Gottlieb Biedermann is a captain of industry whose wealth comes from manufacturing a brand of hair tonic invented by his former valet, Knechtling, whom Biedermann dismissed when he asked for a share in the profits. The play begins at a moment when arsonists are setting houses on fire throughout the city. Although Biedermann suspects that Schmitz, a homeless stranger who insinuates himself into the Biedermann household and asks for shelter, could be an arsonist, he offers him dinner and allows him to move into his attic.
During dinner, Biedermann is disturbed by the arrival of Knechtling, who pleads through Biedermann’s servant, Anna, for financial assistance because he has a sick wife and three children. Biedermann will not admit Knechtling and tells Anna, “Let him put his head in the gas oven or instruct a solicitor—go ahead—if Herr Knechtling can afford to lose or win a case.” Schmitz witnesses Biedermann’s callousness but flatters his show of humanity. Biedermann allows Schmitz to stay, after asking for reassurance that he is not an arsonist. Schmitz is able to manipulate both Biedermann and his wife, Babette, by playing on their need to appear kind and compassionate. Soon Schmitz is joined by two more strangers: Eisenring, a former waiter, and an unemployed doctor of philosophy, who is driven to join the conspirators by political ideology, whereas the other two appear drawn to their arson because they merely enjoy starting fires.
The scenes in the Biedermann household are punctuated by the speeches of a chorus of firemen, who warn the city’s residents of the “stupidity” of...
(The entire section is 663 words.)