Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Douglas Messerli "The Conflagration" (on Max Frisch's The Arsonists)

By Douglas Messerli

Max Frisch The Arsonists, trans. By Alistair Beaton / The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s KOAN Unit / the production I saw was a matinee on May 16, 2010

More commonly known as Biedermann and the Fire Raisers or, in many American productions, simply as The Firebugs (my own favorite since it seems in keeping with the nature of its two central characters), the Odyssey Ensemble production was newly translated by Alistair Beaton, a version that presumably “demonstrates, once and for all…the universality of this modern seminal play.”

For those theater-goers who did not see one of the numerous American productions of the Frisch masterpiece in the 1960s and 1970s, I’ll recount the simple story. Herr Gottlieb Biedermann (well played by Norbert Weisser), a hardworking Swiss businessman (it’s vaguely suggested that he is a hair-tonic magnate), begins the play by reading the distressing news in the daily paper about another home that has been burned to the ground by arsonists, one of a series of such events of which the chorus-fire brigade bemoans throughout the play. A man is waiting to be permitted to speak to Biedermann, but he tells his maid to send him away, perhaps afraid that the man is one of his employees, Knechtling, a loyal and talented man, whom he has fired that very day. Yet the stranger refuses to budge, and before long stands before Biedermann to explain that all he wants is a little food.

The businessman is clearly ready to send him packing, but, in a hilariously subtle series of maneuvers, Schmitz (John Achorn), the bedraggled interloper, suggests that Biedermann is not like the others who have let him starve and suffer in the rain. Before long, Schmitz has convinced his host to feed him a meal and provide him a room for the night. And by daylight, due to a guilty conscience and an attempt to appease this potential threat, Biedermann gives in to even more ludicrous requests, including a second tenant in the form of Schmitz’s friend Eisenring (Ron Bottitta). By the next evening the two have filled the little attic with drums of petrol, and are apparently hooking up detonators.

By this time Biedermann has no choice but to collaborate, afraid that if he sends them away they will surely burn down his house. Despite his wife’s and servant’s terrified whimpers, he plans a large dinner of cooked goose, hoping to protect his home by establishing himself as their friend.

Gradually as the dinner proceeds, the two make it clearer and clearer that they will burn down the house—and others—that very evening! But even then, Biedermann and his wife Anna cannot truly comprehend their doom. Fire trucks zoom by distracted by other fires the two have set just outside the city, while Schmitt and Eisenring borrow the matches from their host to finish their job.

The fire erupts, setting off nearby gas storage towers, and the city burns. No one can save the community! Evil has won.

Written first as a radio play performed in 1953 and revised as a drama in 1958, Frisch’s well-received play, quite obviously, has long been understood as a statement of the Swiss and general European passivity when faced with the early threats of the Nazis. Frisch’s good, solid folk clearly tricked themselves that one could live a quiet life by ignoring the threats of destruction around them. Through a mix of slapstick and Brechtian statement, Frisch sent his viewer’s home with the recognition that they were all to blame for the existence of the Nazi rise and the ultimate Holocaust.

The Odyssey producers have attempted to extend that simple parable, arguing the Frisch is speaking of not only of the particulars of World War II but any similar threat: “It’s not just about some distant historical folk in the Nazi era. Might we have seen Enron, 9/11, the real estate collapse, the bank failures, environmental tragedies etc. ahead of time, if we’d only looked more carefully?” asks Sossi in the program notes. One local Los Angeles critic, extending Sossi’s comments, even suggests that we might use Frisch’s fears to question the politics of our own time, such as those expressed by members of the Tea Party.

Clearly Frisch’s comic paranoia can be applied to other political specters. But this playwright’s central character does not allow one simply to read him, despite his “everyman” moniker, as every country’s everyman. Even before Biedermann’s collaboration with the fire bugs, Frisch shows him as a detestable human being, as a man with little feeling for his fellow citizens. His firing of Knechtling ends with the employee suffocating in a gas-filled oven, and he and his wife’s refusal even to speak with Knechtling’s widow demonstrates their lack of feeling. Behind his wife’s back, Biedermann is also having an affair with their maid.

Biedermann is a social conservative, but is of specific Swiss and European type, a man, who despite his lack of care for his fellow men, cannot bear having people imagine him as without a conscience. And in that sense he is as bourgeois as any good burgher can be, a man without a heart who would like his fellow men to recognize him as a being of social responsibility, a man of appearances only, with little inner being.

A true American rightist, without this sense of social conscience, might have shot the interlopers before they even got into the house. Certainly he would not have fed and bedded the strangers for the night. The fire raisers of today would have more success with some of the political left than of the right. The humor of The Arsonists relies on that irony, the paradox of standing for one thing and doing another, and it is that very pull in European culture that allowed such a conflagration to occur. Without inner convictions, the Biedermanns of the world could not read the evil in men’s hearts.

The Beaton production cut Frisch’s final scene wherein Biedermann and Anna, awaiting their entrance into Hell, regret their actions and dissect their follies. Accordingly, in this production there is little sense of guilt, one of the major themes in all of Frisch’s work, but simply a sense of warning, like the chorus of firefighters ineffectively repeating throughout, “Watch out!”

Los Angeles, May 18, 2010

(c) 2010 by Douglas Messerli

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