The Play

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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 Eisenring, a former headwaiter at a fancy restaurant—until it burned to the ground.

Scene 3 opens with Willi and Schmitz loading canisters of gasoline into Biedermann’s attic. The latter is quite agitated over this state of affairs and even threatens to call the police unless the intruders leave. Before he can do so, however, a policeman appears at the attic door. He has come to investigate the death of Knechtling, who has committed suicide as a result of Biedermann’s brutal treatment. Paralyzed by guilt, Biedermann is now unable to report the firebugs to the officer and actually aids them by claiming that the barrels contain hair oil. Called to account by the chorus of firemen on his way to work, Biedermann insists upon his right to be left in peace, to...

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put all this talk of firebugs out of his mind and hope against hope that Schmitz and Eisenring are not what they appear to be.

In scene 4, Biedermann resolves to invite Schmitz and Eisenring to dinner. He reasons that if he reports them to the police, and they really are firebugs, then they will certainly send his house up in flames. If he invites them to dinner, however, perhaps he can befriend them. When Biedermann goes to the attic, Eisenring makes no attempt to deny that he and his partner are indeed firebugs. He explains matter-of-factly and in frightening detail exactly what he and Schmitz are up to, but Biedermann wants desperately to believe that he is only joking. Although Eisenring assures him that he is deadly serious, Biedermann takes some degree of comfort in his acceptance of the dinner invitation. Schmitz does not appear in the scene, because he is out looking for wood shavings. As Eisenring brazenly explains, wood shavings carry the sparks farthest. The fifth scene shows Biedermann discussing dinner preparations with Anna, the maid. Everything is to be kept simple, no damask table cloths, no silver wine bucket, no candelabras or finger bowls. Obvious reminders of class differences are to be avoided at all costs. As Biedermann has explained to the firebugs, he does not believe in class distinctions and is “genuinely sorry that among the lower classes people still blather about class distinctions.” Schmitz and Eisenring enter the dining room while Biedermann is in the wine cellar and discover, to their amazement, that neither of them has any matches. They decide that they will have to get some from Biedermann. At the end of the scene, Biedermann steps toward the footlights with a wine bottle in his hand and questions the audience: “You can think what you like about me, gentlemen. But just answer one question: . . . tell me honestly, gentlemen, what would you have done in my place, damn it all, and when?”

The festive goose dinner is in full swing as the sixth and final scene opens. Biedermann explains to Babette what a marvelous sense of humor their guests have, pretending to be firebugs and all. Babette, however, is not at all amused, particularly when the two guests recount employment histories frequently punctuated by unexplained conflagrations at their workplaces. Schmitz also casts a pall over the proceedings when, pretending to re-create an episode from his brief career as an actor, he throws a tablecloth over his head and pronounces himself to be the ghost of Knechtling. Biedermann is visibly shaken but attempts to restore a jovial atmosphere with the help of wine and song. The sound of sirens puts an end to these efforts. The firebugs brazenly admit that it is merely a ruse to lure the fire department into the suburbs before the real conflagration begins. When they ask Biedermann for the matches, he hands over the tools of his own destruction, and the firebugs exit. His last words before the scene dissolves into red lighting, howling of sirens, barking of dogs, cries, and the sounds of fire are: “If they were really firebugs, do you think they wouldn’t have matches?”

As in Greek tragedy, it is left to the chorus of firemen to pronounce the play’s moral, such as it is:

There is much that is senseless and nothingMore so than this story:Which once it had startedKilled many, ah, but not allAnd changed nothing. . . .What all have foreseenFrom the outset,And yet in the end it takes place,Is idiocy,The fire it’s too late to extinguish,Called fate.

Dramatic Devices

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The Firebugs is clearly indebted to the classical Greek fate-tragedy. The chorus of firemen shares some of the functions of the chorus in Greek tragedy, stepping forward at the end of each scene (except the fifth) to summarize, explicate, and point to the moral of the action just witnessed. In Frisch’s play, however, they also serve a parodistic function, specifically warning the audience against any attempt to regard catastrophes brought on by human folly as inexorable acts of fate. Whereas Biedermann would like to shift all responsibility for disaster prevention onto others, symbolized by the “fire department,” the chorus serves to remind individuals of their shared responsibility for the common welfare.

One can also see the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s theories of epic theater in the play’s structure. The chorus emphasizes the “epic” quality of the play by functioning as a kind of narrator. It also creates an alienation effect by destroying any illusion that the audience is witnessing reality. Other examples of this are seen when Biedermann explains to Babette that he cannot speak to her at the moment because he is in conference with the chorus and in the scene where Biedermann steps out of his role to address the audience.

In other respects, however, the play is very traditional. It is temporally and spatially very tight, with virtually no retardation or subplots. The set design, which is to be imagined as a kind of cutaway view of a two-story structure, remains constant throughout the play yet permits simultaneous action on various levels of Biedermann’s house, highlighted by a skillful use of lighting and sound effects. The play also provides a great variety of props, such as gasoline barrels, matches, and dining accoutrements, which not only provide the actors with rich gestural possibilities but also are laden with symbolic or metaphorical significance.

Places Discussed

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Biedermann house

Biedermann house. Home of Gottfried Biedermann, a hair tonic manufacturer obsessed with the fear of arsonists. He lives in an unnamed large city; it could be any city, anywhere. The house itself is a gracious, somewhat ostentatious and pretentious, upper-middle-class dwelling. The whole effect is that of the nouveau riche, cushioned from the events in the real world by wealth. Money and financial reward constitute the major emphasis of the home and its residents. The staging of the play calls for a nonrealistic, simultaneous setting, showing the living room and attic.

The dangers of a life without principles are clearly illustrated by the fact that the attic is filled with cans of gasoline and other incendiary devices. Over everything hovers a sense of foreboding and impending doom represented by the attic, which is a sort of Hell. The setting for Hell is exactly the same as for the rest of the play: the Biedermann home. This device makes the point that a heaven can be a kind of Hades at the same time. Also, human beings must face the consequences of their acts, or the lack of them, at some time.

Bibliography

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Butler, Michael. The Plays of Max Frisch. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Most readable and succinct English introduction to Frisch’s plays, recommended for further study. Discusses The Firebugs as a parable play and analyzes its language, using translated passages in German.

Jurgensen, Manfred. “The Drama of Max Frisch,” in his Perspectives on Max Frisch, 1982.

Pickar, Gertrud B. The Dramatic Works of Max Frisch. Frankfurt, Germany: Lang, 1977. The most comprehensive and insightful English-language study of Frisch’s dramatic canon.

Probst, Gerhard F., and Jay E. Bodine, eds. Perspectives on Max Frisch. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982. A sampling of critical articles, including “The Drama of Frisch” by Manfred Jurgensen. Extensive international bibliography.

Subiotto, Arrigo. “The Swiss Contribution.” In The German Theatre: A Symposium, edited by Ronald Hayman. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Relates the dramatic works of Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt to the larger framework of modern German theater and post-World War II European politics.

Weisstein, Ulrich. Max Frisch. New York: Twayne, 1967. A useful critical biography with a chronology and guide to selected sources. Contrasts The Firebugs with absurdist drama.

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