The Firebugs begins with a darkened stage. A flaring match reveals the face of Gottlieb Biedermann, who is lighting a cigar. As the light increases, one sees that he is surrounded by a chorus of firemen in helmets. Clearly reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy and speaking in Holderlinesque verses, the firemen pronounce it their sworn duty to protect the lives and property of the good citizens. They also warn these citizens against attributing all conflagrations to fate: “Other things, called Fate to prevent you/ From asking how they happened,/ Monstrous events,/ Even the total destruction of a city,/ Are mischief./ Human./ All too human.”
After delivering this warning, the chorus sits down and the first of the play’s six scenes begins with Biedermann sitting in his living room smoking a cigar and reading the paper. He is incensed to read of yet another case of arson perpetrated by an apparently harmless peddler who has sought lodging in an attic. His outburst is interrupted by Anna, the maid, who announces that there is a peddler at the door seeking “humanity.” While Biedermann is justifying to Anna his callous refusal to see him, the man at the door has simply let himself in. It is Joseph (Sepp) Schmitz, a man of intimidating physical proportions and a manner that is at once obsequious and shamelessly impudent. Through a skillful and witty combination of physical intimidation and reliance upon Biedermann’s guilty conscience, Schmitz succeeds in insinuating himself into temporary shelter in Biedermann’s attic. Schmitz capitalizes, for example, on the insecurity and guilt behind Biedermann’s repeated protestations that Schmitz should not regard him as “inhuman” merely because of Biedermann’s initial refusal to see him or even because of his subsequent refusal to see Knechtling, a former employee whom Biedermann has recently fired without compensation for his invention of the hair oil from which Biedermann now profits. Schmitz comments: “If you were inhuman, Herr Biedermann, you wouldn’t be giving me shelter tonight, that’s obvious.” Although Biedermann has had no intention of offering Schmitz shelter up to this point, he cannot refuse him now without appearing “inhuman.” He urges Schmitz to be quiet lest Biedermann’s wife, Babette, be frightened by his presence and asks for his solemn promise that he is indeed not a firebug.
The second of the play’s six scenes depicts Babette’s outrage when she learns the truth the following morning. She is amazed at Biedermann’s naivete and is determined to send Schmitz packing immediately after breakfast. During the course of the meal, however, Schmitz succeeds in weakening Babette’s resolve through a combination of subtle intimidation and appeals to her own guilty conscience, as well as through a shamelessly sentimental (and patently false) recounting of his unhappy childhood. The scene ends with another stranger at the door. It is Schmitz’s friend, Willi...
(The entire section is 1216 words.)