Max Frisch Frisch, Max (Vol. 3) - Essay

Frisch, Max (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frisch, Max 1911–

Frisch is a Swiss novelist and playwright, best known for Stiller and Homo Faber.

[When] Frisch is at his best, as he is in Die Chinesische Mauer (The Chinese Wall) and Biedermann und die Brandstifter (Mr. Biedermann and the Arsonists [published in English as The Firebugs]), there is no better dramatic author alive today….

Frisch … writes plays about whatever happens to interest him at the moment, and as he is always passionately involved in the situations and characters he creates, the quality of his plays tends to fluctuate sharply…. With Frisch we are on the inside, we are involved, we identify…. Frisch at his best rouses in us at least the terror part of the Aristotelian formula. Although lacking a common, basic theme, Frisch's plays do have an idea that shows up in all of them: that men learn nothing from experience….

The psychological problem that fascinates Frisch is the inability of man to stand by himself, wholly independent of all other human beings. Man always strives to be himself. But, like Peer Gynt, he can do this only in his dreams. Man in search of himself is constantly either dreaming of running away to some idyllic paradise where he can live his own life away from all encumbrances and responsibilities, or he actually is running away. In either case he is invariably disillusioned, whether by awakening from the futile dream or by coming to the harsh reality of the wished-for paradise….

Unlike the playwrights who stick strictly to Antonin Artaud's dictum of protest in drama, Frisch does not confine himself merely to protest per se. He shows us that protest, too, is useless. The condition of freedom turns out to be just as stifling as the condition of social bondage….

If the paradox of the plays of the individual leads us to resignation, the paradox of the plays of the mass forces us to despair. It is the paradox (by no means put forward for the first time here) that man does not learn by experience. No matter what happens to him, man is still the same blind fool at the end as at the beginning….

[Frisch] is a human being like everyone else. It is a status that he never forgets and never rejects. He is involved. His characters are human beings, and we understand them through recognition, through a sort of intuitive Bergsonian identification. They are not the bloodless specimens split open on the dissecting table that Dürrenmatt and the experimentalists provide for us. Frisch's characters are fully rounded psychological beings. His themes—the psychological impossibility of human self-sufficiency and the inability of men to learn by experience—are presented in a personal manner, sometimes to the extent of becoming personal pleas. Frisch's two best plays, Die Chinesische Mauer and Biedermann und die Brandstifter, are consciously foredoomed pleas for a better world. The irony implicit in them no longer sounds like the scornful laughter of the gods we hear in Dürrenmatt; it sounds like the self-reproaching wailing of the damned.

George Wellwarth, "Max Frisch: The Drama of Despair," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 161-83.

[Frisch's] first novel Jüg Reinhart, which deals with a young man's attainment of maturity during a trip to Dalmatia, has a clearly autobiographical character…. The delightful novella Bin oder die Reise nach Peking, which describes the lyrical musings of a young man who holds long conversations with Bin, his alter ego or second romantic self, on an imaginary journey to Peking, the ever unattainable goal of the German romantic tradition, also barely rises above the level of autobiographical statement. In Frisch's later plays and novels the transmutation of the material into truly fictional terms is far more complete, but the basic connection with the author's quest for his own self nevertheless always remains clear….

This question, the problem of identity, the problem of how man can find his true self, an authentic existence, is the central pivot around which most of Frisch's work revolves. It is also the main problem of existential philosophy and, although there is no evidence that Frisch has ever been preoccupied with the work of writers like Camus and Sartre, his approach to it coincides with many of their ideas.

Frisch is above all appalled by the influence that the opinions of other people have on our own identity….

We create the others in the image we ourselves make of them. And this for Frisch is the ultimate sin, the extinction of their authentic existence, the origin of all the troubles of our time. For the image that we thus make is a fixed, a dead thing, an imposition that can kill. If thus "being-for-others" by fixing an image reduces human freedom, love that accepts a human personality as "being-for-itself" creates freedom….

As a novel Stiller is a remarkable tour de force. We are made to witness the gradual rediscovery of his self by a man who has rejected not only the world's former image of his personality but his own image of himself. And at the end we feel with him that, although he must bow to the overwhelming evidence of his physical identity with Stiller, mentally and spiritually he remains as unconvinced as ever. He returns to his image as we slip back into an old suit we had discarded; the self the world imposes on Stiller is an alien, dead thing. He tried to discard his former self because he felt himself a failure as an artist and as a husband. Now he is pushed back into these roles, and he therefore must again end up as a failure. Perhaps Stiller's failure is an even deeper one: he refused to accept the image of himself that society imposed on him, but he also could not make up his mind to be himself….

Stiller is a deeply serious, searching, and philosophical work. In a lighter and more ironical vein Frisch has dealt with the same subject in the play Don Juan oder die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953) which was written at almost the same time. Don Juan is here shown as a man whose ruthless determination to be true to himself creates a wholly false image….

The problem of man's identity has other facets as well: it is not merely a question of the image that the outside world imposes on us. It is also one of which of the multitudinous potentialities in ourselves is our real self. Are we what we appear to be in our self-controlled, conscious waking hours; or are we the wild wishes and violent desires of our dreams? In Graf Oederland (first version 1951, third and final version 1961) Frisch approaches this problem in a play that is probably his most intriguing virtuoso performance….

Frisch has here brilliantly succeeded in putting a most elusive human situation on the stage: the situation when we are going through some terrible event and hope it is a dream, or when we are dreaming and are hoping it is a dream and yet cannot but accept the dream as real. But beyond the mere virtuosity of re-creating such a highly ambivalent psychological state, Frisch here says something very important: dream or not, each human being really is what his hidden desires represent, as much as he really is the well-behaved and respectable shell that he presents to the outside world….

In the novel Homo Faber (1957) Frisch has attempted another tour de force—to re-create an ancient myth in the terms of our technological age…. The image of Auschwitz, in which technological man could be seen as merely a more monstrous, because more powerful, repetition of the Stone Age savage, stands behind the subtle and delicate imagery of Homo Faber.

In Andorra Frisch returned to the problem of human identity, but he put it against the background of the terrible guilt of our age. The play is about anti-Semitism, but it also deals with the existential situation of man as the product of the opinions of his neighbors….

Mein Name sei Gantenbein is an impressive achievement, yet, in the light of Frisch's subsequent work, the play Biografie-ein Spiel (1967), the novel seems merely a preliminary experiment for the far more elegant, lucid and satisfying dramatic work….

It is [the] ability to remain flexible and undogmatic that gives Frisch his irony in tackling a myth like the Don Juan legend in the spirit of Cocteau, Giraudoux, or Shaw. Frisch's existentialism also owes more to Kierkegaard than to the French or German schools of our own time. And it is in this easy mingling of European traditions that Frisch's essentially Swiss character emerges; indeed, in his preoccupation with the need for self-realization he shows the influence of the great Swiss novelist of the nineteenth century, Gottfried Keller, and his masterpiece Der Grune Heinrich.

But however eclectic Frisch might appear if he is thus summed up in terms of literary models and influences, he is, basically, a highly original and personal writer who has always strenuously refused to be classified or classed with any school or ideological grouping. This is precisely what singles him out among most German-speaking writers of his generation: where most of them indulge in wild generalizations, Frisch always remains concrete and direct; where they go in for Weltanschauung, Frisch remains ideologically uncommitted; where they are baroque and excessive in their style, Frisch is simple, direct, and yet full of lyrical power. Where they tend to offer panaceas and infallible solutions Frisch merely wants to define some questions that ought to be asked….

Martin Esslin, "The Neurosis of the Neutrals: Max Frisch," in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (© 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 87-106.

Frisch [in The Firebugs] turns comedy of manners upside down: the security and vigor are all with the challengers, and the figure symbolizing society has a corner on the follies—the misunderstanding of the facts, of himself, and hence of an appropriate posture toward the facts. Ironically, the comic is still present: in his wrongheadedness Biedermann is silly, and silliness is laughable. Part of Frisch's skill is to lead us to respond as if to comedy, for this responsiveness makes the cumulative shocks more devastating. Silliness we expect to lead to embarrassment or humiliation; when the silly man capitulates to destroyers, we feel betrayed. Reminiscences of comedy of manners are another turn of the screw in the melodrama of societal disaster.

Since we have an unprecedented faith in social therapy, Frisch shocks us by showing antisocial destructiveness as a primary motive rather than a corrigible malfunction. His central shock, of course, is showing this destructiveness as successfully attacking central institutions to which we cling. Frisch may be saying that society is weak, but, if I read him aright, he is rather saying that it is vulnerable, which is a different thing. He is at pains to show that Biedermann has available the forces that symbolize institutional strength against aggression—firemen and policemen who are uncorrupted, clearsighted, and eager to act. Biedermann is vulnerable, however, because he does not call on these forces, does not make his potential strength effective in a crisis. Instead, in the play's bitterest irony, he makes love to his destroyers, the arsonists who have seized squatter's rights in his house. Among other things, The Firebugs says that society cannot be destroyed unless it collaborates actively with its destroyers. What it does most brilliantly, however, is analyze Biedermann's vulnerability, the reasons why he placates his destroyers, ignores his potential saviors, and even obstructs them.

Robert B. Heilman, "Demonic Strategies: The Birthday Party and The Firebugs," in Sense and Sensibility in Twentieth-Century Writing, edited by Brom Weber (© 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 57-74.