Max Frisch 1911-1991
(Born Max Rudolf Frisch) Swiss novelist, playwright, diarist, essayist, and journalist.
Frisch is considered one of Switzerland's most distinguished and versatile men of letters. Judged one of the finest German-language novelists of his time, Frisch, along with fellow dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, brought international recognition to the postwar Swiss theater through his innovative and political plays. Winning numerous literary awards, including the Georg Buechner Prize and Neustadt International Prize, he was also a frequent candidate for the Pulitzer Prize.
Frisch was born in Zurich on May 15, 1911. As a youth, he learned about drama by studying, on his own, the plays of Henrik Ibsen; at age sixteen he sent his first play, Stahl, to producer-director Max Reinhart in Berlin. In 1931 Frisch attended the University of Zurich, studying German literature for two years until his father's death. At that point, he left school and became a freelance journalist, writing sports and travel articles for several newspapers. Critics regard Frisch's early fiction written during this period as relatively conventional, interesting mainly as precursors of more important works to come. In 1936 Frisch decided he had been unsuccessful, and he made a ceremonial bonfire of all his early writings, including his diaries. He then returned to school to train as an architect. During World War II Frisch served in the Swiss army, which was mobilized against a possible invasion. His indignation at Switzerland's neutrality toward Hitler became a central theme of his postwar works. After the war, Frisch began a successful career as an architect in Zurich. Although his early novels contain no hint of politics, professional involvement with urban planning led him to adopt the socialist views that characterize his mature work.
In the mid-1940s, Kurt Hirschfeld, director of the Zurich Schauspielhaus, encouraged Frisch to write a play for his theater. Nun singen sie wieder (1946), a bitter antiwar statement, was Frisch's first drama to appear onstage. Other productions at the Schauspielhaus followed, and Frisch was hailed as a topical allegorist in the tradition of Bertol Brecht. Frisch scholars later agreed that although Frisch became an enthusiastic admirer of Brecht in the 1940s, the Swiss writer had experimented in his novels with Brechtian devices, such as the alienation technique, years before he became familiar with the writings of his German colleague. The two authors eventually met in 1947 and became friends. Frisch, however, always remained skeptical of Brecht's Marxist beliefs, as well as his custom of delivering moral lectures through his plays. In 1950 Frisch retired from architecture to devote himself to writing and spent the next two years in the United States and Mexico on a Rockefeller grant. During the next few decades, he wrote prolifically, received several literary awards, and traveled extensively. He died in Zurich on April 4, 1991.
Many of Frisch's most highly regarded dramas, including Andorra (1961) and Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1955; The Firebugs), are Brechtian parables, in form if not in content. In Andorra, Frisch creates a society ruled by prejudice and fear; critics have perceived the story as a metaphor for Switzerland's complicated and problematic relationship with Nazi Germany. In The Firebugs a cowardly yet ruthless businessman named Biedermann is intimidated by two arsonists who take up residence in his house. Lacking the courage to confront them, Biedermann instead bullies one of his employees into committing suicide. Eventually, the two arsonists set Biedermann's house on fire, killing the businessman and his wife. In his later plays, Biographie: Ein Spiel (1967; Biography: A Game) and Triptychon (1978; Triptych), Frisch attempts to demonstrate, without conventions of naturalism, didacticism, or logical temporal constraints, not only what a given set of characters think and do, but what they might experience if they acted on all possibilities open to them. This striving toward a “theater of permutations” is also reflected in his novels, notably Stiller (1954; I'm Not Stiller), Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors), and Blaubart (1982; Bluebeard). In these narratives, Frisch presents his heroes' fantasies about their lives as no less important or true than what actually happens to them. His diaries have also attracted commercial and critical attention. They are not strictly autobiographical, however, as they contain elements of fiction and other narrative forms that do not fit the diary genre.
Frisch's novels, dramas, and diaries garnered much critical attention and his work was honored with several literary and theater awards. Some critics assert that while Frisch's plays deal with social and political problems, such as prejudice in Andorra and nuclear war in Die chinesische mauer (1947; The Chinese Wall), his novels confront problems of a personal nature. Yet the main thrust of Frisch's work, whether personal or public, is, according to many commentators, the exploration of human identity. Frisch repeatedly pits his protagonists against social forces that threaten to distort or extinguish their personalities. Reviewers praised him as a superb ironist; often, his fictional works present a profoundly serious theme couched in terms of playful humor. Furthermore, his diaries have provided a rich field of study for critics. In particular, commentators have been intrigued by the methodical blurring of truth and invention in the diaries. Reviewers maintain that they serve as study aids to the plays and novels, as well as literary works in their own right.