(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)