The Chinese Wall

by Max Frisch

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The Play

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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 little understanding of the course of history...

(This entire section contains 1432 words.)

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subsequent to his life (and death), and each reacts very defensively about the actions he took and the philosophies he represented. Columbus, for example, declares that his goal in heading west with his ships was not to establish a Spanish empire, nor to enable the exploitation of the land and peoples of what became known as the Americas, but to seek “the truth.”

As the play proceeds, the several levels continue to merge. Simultaneously with the action involving the costumed historical figures, the action in Hwang Ti’s China unfolds further. The back-and-forth movement between very different historical times and situations—even their intermingling—is at times very humorous, and is always ironic. At one point, the Contemporary Man tries to explain the hydrogen bomb to Philipp of Spain, but Philipp cannot even believe that the Inquisition is over or that Holland has gained its independence from Spain. He asserts his philosophy of dealing with heretics: Burn them at the stake. Once again the Contemporary Man says: “You must not return to life.” In fact, he tells all the costumed historical figures that they must not return to life, because “we can no longer afford the way in which you made history.”

As these costumed figures fade momentarily from view, Mee Lan appears. She is a rather melancholy, bored Chinese princess, who nevertheless shows signs of seeing through the insane policies of her despotic father. She especially mocks his rather frantic attempts to find and kill the “voice of the people” as if it were a person rather than an attitude shared by many. The Contemporary Man approaches her, telling her that he wants to speak with her father; she wonders whether he is the “voice of the people.” In a strange dialogue marked by both seriousness and foolishness, he tells her about the modern world while they drink tea together; it is obvious that they are attracted to each other.

The intermingling of the historical personalities from various centuries and the Chinese at the court of Hwang Ti continues. Interspersed with their attempts to justify themselves and their actions are numerous illustrations of the tyranny and blindness of the emperor and his followers. In one example, Hwang Ti explains how his wall will “stop the future” and how, when the one last opponent (“the voice of the people”) is captured, all will be perfect in the Empire.

Mee Lan tries to tell her father about all the things that will happen in the ensuing two thousand years, but he merely dismisses her and suggests that she reads too much literature. Finally, the Contemporary Man does get the opportunity to talk to Hwang Ti in person, but the emperor shows little inclination to listen. In what follows, Cleopatra flirts with Hwang Ti (because he represents power) and Napoleon and Philipp of Spain are perplexed by the suggestion that they should not return to life.

Hwang Ti calls his court together in order to pass judgment on a young Chinese man whom he accuses of being “the voice of the people.” Ironically, it is the mute son from the first act. Having been named “court jester” by the emperor, the Contemporary Man attempts to defend the mute youth. Mee Lan pleads with her father to stop the charade, and the Contemporary Man points out explicitly how corrupt such a court is. When the soldiers begin to torture the mute youth, however, even his defenders fall silent.

Ashamed that they have done nothing to hinder the torturing, Mee Lan and the Contemporary Man blame each other for their own inaction. The Contemporary Man momentarily overcomes his fear and announces to Hwang Ti that he is “the voice of the people.” Once again, he warns of the dangers of traditional ways for the modern world. “Let’s decide: Humanity should live on! That means, therefore, that your way of making history is no longer acceptable. A society that views war as unavoidable is a society we can no longer afford.”

As the play approaches its end, the trial is in its final stages. The Contemporary Man attempts to get the mother to explain that her son cannot possibly be the “voice of the people” because he is mute. When it is suggested to her that her son is not capable of being the “voice” (and therefore of being important), however, her pride is injured. She asks, “Why shouldn’t my son be an important man?” Then she asserts that he is indeed the “voice of the people.”

The play ends with the historical characters, still in their costumes and masks, repeating the same lines that they spoke at the beginning of the play. All the attempts of the Contemporary Man to warn and to enlighten have failed, and he sinks into resignation, exclaiming, now as an actor on the stage: “We are not going to play any longer!” When Brutus asks why not, he merely replies: “Because the whole farce is starting all over again. . . .”

Dramatic Devices

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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 think critically about what is taking place and being said rather than allowing them to identify with the characters. Ironic juxtaposition of events or characters, as when the waiter in a tuxedo interrupts Romeo and Juliet in her bedroom or when Cleopatra, with cocktail in hand, wanders off on the arm of Hwang Ti, also serve to alienate the audience from conventional identification with these characters and with the historical meaning they traditionally have been granted.

Like Brecht and others, Frisch ingeniously used quotation from other authors (for example, passages are taken directly from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar) to create reality only to undercut or alter its conventional meaning. Frisch’s extensive use of irony—all kinds of irony—destabilizes statements, impressions, and reality, and ultimately results in the destabilization even of “truth”—especially any notion of “historical truth.” One further device which Frisch used extensively in the play is the “leitmotif,” the repetition of certain phrases, often verbatim, to accompany characters (and thereby highlight certain characteristics they display) or to underline a certain theme, as is the case with the repetition of the Contemporary Man’s plea to almost all the historical figures that they “must not return to life.”


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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.


Critical Essays