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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1016

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Gottlieb Biedermann, a businessman, while on his way home, lights a cigar and witnesses the Chorus of Firemen setting their watch. Afterward, at home, seated in his living room, reading the newspaper, Biedermann vents his disgust with the arsonists plaguing his city, convinced that they should all be hanged. He is interrupted by Anna, his servant, who informs him that a peddler waits to see him. Biedermann tells her to get rid of the man, but the intruder enters unbidden, identifying himself as Sepp Schmitz, a circus wrestler. The astonished Biedermann, nonplussed by the stranger’s sudden appearance, invites the ingratiating Schmitz to have some bread, which the visitor manages to parlay into a substantial snack through flattery and self-deprecation mixed with quiet but insistent demands. Their discussion is briefly interrupted when Herr Knechtling, a former employee released by Biedermann, comes to the door seeking an audience. His request outrages Biedermann, who directs Anna to send him away. He then takes Sepp to his attic, where the visitor is invited to stay on the condition that he swears that he is not an arsonist—one of the firebugs. Sepp only laughs, but Biedermann, satisfied, permits Schmitz to stay.

The next morning, after Biedermann’s wife, Babette, spends a troubled night, fearful that there might be a firebug in the attic, Biedermann introduces her to Schmitz before leaving for work. Although Babette is determined to send the wrestler away, she feeds him breakfast while searching for a tactful way of doing so. Sepp plays on her kindness, preparing her to receive the next suspicious guest, Willi Eisenring, an unemployed waiter. The next day, Biedermann, set on throwing both men out, goes to his attic, where Schmitz and Eisenring just finish stacking up some large drums. Biedermann’s anger is soothed by Willi, who admonishes Sepp for his lack of manners and insensitivity to Biedermann’s feelings. Biedermann spots the drums and becomes alarmed. The labels clearly reveal their contents: gasoline. He then threatens to call the police, but a policeman already arrives to tell Biedermann that Herr Knechtling committed suicide the previous night. Oddly, when the policeman asks what is in the drums, Biedermann tells him it is only Hormotone, the hair tonic made by Biedermann’s firm. After justifying his behavior to the Chorus of Firemen, arguing that one has to maintain trust in people, Biedermann explains to Babette that even if the two men are firebugs, it is best to treat them as friends. He then tells her to include them for dinner.

Somewhat later, in the attic, Eisenring explains to the increasingly officious Biedermann that Sepp is out on an errand, looking for sawdust to help spread the fire. He also explains that he is a former prisoner and tells Biedermann that he is looking for a detonator cap. Biedermann takes these bald admissions as a joke, and Eisenring confirms that a joke is a good camouflage but that the truth is even better. He then tactfully advises Biedermann to extinguish his cigar and asks him to help wire the detonator and fuse. Unshaken, Biedermann reveals that he comes to invite Eisenring and Schmitz to dinner. After Biedermann leaves, Eisenring tells the professor, a Ph.D., to come out from the pile of gasoline drums, to keep guard while he and Sepp go to the dinner. The professor tries to warn Babette about the arsonists, but Babette, who accepts Biedermann’s idea that they should not offend Eisenring and Schmitz, does nothing.

Before the dinner, Biedermann directs Anna to remove the table finery she puts out. Then, after a funerary wreath is delivered that mistakenly identifies Biedermann rather than Knechtling as the deceased, Biedermann leaves the room with instructions to Anna that she should also dress simply and not serve in a formal fashion. When Eisenring and Schmitz enter, Anna leaves the two men alone. In their talk, they realize that, after dinner, they will have to ask Biedermann for matches. The dinner proves a disaster. It begins in laughter, with Biedermann explaining Willi’s “joke” that oil waste is a better incendiary than sawdust and upbraiding Babette for her lack of humor. As the fine food and excessive quantities of good wine are consumed, Eisenring and Schmitz admit that they have a taste for expensive things, despite their humble backgrounds. They even mention specific items, such as damask tablecloths, good crystal, finger bowls, and knife rests. Biedermann then orders Anna to bring back the elegant tableware that he earlier ordered her to remove, including the damask tablecloth and a silver candelabrum. Eisenring next tells how the restaurant where he worked burned to the ground and how he met Schmitz at the station where the police took him after his arrest. Schmitz then explains that he was briefly an actor, specializing in ghosts, and begins acting out a parody of the morality play Everyman, drawing Biedermann into the title role. The spoof abruptly ends when Schmitz identifies his part as the ghost of Knechtling, causing Babette to scream. Seemingly drunk, the two men start singing and are joined by Biedermann, who also hands out cigars. Then, while fire sirens wail in the distance, the two men confess that they are firebugs and that they have to leave. Biedermann, still unwilling to face the truth, tries to mollify the pair with a final toast to their friendship. They beg matches of him, then leave.

As the sky begins turning an ominous red, the professor enters to tell the Biedermanns that although he knew what the firebugs were up to in the attic, he did not know that they were doing it simply for fun. He then exits, and Babette asks Biedermann what he gave Schmitz and Eisenring. He admits that he gave them matches, then attempts to allay her concern with the argument that if they were firebugs, they surely would have had their own. At the end, the Chorus of Firemen laments the burning of the gas works as the sounds of explosions and crashing buildings announce the imminent destruction of the whole city.

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