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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1667 words.)

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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 it is development and change that are the true laws of life, which alone are able to enrich and refine the human being. The word "image" (Bildnis) in this sense makes its first appearance here as a leitmotif in Frisch's work. We will meet it frequently from this point on. An attachment to something immutable is, for Frisch, unnatural and inhuman, and is at its worst when it leads to a categorizing and a labeling of the human being. For him the command to make no graven images is a command to respect equally the "living and inexpressible" in every individual, and the actual events of a particular time must not weaken this command. (pp. 41-2)

[Don Juan, or The Love of Geometry] forms an important link in the long series of versions of the apparently immortal theme of Don Juan…. For Frisch, Don Juan is a human prototype such as Icarus or Faust. But he gives a new interpretation to the traditional characterization of Don Juan and to his insatiable desire to seduce women. Frisch presents Don Juan as a narcissist and a woman hater who does not want to enter into a binding relationship with any woman because it would keep him away from his true passion: geometry. For him, each woman is only an episode. No encounter is different from another one. He deserts one after another because he loves something else more, something diametrically opposite to the fickle and incomprehensible psyche of the female: geometry, a science of precise laws, the apprehension of which offers the masculine spirit an aspiration more worthy than love.

In the five acts of his Don Juan comedy Frisch shows us Don Juan as a developing person rather than the Don Juan who begins and ends as an accomplished lover and seducer of women, which had been the traditional way of presenting him. (p. 73)

It is an uncommonly clever, wittily pointed play, which offers a broad view of the relativity of all human sentiment. It glitters throughout with irony and parody. Love, stripped of its absolute power, is only a romantically playful pastime of the hero, who, in the words of the theater critic Siegfried Melchinger, is "unmasked as a frustrated geometrist mistreated by women." (pp. 75-6)

This Don Juan, who is "loved out," who experiences love affairs in a purely functional way, who lets love happen to him—bored, almost against his will—instead of bringing it about as an expression of his will, is the reverse of the archetypal Don Juan as he appears in other literary treatments where mask and essence are not so widely separated. The twentieth-century man, inclined to rationalism, can more readily recognize himself in Frisch's Don Juan than in the characterizations of Don Juan of past centuries. The gallantry of Frisch's Don Juan, playful and cynical, is a camouflage for his actual inability to love. Here Don Juan denies the absolute values of love as attributed to it in the literary works of the Western tradition, where human emotions of elective affinity toward another human being are most cherished and held most sacred. (pp. 76-7)

Frisch gets to the brink of the "theater of the absurd" [with The Firebugs]. He called the play a "lecture without a lesson," thus linking it to a dramatic genre that Brecht was committed to. But Frisch's form of the didactic play differs substantially from that of Brecht's. The comic element predominates. Where Brecht announces the "lesson" at the end, Frisch (in the manner of the theater of the absurd, which does not intend to teach a lesson) allows his reader only a glimpse of the abyss between good and evil. By doing this, he runs the danger, it is true, of having the whole thing taken as a big joke. (p. 88)

Instead of being a burlesque (a play written for no other reason than to make the audience laugh, with no ambition whatsoever of social criticism), The Firebugs is a general satire of the times, told from the perspective of those who, unsuspectingly, do everything possible to become the victims of their murderers. Biedermann is simply the representative of the gullible and easily led opportunist: his point of view is the lack of a point of view. (pp. 89-90)

[Frisch] does not want to turn the stage into a political arena, since, from his point of view, politicizing drama is not art. Frisch regards his Biedermann more as a symbol of Everyman in the twentieth century—that is, the mass man, who, no longer creative himself, deals with and disposes of the creative contributions of others, the man who is a slave to business, the authorities, and bureaucracies. His situation becomes absurd only when the allegorical action ceases and the empty, false routine of emotions takes over. (p. 90)

Like many others, Biedermann, who has been completely burned out and deprived of all his property, has really learned nothing from the catastrophe. The bleakness of the empty stage on which we see him at the very end of the play corresponds to the emptiness of his own mind. (p. 91)

In this work again, with special clarity, Frisch issued a warning against prejudice, which, when carried to extremes, can lead to the murder of millions. Because it is placed in a more comprehensive context, however, the play should not be read as a strictly didactic tract against anti-Semitism. Since the spectrum of the Jewish experience was at hand, Frisch used it to show the fate of a member of a minority, deprived of his rights, who in the end wants nothing but the alienation and misery that have been forced upon him. After the monstrous crime perpetrated against the Jewish people in our century, a play such as this, a side project of the events, can only serve as a beacon and a summons to a new consciousness. (p. 96)

Carol Petersen, in his Max Frisch, translated by Charlotte La Rue (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972, 119 p.

Peter Ruppert

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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 about Kürmann's attitude toward his biography is that he believes it to be largely beyond his control, the result of chance, of purely random factors; yet, at the same time, he believes that he can alter his entire biography by a single different choice….

Frisch stresses … that Kürmann has the option to behave differently in every situation. Kürmann, by contrast, is apparently a behaviorist; he minimizes choice as a component of behavior and accounts for the unpredictable only in terms of chance, random events, coincidence. This accounts for his inability to behave differently once he is in the situation of meeting Antoinette. It comes down to a stimulus-response situation, and for all Kürmann's insistence that he wants to change the outcome, he virtually cannot since he will not recognize himself as capable of changing, i.e., as free and responsible for himself. (p. 352)

[However] at the end of the play Antoinette is given the opportunity to repeat the meeting scene, and, choosing to leave early, negating the possibility of her marriage to Kürmann, she demonstrates the freedom that exists with possibility.

The premises of the "Theatre of Possibility" are realized in Biography, but this is less evident than it might have been because Frisch attempted to show us a protagonist who copes badly with possibility. This sharpens our sense of the possibilities in the play. One feels the tension between Kümann's repetitiveness and his opportunities to choose differently, and one sees it as perverse and self-destructive. But one also feels a heaviness in the play, the opposite of the light, open-ended quality that a play based on "Theatre of Possibilities" should have. And this is the real problem with the play…. Perhaps the theatre, which has seemed to be the medium for presenting action poised on the shifting lights of consciousness, cannot break free enough of form to present a palpable sense of the open-ended present.

This is a problem with which other writers concerned with possibility, freedom and authenticity have struggled in other genres. Edith Kern, in her study, Existential Themes and Fictional Techniques, observes that for Sartre, too, form threatens to destroy the immediacy of consciousness, of choice. Roquentin's problem as a writer is "how to recapture immediacy without falsifying it." For Kierkegaard, also, aesthetic form militated against the message that human existence is subjectively open-ended, basically formless. Has Biography been, then, the failure of a play, of a dramaturgy, or, more importantly, does it reflect a short-coming of the theatre, or even a built-in failure of literary art? (pp. 353-54)

In Biography, Frisch attempted to portray the possibilities of an individual lifetime, which primarily means that he attempted to recreate on the stage the open-endedness of subjectivity itself. His failure to convince his critics that possibility was being presented on the stage may indeed represent, not only a personal artistic failure, but an irremediable shortcoming of literary art. (p. 354)

Peter Ruppert, "Possibility and Form in Max Frisch's 'Biography: A Game'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1975, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1975, pp. 349-55.

Terry Curtis Fox

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237

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

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"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

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"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 something of the political parable in the Brechtian manner. Each has its moral, in the sense that the problem it poses, in theory at least, is capable of solution. The problem is some sort of political or social aberration; the moral is that we better do something about it. (Frisch is a socialist of the democratic variety.)

His novels, on the other hand, are each different in form, though similar in subject. Each has as its central character either someone who tries to escape from himself ("I'm Not Stiller," 1954) or who writhes in the nets of definition others cast over him ("A Wilderness of Mirrors," 1964) or who finds out, too late, that he is not what he took himself to be ("Homo Faber," 1957). These novels, like Frisch, are elusive. Their ironies are reflexive, à la Svevo, rather than aggressive, à la Brecht. Each has, not a moral, but multiple meanings of indeterminable portent. The problems they pose are not solvable, but built into the human situation. Remove the problem, and you remove the humanity, which the novels, including "Man in the Holocene," have in plenty.

This new novel is akin to the plays in moving like a parable, and akin to the other novels in its absence of a moral. Above all, it has about it the aspect of a classic, not because it imitates an ancient author, but because of its lucidity and elegance of form, its severe impersonality, its restraint, its universality. You don't say to yourself, as you read it, "this might have happened"; you say, "this happens, inevitably, wherever there are humans." (p. 1)

The life of this book lies in its many concrete details, in their sequence, recurrences and combinations. They are engrossing enough in their own right so that you are not likely to pull back, while taking them in, to ask what they all amount to. But once you have finished and the novel begins to turn over and over in your mind, as it will, you might want to tack or tape a moral or two on it….

I should also mention that, as far as I can tell, this luminous parable of indeterminable purport is also a masterpiece. (p. 31)

George Stade, "A Luminous Parable," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 22, 1980, pp. 1, 31.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 137

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.


Frisch, Max (Vol. 14)


Frisch, Max (Vol. 3)