Dallas — It might surprise you to know that the next play of Kitchen Dog Theater’s “incendiary” 2014-2015 season, Max Frisch’s 1958 play The Arsonists, is considered one of the most successful German-language plays of all time. But in the way these things happen in theater, the past decade has seen a flurry of interest in the play, which in German is called Biedermann und die Brandstifter, or “Biedermann and the Firebugs.”
The Arsonists’ new lease on life began at London’s Royal Court Theatre—a homecoming of sorts, since the play had its U.K. premiere at the Royal Court in 1961. For a 2007 revival (a much-less-known Benedict Cumberbatch played one of the arsonists), the Court commissioned a new translation from Alistair Beaton, who returned to the original German text and found it still had a lot to say to a modern audience.
The Arsonists tells the story of a town alarmed by a string of house fires set by arsonists, and of the wealthy Mr. Biedermann, who likes to make a show of being philanthropic. (Germans, it seems, might translate his name ironically—ein biedere Mann—as “a worthy man.” With equal snark, we’d say “a solid citizen” or a “pillar of the community.”) Biedermann likes to be seen housing the homeless—so it’s easy for first one and then another arsonist to talk his way into the home. As houseguests, they live in the attic and begin collecting the things they’d need to…well, burn the place down. There’s a Greek chorus of firefighters—because apparently though arsonists can wander through town with drums full of petrol…there’s still No Smoking.
Back in the day, the play was seen as an indictment of passivity and inaction in the face of the threat of Nazism and Fascism—and in the postwar years, Communism.
Sounds heavy—but KDT company member/managing director Tim Johnson, who’s directing the play, wants us to know The Arsonists is plenty funny, too, an “old-school farce” with lots of doors…and a bit Brechtian and Absurdist into the bargain.
We caught up with him to discuss all that.
TheaterJones: I’m flying a bit blind—The Arsonists isn’t a play I’ve seen, though I’ve read about it.
Tim Johnson: I don’t think there are that many people who’ve seen the play. The Arsonists is extremely well-known in Europe, performed quite often on the college circuit.
You directed Ionesco’s The Chairs last year, also for Kitchen Dog, and it was a big hit. You seem to be KDT’s go-to guy for Absurdist theater.
(Laughs.) I do have a great affinity for it.
So what drew you to this particular play?
The Arsonists actually has many similarities to the plays of Ionesco—that strange mix of dark thematic material with farcical elements. Yet I think the play has been lumped in with the Absurdists for lack of a better classification, and because of the time period. It’s certainly informed by the Holocaust, but I think it’s much more farcical than most Absurdist pieces. And the narrative of it is clear; you always know what’s happening and why. The characters’ actions are unusual, certainly—the fact that Biedermann lets these people into his house in the first place, for instance. But the action is unusual in the farcical sense, more than an Absurdist, hard-to-understand sense.
Frisch seemed always to feel the play—which was a big success for him in the late 1950s and into the ’60s—was nonetheless much misunderstood.
He wrote extensively about that—but the flip side is that he himself kept changing the ending of the play in very dramatic ways. After the first German-language production he created an epilogue or post-script where the characters appear in hell and face the devil. Then later he cut that. Frisch kept shifting things around, so for all his protests about not being understood, I think he was still trying to figure out how it worked.
The idea of the play was something Frisch developed in his Tagebuch or journal at the end of World War II. And I’d bet that almost any audience of that time would have looked at the men Biedermann invites into his house—who become more and more clearly “the bad guys”—and thought: “Nazis.”
Well, that seems to have been exactly the thing that bothered Frisch, that audiences were just saying “oh, they’re Nazis” and not looking any deeper in terms of their own culpability. And then other people said it was more about the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe than it was the Nazis.
So how will audiences now, especially younger audiences who might not leap automatically to those historical connections, think about Frisch’s parable and what it means?
The recent translation by Alistair Beaton, which we’re using, highlights some interesting stuff. Class becomes a much bigger issue, and the idea of the interwoven-ness of class with the victims [who also become] participants. And on the most basic metaphorical level, Biedermann is a person who continues to do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. We might think, for instance, about America’s ground wars in Asia, going against the historical maxim that you don’t do ground wars in Asia—or that over and over, we continue to fund rebel groups who later use what we give against us. It has that sort of cyclical feel, of not being able to see the forest for the trees—or the trees for the forest.
When we were in rehearsal and talking about the play, it seemed to resonate for everyone in a very different way. When the play was produced in England a few years ago, it was right after a series of terrorist attacks, so audiences there saw it in that context. I think the play is very open-ended in a good way. This translation has let it breathe more, so that it’s not just about Nazis or bad people. The arsonists are still arsonists, but it’s not black and white, not simply “these are good people having bad things done to them.” There’s a lot of gray in the production.
One part of the parable seems clear—that sometimes we’re more involved in our own “doom” than we think, yes?
The Arsonists is clearly about the many ways in which we let the means of our own destruction into our world and our lives. Biedermann sees what the men are doing, yet tries desperately to remain in denial. And when he can’t keep that up, he doesn’t kick them out—but tries to befriend them so they won’t do anything to him.
Are we supposed to see Biedermann as good or bad?
Well, he desperately wants to be perceived as a good man—but his actions don’t always match up. He does horrible things, for instance, to the employee who created the formula that made Biedermann his fortune; Biedermann refuses when the man asks for part of the money, and the man kills himself. And Biedermann thinks he’s in the right, because it’s good business.
So on a human level, it’s about a disconnect between how we act and how we want to be seen—and the chaos that’s created when those two things are not in alignment.
Talk a bit about Frisch, who is a playwright many of us are meeting for the first time.
This story was originally written in his journal in the 1940s, then done as a radio play. And the play was written right after Frisch spent a lot of time with Brecht. It’s informed by that [relationship] in interesting ways. Frisch once said that when he spent an evening with Brecht, he always felt like he was “beaten,” in terms of the mental game-playing and one-upsmanship, but “never convinced.”
The Arsonists is certainly connected to Brecht’s notion of a “teaching theater”—but Frisch is saying that in the end, the central character has learned nothing. There is no change. The play’s subtitle calls it “a moral play without a moral.” Frisch thought Brecht’s idea was ultimately unrealistic, that theater was not going to change the world—yet he kept writing plays in that teaching theater vein. So there’s an interesting tension in all of his work, but especially in this piece.
Yet for all Frisch’s contentiousness and seriousness, this is pretty funny stuff.
I think I’m drawn to the theatricality of the play, and audiences will be too. Plays like this or The Chairs work in a way that no other medium can; they’re distinctly different from film or television in their inherent theatricality. You couldn’t do them as a film, I think, because they do what theater does best. It gives us a world where there are no rules as long as you’re playing…well, within the rules.
And what I love about the play is that all this is happening within what is ultimately an old-school farce structure, an old French “door farce” with people appearing and disappearing and running in and out of rooms. There’s a lot of silliness, and it’s very much informed by vaudeville.
It’s a fun ride—and in the end, you can let all of it filter through you to a sense of its meaning.