The Arsonists

The Arsonists

The Arsonists

Max Frisch

Joyce Fisher

21 - 28 February 2009


Fires are being started in various parts of the town, but Gottlieb Biedermann thinks he has it all under control. As a respected member of the community with a loving wife and a flourishing business he believes nothing can disturb his settled existence.

He is an upright citizen with a firm belief in law and order, but under pressure he allows shelter to two unwelcome and sinister newcomers, believing that appeasement is the best policy when dealing with growing threat.

When suspicion of their aggressive intentions becomes increasingly clear, however, what action will he take, especially when law enforcement is readily available? Formerly known as “The Fire Raisers,” Max Frisch’s dazzling and darkly comic 1958 parable about our accommodating the very thing that will destroy us was premiered at the Royal Court in 1961, directed by Lindsey Anderson with Alfred Marks and John Thaw in the cast.

This new translation by Alistair Beaton was first presented at the same theatre in November 2007 with Benedict Cumberbatch. The Guardian critic said that the play “gains extra resonance in the age of anxiety”. Frisch calls his piece “a morality without a moral.” Why not come along and decide for yourself?


Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, once wrote, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Max Frisch turns this Nazi dictum on its head, as his arsonists repeat a truth so outrageous that the good Biedermann refuses to believe it. ‘We are arsonists’, they say. ‘Incidentally, have you got a light ?’

Written in the late 1940s, the piece is often seen as an allegory, showing how ‘normal’ citizens permitted and even condoned the rise of the Nazis in pre-war Germany. Today, perhaps, it reflects tensions in the debate over freedom of speech and the threat from Islamic fundamentalism.

As the play opens, Biedermann (a play on the German word “bieder” meaning worthy, upright) is seen reading newspaper reports of arson, convinced that he could never be taken in. Yet within minutes, Schmitz, an ex-wrestler, has talked his way into spending the night and soon his mate, Eisenring, a preciously arch waiter, appears and before Biedermann can do anything to stop it, there are oil drums full of petrol in his attic. He soon becomes an accomplice in his own downfall, even helping the arsonists measure their fuse and lending them matches. Miles Jenner gave Biedermann an earnest integrity blended with the blinkered pomposity of Captain Mainwaring and in his ultimate fall, he displayed the essential dignity of the good citizen. Anna Crabtree, as his wife, lent him trusting support throughout, while expressing her innermost doubts about these two dodgy characters in their midst. She was joined in her misgivings by the maid, Anna, played with a grudging stoicism by Jennifer Henley.

Mike Truman, last seen as Norman in ‘Playing Sinatra’, brought to Schmitz a wheedling menace and sardonic humour. The initial comic shock of his white clown make-up and whacky wrestler’s costume,straight from the vaudeville stage, was in context with the Theatre of the Absurd in the 1950s, which took as its prevailing world view that life was meaningless and incomprehensible and of which Frisch was a leading proponent. Truman’s blunt and uncouth persona stood in nice contrast to the intelligent urbanity of Eisenring, the waiter. In the performance of the evening, newcomer Mark Pelham imbued the role with a calculating and totally believable smoothness, with not a word nor gesture superfluous or out of place. The action is observed by a Greek-style chorus of ‘firemen’, here led by Phil Dunn. This device reminds one of mediæval mystery plays or the work of Bertolt Brecht. Here I must say I am not a great one for stylised choruses. Lots of people saying the same stuff over and over again don’t do it for me. Thousands of years of theatrical tradition there may be, with Greeks in masks and white robes etc.etc. but when it’s Swiss firemen in yellow helmets intoning ’Woe unto us’ every ten minutes, I part company with your Aristophanes. As a comment on the dilemma faced by the Beidermanns, Frisch employs this long-established device to highlight his essential polemic, the core of his argument. When the forces of law and order are trained and ready to act,what should be the response of right-thinking citizens when their suspicions are aroused? Is appeasement the most judicious policy when society is under threat? Similar questions were raised by Randolph Morse’s excellent piece Only Free Men, to be revived in July. How far can a civilised society go to protect the majority? Can individual liberty be sacrificed in the defence of the common good?

These are questions drama should be asking and Joyce Fisher is to be commended on forcing us to confront them. This was a chilling evening indeed - and, fifty years on, this was very much a play for our times.

Derek Watts