Biedermann und die Brandstifter, variously translated from the German as Biedermann and the Firebugs, Biedermann and the Fire Raisers, or simply The Firebugs, bears the subtitle A Learning-Play Without a Lesson. It is easy to interpret as a modern allegory or parable, with a lesson. In a general sense, it seems aimed at people’s irredeemable folly, their perverse tendency to act contrary to what is clearly in their own best interest. Barbara Tuchman has shown in The March of Folly (1984) that history offers plenty of examples of incredible wrongheadedness; people do not seem able to learn from past mistakes. For Max Frisch, the political appeasements that led to the pre-World War II rise of Nazism and postwar takeover of Czechoslovakia by communists were the specific political analogues, but his allegory, a secular morality play, is really timeless.
The long one-act play utilizes techniques that help convey a sense of that timelessness. Although the setting is modern, the action is not localized to any specific time or place. As with many absurdist plays, there is only a metaphysical present, a now, as opposed to a past or future. The details about things mentioned or used in the play are all generic, found everywhere, and, therefore, nowhere in particular. Biedermann is himself a kind of Everyman, with whom, during the play, he is specifically identified. He exhibits, too, the “empty good-naturedness” that, according to Martin Esslin, prevents the absurd antihero from distinguishing what is of value from what is not. His decency is tragically misplaced.
Frisch, who denounced the absurdist playwrights as purveyors of nonsense, is not interested in metaphysical...
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