added an epilogue to the play, in which Biedermann and Babette...
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