The Firebugs Summary
by Max Frisch

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Firebugs Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Firebugs Summary

(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 allowing fires to start. They are the guardians of the homes and lives of the citizens and attempt to bring Biedermann to his senses about the danger presented by the barrels of gasoline the three conspirators bring into the attic, along with paraphernalia to detonate an explosion. Biedermann, however, asserts his right as a free citizen “not to think at all” and proceeds with his plan to win the friendship of the arsonists by sponsoring a sumptuous family-style dinner. Biedermann has all the middle-class accoutrements removed from the dining room—the silver candelabra and wine bucket, damask napkins and tablecloth—in order to create an informal atmosphere. However, the conspirators had been expecting such trappings, and the embarrassed Biedermann calls for their return.

The meal culminates with Schmitz and Eisenring asking Biedermann to supply them with matches, which he does. At the end of the play, the stage is engulfed in red light, with sirens blaring and alarm bells ringing, and the audience knows that the conflagration has started. The culpability of Biedermann and his disingenuous life are evidenced in his treatment of Knechtling, who followed Biedermann’s advice to commit suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. During the course of the play, Knechtling’s widow visits Biedermann, since the bill for the funeral wreath sent by the Biedermanns is sent to the Knechtlings by mistake. Sure that Mrs. Knechtling will ask for financial assistance, Biedermann refuses to see her. Though morally responsible for Knechtling’s death, Biedermann smugly clings to his pretense of innocence.

After the initial production, Frisch added an epilogue to the play, in which Biedermann and Babette find themselves in Hell, with the three arsonists presiding in disguise. The Biedermanns cannot accept that they are not in Heaven and reveal their greediness and lack of acceptance of their culpability. Babette, for example, dies in the fire because she rushes back to her bedroom to rescue her jewelry. At the very end, all the workers in Hell go on strike, and, consequently, the Biedermanns are saved. The city appears to be rising again, and the chorus of firemen announces that all of those individuals who were killed in the fire have been forgotten. The lesson of this experience has been lost; just as Biedermann never acknowledges his guilt, society...

(The entire section is 1,679 words.)