Max Frisch Frisch, Max (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frisch, Max 1911–

Frisch is a Swiss novelist, playwright, and architect who writes in German. In work that has as its central concern the problem of personal identity, Frisch confronts such subjects as dictatorship, anti-Semitism, prejudice, and justice and injustice. According to Martin Esslin, where most German-speaking writers of his generation "indulge in wild generalizations, Frisch always remains concrete and direct; where they go in for Weltanshauung, Frisch remains ideologically uncommitted; where they are baroque and excessive in their style, Frisch is simple, direct, and yet full of lyrical power." (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 9, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Carol Petersen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Santa Cruz is a late-romantic play, par excellence. Its theme is the Then and Now of love and how they join in the human heart for eternity. It tells the story of a woman and her relationships with two men—a traditional story in this sense. In the reminiscing of seven happy days that had been lived seventeen years ago, the past is brought to life. It is a contrast between a family manor with its snow-covered walls and a far-away place in the southern hemisphere with its colorful and unwalled, wide-open sides. It dramatizes the difference between being sheltered in a permanent home and being homeless—conditions that trouble not only us who live in this century, but that are characteristic of human life in general.

It is also a play of the suspension of time, in which the rich world of "outside" merges without break into the equally rich world of "inside." Nowhere is the basic tone of all Frisch's further writing sounded more clearly than here: that of the presence of eternity in the moment. (pp. 32-3)

In his program notes for the premiere of Santa Cruz, Frisch expressed unequivocally his conscious use of the intermixture of times and places that alone makes it possible to reveal human fate:

For it is only when a Then and a Now meet in our experience, only when the repetition helps us to see it, that we realize we obviously have a fate, a cross that must be taken up, a crux, or cruz, to use Spanish. The Then and the Now: both together comprise the Always that is allotted to these three people.

(p. 34)

Frisch labeled [The Chinese Wall] a "farce," but it would be wrong to interpret this designation in the sense of the medieval farce. It may be that this carousel-like presentation of slices of world history was thought of by Frisch as being only a farce. It encompasses everything in the way of scenic and technical means to shape a whole world passing in review, to make the truth Frisch has discovered even clearer. When we consider this profusion of scenes and stage devices, which, when effectively presented, carry the audience along, it is "total" theater that makes its appearance. Masks, pantomime, choreography—all are present. Indeed at times masquerades are such independent elements that one might almost think the play could be presented as théãtre de mime.

The symbolism of The Chinese Wall has been interpreted as expressing a final entreaty, warning mankind of the consequences of a possible atomic war. It is a magnificent allegory in which all laws of time and space are suspended in order to project the ideas of the omniscient dramatist who, in this play, becomes almost a visionary. (pp. 37-8)

Frisch's attitudes and the manner in which they are presented, the highly effective theatrical qualities of the play, and the unusual and vivid combinations that Frisch presents on the stage are all very impressive. But The Chinese Wall is a pessimistic work. Freedom is only in the realm of the spirit; for, in the real world, the possessors of power end up by doing the same things over and over again. Everything remains as it was before, and nothing beyond debunking has happened. (p. 39)

[In When the War Was Over] Frisch wants to show that by true human feelings all kinds of prejudices can and must be overcome: there is no such thing as the typical German, the typical Jew, the typical Russian. Under all the accidental exterior features lies hidden something more essential and general: the mind and heart of a human being, which ignores, again and again, in the encounter of two human beings, the accidental exterior features for the sake of humanity itself. Frisch's drama When the War Was Over is, as he said, the story of a "great exception." The "image"—the idea one irrevocably accepts for everyone one sees in that category—is in opposition to dynamic development and change. Yet...

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Peter Ruppert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Max Frisch's most recent play, Biography: A Game (1967), has puzzled critics because it seems to contradict the dramaturgy according to which it was written. The principles [of Frisch's new "Variation Theatre" or "Theatre of Possibility"] are 1) that contemporary drama should reflect the contemporary consciousness of the open possibilities, or open-endedness, of existence; 2) that "Theatre of Imitation"—theatre that pretends to copy "reality," presenting a predigested interpretation of reality with an underlying persuasiveness that the events presented could have happened in no other way—falsifies experience and is inauthentic theatre; and 3) that what is needed is a theatre not of fate (peripetie), but of possibility. Frisch sought in Biography to present a drama based on this dramaturgy, a drama that would be like a rehearsal in that it presented no final form for the actions considered, but a series of variations of action, of variant possibilities all equally plausible.

The view that life presents, not a fated course of events, but a series of possibilities, is basically an existential view. Thus, possibility signifies freedom, and the individual freely creates a large measure of his reality by the possibilities he actualizes. (p. 349)

Professor Kürmann (in German, "man of choice"), the protagonist of Biography, is concerned, both as a scientist and as a man, about the nature of possibility…. The play provides him with an opportunity to revise his biography, to go back over occasions in his life and choose differently. But, although Kürmann insists that he wants to change certain events in his life (particularly his meeting with Antoinette, his wife, in order to avoid their marriage), he repeats the same behavior over and over again. This apparent demonstration of necessity rather than freedom has generally led critics to the conclusion that the play is inconsistent with its dramaturgical premises….

The essential point...

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Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Max Frisch is too good a playwright to dismiss but too uninteresting to take seriously. Writing in almost-allegories and near-symbols, Frisch is basically a conservative playmaker with a (highly public) liberal conscience. Frisch's problem plays are Democracy in Action, in which great political and moral dilemmas are neatly summarized in terms of individual humanism. But once you accept Frisch's invitation to use the plays as a mirror to the real world, their scheme becomes untenable: the world is not lost (or won) through bourgeois angst.

When the War Was Over, a 1947 effort which is just now receiving its American premiere …, is a particularly instructive case in point. (p. 75)

To write a play right after World War II that denies the existence of Pure Evil takes some daring. Frisch is smart enough to include both passive collaboration (in the form of a piano tuner) and genocide (the Jewish interpreter was in the Warsaw ghetto) in his play, but he does so in a way so ancillary to the major melodrama (of a woman who betrays her husband with her lover and her lover with her husband) that it simply doesn't count. Frisch sees the evil of the world, duly notes it, and then proceeds to write as if it didn't exist. (p. 76)

Terry Curtis Fox, "Schemata," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 14, April 17, 1980, pp. 75-6.∗

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Man in the Holocene" strikes me as just about perfect according to its austere terms: "Who cares about the Holocene? Nature needs no names. [The protagonist] Geiser knows that. The rocks do not need his memory." (p. 322)

The hallucinatory power of "Man in the Holocene" derives not only from the spare prose but from the blank spaces, to indicate discontinuities of thought, and from the photographic reproductions, in various typefaces, of the slips of paper and the paragraphs from the encyclopedias. Everything we know is leaving us, without our permission. Why did the dinosaurs disappear? When did words begin?

This, then, is senility. Does Max Frisch feel as bad as Samuel Beckett? Not really. The odd triumph of this very short novel is its humanism, its resistance. We are transitory and we are amateurs and the lizards will outlast us, but we can remember our brothers and certain nights when "there are shooting stars to be seen, or one hears the call of a little owl." (p. 333)

John Leonard, "'Man in the Holocene'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 7, 1980, pp. 332-33).

George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"I have been serving up stories to some sort of public, and in these stories I have, I know, laid myself bare—to the point of non-recognition."

So Frisch writes in "Montauk" (1975), a novel-like account of a weekend spent among the sand dunes with an American girlfriend and a golden opportunity for some confessional writing, which, however, never comes. Frisch is always impersonal, never more so than when he writes about himself. That his novels and his plays often seem the work of two different men makes him all the harder to get hold of.

His plays (such as the frequently produced "Andorra," 1961, and "The Firebugs," 1958), although various in subject matter all have about them...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rain has been falling for nearly a week in the Swiss canton of Ticino as Max Frisch's short, fragmentary and deeply disturbing novel [Man in the Holocene] opens…. Whatever the truth may be (and truth—as opposed to fact—is elusive through most of the book)…. It is a time for turning in upon oneself, for cultivating in isolation the grim disciplines of survival.

Frisch's hero, Geiser, is an old man, living alone on an Alpine slope….

When [Geiser] has a stroke and dies, the reader is relieved at the novel's two final pages which give reassurance that life otherwise goes on as before.

But if he is a microcosm, Geiser is also a clearly delineated individual—a bit fussy and literal-minded but quite amiable and, at the beginning of the novel, obviously intelligent and capable. Frisch tells his story as Geiser might tell it himself, in a rather stolid, deadpan prose. Frisch's writing is a sort of poetry, but a poetry of the mind rather than the senses—sparse and austere, with every detail chosen for its resonances. These resonances emerge, remarkably, from a style not unlike that of the dictionaries and encyclopedias which are an integral part of the novel and which also have a resonance.

Man in the Holocene is brief and very tightly focused—one central character and a few shadowy figures in the background. The author makes no statement in his own voice, and many of his statements are taken bodily from the impersonal writings of others. Yet this brief, seemingly unimaginative account of a few rainy days in the life of an old man is an intensely personal statement, embodying vast epochs of time, a whole world and all the creatures that have lived and died in it, balancing the terror of unimaginable catastrophe with the serene reassurance that ultimately it doesn't really matter. Man in the Holocene is a small book but a major achievement.

Joseph McLellan, "Eroding in the Rain," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), July 27, 1980, p. 7.

Arthur Sainer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What unites [Frisch's novel Man in the Holocene with his play The Firebugs] is the unsettling notion that some rational, well-meaning force is actually willing catastrophe. In both cases, this willing appears as a collaboration between the leading character and Frisch. Imminent disaster, man-made or natural, has always had its attractions: it promises solidity, clarity and resolution. To be Swiss is to exist in that splendid wooded sanctuary between territories overrun and decimated by one terrible war after another; to be Swiss is, in short, to be in a state of perpetual yet uneasy reprieve. And out of this unease comes the uneasy cohabitation of nurturance and the will to disaster in this sturdy, fitful, philosophical adventure tale. (pp. 259-60)

Arthur Sainer, "Courting Disaster," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 8, September 20, 1980, pp. 259-60.