The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.