How could free people willingly subject themselves to a monstrous tyranny? That’s the question Swiss author Max Frisch tries to answer in his 1958 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated variously as The Arsonists, The Firebugs, and The Fire Raisers). A grotesque reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s novels, Biedermann bears the subtitle, “A Morality Play without a Moral.” And in many respects, it does what it says on the box. Frisch intended the story as an allegory of how the Nazis came to power in Germany, but it functions just as well on a literal level, and even the allegorical level has applications far beyond its post-war setting.
The play’s protagonist is Gottlieb Biedermann, a middle-aged CEO who could easily be described with The Kinks’ “A Well-Respected Man.” He makes cynical business decisions, such as downsizing an impoverished scientist whose hair tonic (of dubious worth) his company manufactures, and talks tough about an ongoing wave of arson attacks. Yet he and his wife Babette pride themselves on being modern, open-minded, and nice; Biedermann even insists to the maid that he’s not a monster, despite what the inventor’s ailing wife claims.
Biedermann’s bluster falls flat, however, when a homeless former heavyweight wrestler named Josef Schmitz politely forces his way into Biedermann’s house and asks permission to spend the night. Even though Biedermann has just read a newspaper article stating that the arsonists’ MO always begins this way, he’s too terrified that Schmitz will hurt him—or worse, think ill of him—to throw Schmitz out or call the police. Schmitz even gets material for emotional blackmail when the inventor asks to see Biedermann and Biedermann tells him either to sue or to kill himself. Using a mixture of sentimentality, flattery, and appeal for trust, Schmitz manipulates Biedermann into letting him sleep in the attic and hiding the fact from Babette.
But Schmitz is one half of the firebug team, and his arrival isn’t simply a search for room and board. It’s a scouting mission.
As the play continues, the Biedermanns repeatedly try to work up the courage to take back their lives, only to fail at the last moment and be pulled further into the machinations of Schmitz and his partner in crime, a sophisticated former head waiter named Wilhelm Eisenring. In one scene, for example, Biedermann goes to the attic to complain about the ruckus Schmitz had made the night before but is shocked by Eisenring’s arrival and dumbfounded by the discovery that the pair has packed the attic to the rafters with drums of gasoline. They even admit openly that they’re arsonists, but Biedermann can’t bring himself to believe that they’re telling the truth. And when a policeman turns up to inform Biedermann that the inventor has indeed committed suicide, Biedermann loses his nerve and lies about who and what his attic holds. As Eisenring tells him later, “A joke is the third best disguise. The second best: sentimentality…. But the best and safest disguise, I find, is always the utter, naked truth. It’s funny. Nobody believes that.”
The local fire department serves throughout the play as a chorus, commenting on the action and even breaking with classical convention to speak directly to Biedermann and warn him of his danger. Despite the ominous tone of their contributions, however, their point is that the entirely foreseeable end of the play is also entirely evitable. Even when Biedermann has to admit his suspicions to himself and to the audience, he clings to the desperate false hope that if he just stays on the firebugs’ good side, they’ll spare him. But then he turns the tables on the audience at the end of his soliloquy by asking, “What would you have done, dammitall, if you were in my place? And when?”
Biedermann’s willful blindness and frantic attempts at appeasement, while comical, also prove his undoing. Yet by refusing to have the chorus state an explicit moral to the story, Frisch invites the audience to give Biedermann’s question serious thought and explore its applications. On a personal level, are we too worried about being nice to protect ourselves against criminals? In domestic politics and foreign policy, does fear of popular opinion keep us from doing the right thing? But if we accept that, as Alfred says in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” how do we stop them in a way that’s both just and merciful? Frisch doesn’t offer any easy answers—but it’s a conversation every generation needs to have.