The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Chinese Wall begins with a prologue in which the Contemporary Man appears in front of a middle curtain and addresses the audience. On that curtain is a depiction of the famous Great Wall of China. The Contemporary Man describes the wall from the perspective of the twentieth century—he explains that it is as long as the distance between New York and Berlin—and he asserts that it is merely one of the many unsuccessful efforts in history to make time come to a standstill, to stop the march of history. Then he announces who will soon appear onstage: Emperor Hwang Ti, under whose reign the Great Wall was completed, the historical personalities listed above under principal characters, as well as Pontius Pilate, Emile Zola, Ivan the Terrible, Lohengrin, Abraham Lincoln, and others.

A Chinese mother and her mute son enter the stage. The Contemporary Man alternately talks with the mother as though they were both in the same place and time and comments on the two of them from his distance of more than two thousand years. The mother explains who she is, at least allegorically, when she tells him: “I am the mother who never plays a role in the history of the world.” Mother and son have journeyed for more than a year in order to reach Nanking and see their emperor, Hwang Ti. The mother tells the Contemporary Man that there is an unknown “voice of the people” whose sayings, critical of the emperor, are known by all.

At that moment, the imperial crier appears, announcing in militaristic fashion that “the world belongs to us!” and that the emperor’s men will search the entire land until they find the “voice of the people,” the “only opponent in the land,” and put his head on a lance. The mother, obviously intimidated, can only call out: “Heil! Heil! Heil!” The Contemporary Man asserts both to the mother and to the audience that what was just witnessed clearly signifies a crisis for a political and military power that has conquered everything, “but not yet the truth.” Finally, he declares to the audience: “The play is about to begin! . . . Location: this stage. Time: this evening.”

The first of twenty-three ensuing scenes begins with a very familiar theater couple, Romeo and Juliet, engaged in the famous Shakespearean dialogue that takes place as dawn approaches after the two lovers have spent the night together. Suddenly a waiter appears in the bedroom in a tuxedo and announces that the dance is beginning on the terrace. Thrown out of his role, Romeo expresses his confusion about where they are and when; he even wonders what atoms are.

The lovers’ room is transformed into a terrace, and there appear in costumes and masks such notables from history as Napoleon, Cleopatra, Don Juan, Joan of Arc, Frederick the Great, Helen of Troy, Wallenstein, Mary Stuart, and numerous others. The Contemporary Man pulls Napoleon aside in order to speak with him. He does so from his vantage point some 125 years after Napoleon’s death; after telling Napoleon of his fame, which is still very much alive, he tries to make it clear to Napoleon that he must never return to life. The world cannot afford tyrants any longer, he says, because “the atom can be split” and a nuclear holocaust could be the result.

In the company of Napoleon, the Contemporary Man introduces and speaks to several other costumed and masked figures, including Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, Ivan the Terrible, and finally Pontius Pilate and Don Juan. Each shows...

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The Chinese Wall Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Given the fact that Frisch brought virtually all of historical time onstage and given the fact that he portrayed his historical characters in anything but heroic light, it is clear that The Chinese Wall not only rejects traditional notions of history, but traditional concepts of drama as well. His greatest indebtedness for his anti-Aristotelian dramatic form undoubtedly belongs to Bertolt Brecht and the complex of ingredients that makes up Brecht’s epic theater. Whereas Aristotle and his followers through the centuries have generally kept genres separate, Frisch radically mixed them. The play has the trappings of tragedy, comedy, history, farce, satire, and morality play. Because of its bleak ending of repetition, though, it perhaps ends as absurdist theater—not because there is no moral, but because history itself, the atom bomb now makes clear, has been absurdist theater.

From epic theater, Frisch adopted and adapted a wide variety of techniques and methods for his purpose. The Contemporary Man (and on occasion other figures, when they directly address the audience as actors rather than as the characters they are portraying) often serves to narrate the action of the play. This is only one example of the Brechtian alienation effect. Another is the extensive use of masks, which allows the actors to remind the audience again and again that they are merely playing roles in Brechtian terms; this is an attempt to force reader and audience to...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

The Chinese Wall Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Butler, Michael. The Plays of Max Frisch. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

Esslin, Martin. “Max Frisch.” In German Men of Letters, edited by Alex Natan. London: O. Wolff, 1968.

Frisch, Max. Sketchbook, 1946-1949. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, 1983.

Jurgensen, Manfred. “The Plays of Max Frisch.” In Perspectives on Max Frisch, edited by Gerhard F. Probst and Jay F. Bodine. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1982.

Pickar, Gertrud B. The Dramatic Works of Max Frisch. Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1977.

Probst, Gerhard F., and Jay F. Bodine, eds. Perspectives on Max Frisch. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1982.

Wagner, Marie. “Timeless Relevance: Max Frisch’s The Chinese Wall.” Modern Drama 16 (1973-1974): 149-156.

Weisstein, Ulrich. Max Frisch. New York: Twayne, 1967.

White, Alfred D. Max Frisch: The Reluctant Modernist. Lewistown, N.Y.: Edward Mellen, 1995.