Themes and Meanings

The Firebugs is a play in which the well-known theatrical device of discrepant awareness is raised to central thematic importance. Whereas the audience recognizes the strangers immediately for the criminals that they are, Biedermann remains impervious to the truth. Biedermann’s failure to recognize what is painfully (and comically) obvious to everyone but him is all that keeps the play going, for his blindness and self-deception, and the reasons behind them, are basically what the play is all about.

Biedermann’s inability to see the firebugs for what they are is all the more startling for the fact that they make no attempt whatever to disguise their intentions. Indeed, they rely upon the fact that it is unnecessary to conceal the truth in view of Biedermann’s inability or unwillingness to accept it. When Biedermann assumes that they are merely joking about being firebugs, for example, Eisenring explains: “Joking is the third best method of hoodwinking people. The second best is sentimentality. The kind of stuff Joe goes in for. . . . But the best and safest method— in my opinion—is to tell the plain unvarnished truth. Oddly enough. No one believes it.”

Biedermann, whose name in German connotes a solid, upstanding citizen, fails to acknowledge the truth primarily for two reasons, fear and guilt. On the one hand, Biedermann is quite satisfied with the bourgeois comforts with which he has been able to surround himself and...

(The entire section is 519 words.)