The Chinese Wall

by Max Frisch

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Themes and Meanings

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The Chinese Wall is in many respects a “history play,” yet it is very different from the vast majority of works in this venerable and important dramatic genre. Unlike most of them, which focus their action and story line on one major event or set of events from history, and on one major figure and complex of figures from a particular historical setting, Frisch made “history per se” his subject. Most traditional history plays, from Aeschylus’s The Persians (pr. 472 b.c.e.) to Shakespeare’s Henry IV (pr. 1597-1598) to Bertolt Brecht’s Leben des Galilei (pr. 1943; Life of Galileo, 1947), in spite of their profound differences, show “great” moments and “great” personalities of history, and even though their weaknesses are often exposed, the “great” or momentous quality of their personalities or of the events in which they were central participants is never in question. In The Chinese Wall, however, Frisch in essence forces readers and viewers to reconsider those concepts or notions of “greatness.” The “great” historical personalities who parade across the stage here are exposed as egotistical, short sighted, and rather ludicrous characters. The major historical events in which they played key roles are deflated and are shown to have been, in large part, mistakes.

The major theme of the play, then, is nothing short of the need to revise the established views and notions of history. According to the Contemporary Man, who must be viewed as Frisch’s mouthpiece, the introduction of the potentially earth destroying bomb into the equation of history has rendered traditional ways of “making history” not only obsolete but suicidal for all humankind. By exposing these “greats” as ridiculous, and their “great deeds” as generally destructive, Frisch admirably succeeds in employing farce to cause his readers and viewers to reflect upon and confront his challenge to traditional thinking about history.

Frisch does not merely preach, however, nor is his message simple. In fact, the play leaves little doubt, in spite of his obvious sympathy for the Contemporary Man and the task he set for himself, that Frisch held little hope for humankind’s resolve or its ability to alter its way of “making history” sufficiently to avoid catastrophe. He understood the sheer force of authoritarian power, and he understood the difficulty of maintaining courage in the face of tyrannical power. The Contemporary Man, one will recall, suffers a failure of will and does not, ultimately, defend the mute boy when he is in danger himself. If history is indeed cyclical, as the repetition of the play’s beginning at its end clearly suggests, then history’s circularity is vicious indeed.

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