‘Biedermann und die Brandstifter’ – The Firebugs

 

Reading this play at 14 as part of my school curriculum, I remember being outraged by the main character, constantly thinking ‘surely nobody could be this blind to the obvious!’

I never thought then that I would live to witness this play unfold…

This dark comedy by Max Frisch in 1953, is set in a town that is regularly attacked by arsonists. Disguised as door-to-door salesmen (hawkers), they talk their way into people’s homes and settle down in the attic, where they set about planning the destruction of the house.

The first sketch was written in 1948 in response to the Communist takeover in Prague, but the play is often seen as a metaphor for Nazism and fascism, and Frisch encourages this through several allusions.

The play shows how “normal” citizens can be taken in by evil. As a parable, in a more general sense it may be considered to be descriptive of the gullible and easily manipulated aspects of the German Biedermann – the Everyman – who yearns both for a sense of shallow propriety as well as for a deeper sense of belonging, even if it comes at a great price, including that which is sensible or even necessary for his own survival. In that sense, the play shares much with absurdist plays written at about the same time, such as Eugene Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’.

The central character, a businessman called Biedermann, is seen at the outset reading newspaper reports of arson, convinced that he could never be taken in. Within minutes, the first “hawker” has appeared (Schmitz), and through a combination of intimidation and persuasion he talks his way into spending the night in the attic.

As the play unfolds, a second arsonist appears (Eisenring), and before Biedermann can do anything to stop it, his attic is piled high with oil drums full of petrol. He even helps them to measure the detonating fuse and gives them matches, refusing to believe the full horror of what is happening. He soon becomes an accomplice in his own downfall.

The action is observed by a Greek-style chorus of “firemen”, and the increasingly surreal flavour culminates in a final scene, the afterpiece, where Biedermann and his wife Babette find themselves at the gates of Hell. Here they once again meet Schmitz and Eisenring who turn out to be Beelzebub and the Devil respectively, who, after becoming angered at the number of mass murderers being allowed to go to Heaven, refuses to conduct a Hell for a “small fry” like Biedermann.

The name Biedermann is itself a play on the German word “bieder” meaning conventional, conservative, worthy, honest, upright and is frequently used in a pejorative or ironic context. Thus the name equates to der ‘biedere Mann’ or the ‘worthy man’. (from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fire_Raisers_(play) 20/03/2017)

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