The Chinese Wall

by Max Frisch

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Critical Context

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The Chinese Wall, performed for the first time in 1946, was one of Frisch’s earliest plays. Frisch was clearly reacting to the new reality of the atomic bomb and to the horrible realizations of what that bomb meant. There are also direct indications in the play (such as the mother’s exclamation of “Heil! Heil! Heil!”) that Frisch was also reacting to the tyranny of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Reich, only one year removed—the latest brutal example of “making history.” Like his theatrical mentor Brecht, Frisch occupied himself both intensively and extensively with alternative, experimental dramatic forms in his early plays. As the years passed, he returned to The Chinese Wall and revised it in both 1955 and 1972, primarily to add historical references and insights which were not available to him originally. Neither revision essentially changed the content or structure of the play.

The critical reception of Frisch’s Chinese Wall has been quite favorable, even though some critics have not been able to accept fully his radical anti-Aristotelian experimentation or the fact that its moral seems both too direct and impossible to achieve. The play has continued to have a vital stage life, though, and is a standard work in the postwar German-language theater repertoire, along with later Frisch plays such as Andorra (pr., pb. 1961; English translation, 1963) and Biedermann und die Brandstifter (pr., pb. 1958; The Firebugs, 1961). The Chinese Wall is a play that takes full advantage of what liberation from the earlier conventions of Aristotelian or closed-form drama could provide. Since Frisch’s theme here is literally the need to reject traditional ways of “making history,” it is fitting that he should also reject the traditional ways of dramatizing history.

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