Middle Class Man and the Arsonists

or The Fire Bugs

Play written by Swiss Author Max Frisch around 1958 it tells the story of Gottlieb Biederman (the name is satirical, Biederman means a proper, middle-class, "normal" person) when a drifter comes to live in his home.

The play begins with Biederman talking to himself about a story in the paper. There have been a number of arsons in the area, and every time the story goes the same way: a pedler comes to the door, offers some good or service and then begs to stay in the house for a few days. Within a few days the house is burned to the ground. As soon as Biederman is finished talking about all this his housekeeper comes into the room to tell him that there is a peddler at the door who won't go away. Biederman tells her he won't see the man. The man comes in anyway. His name is Schmitz. He's much bigger than Biederman, slightly intimidating, and he manipulates Biederman's emotions skillfully, to the point the Biederman lets him stay in his attic, impressed by Schmitz's hard luck story and feeling guilty about cheating one of his old business collegues.

The next morning, Biederman's wife is angry with him for letting a stranger stay in their attic, and she asks him to throw Schmitz out. Biederman tells her to do it herself. After Biederman has gone to work she sits Schmitz down and tries to throw him out. Schmitz tells her that she has hurt his feelings by saying the thinks he's an arsonist, and she tells him he can stay for a few days more.

The next scene takes place in the wee hours of the morning, Biederman comes into the attic to discover Schmitz and someone else moving barrles into the attic. Biederman looses it. He orders Schmitz out of the house and Schmitz subtly refuses to leave. Biederman meets Schmitz's freind Eisenring, who he has invited to stay with them. Eisenring makes a big fuss about how embarassed he is and how terrible it is that Schmitz has no manners, at which point Biederman says something like "By the way, what are all these barrels doing in here?" They tell him that the barrels belong to Eisenring. They also explain that they are full of Gasoline, but Biederman doesn't believe that part. He insists again that they leave, or else he'll call the police. At that moment, the house keeper comes in and announces that there is a policeman there to see Biederman. The policeman comes into the attic to ask Biederman about the collegue Biederman cheated who has just killed himself. On his way out the policeman asks Biederman, "By the way, what are all these barrels doing in your attic?" and Biederman tells him they are full of hair tonic, which he sells. At this point in the story, after the policeman leaves, details about Schmitz and Eisenring start to come out. That Schmitz was a wrestler and he worked at a circus until it burned to the ground. That Eisenring was head waiter at the biggest restaurant in town, until, unfortunately, it burned to the ground. That Eisenring had been in jail, that Schmitz had been orphaned.

The second part of the first act, Biederman invites his guests, in whom he has decided to place complete trust, for dinner that evening. As Biederman prepares for the meal with the help of the housekeeper, he addresses the audience:

"Ich sag mir: Solange sie groelen und saufen, tun sie nichts anderes... Die besten Flaschen aus meinem Keller, haette es mir einer vor einer Woche gesagt --Hand aufs Herz: Seit wann (genau) wissen Sie, meine Herren, dass es Brandstifter sind? Es komt eben nicht so, meine Herren, wie Sie meinen -- sondern langsam und ploetzlich... Verdacht! Das hatte ich sofort, meine Herren, Verdacht hat man immer-- aber Hand aufs Herz, miene Herrn: Was haetten Sie denn getan, Herrgott nochmal, an meiner Stelle? Und wann?"

Translation: (loosely, from my notes)

"I tell myself, as long as they are bawling and drinking, they won't do anything else... I give them the best bottles from my cellar, if someone had told me a week ago... In all honesty: Since when (exactly) have you known, Ladies and Gentlemen, that they are arsonists? It doesn't work the way you think it does ladies and gentlemen, but slowly dawns on you until... Suspicion! I was suspicious immediately, you're always suspicious-- but in all honesty, ladies and gentlemen: What would you have done, in God's name, if you were in my place? And when?"

At dinner Schmitz and Eisenring start teasing Biederman about burning his house down, which Biederman decides to take as harmless jokes. They also tell him that they won't be staying with him any more after this night. During the meal they hear fire sirens, and both Biederman and his wife jump up to the window to look. Eisenring comments that this is how they always do it, they make a false alarm far away from where they're going to set the fire, and then block the way back for the fire trucks. Biederman refuses to accept that his guests are arsonists. He suggests, rather desparately, that they drink to eternal friendship (this is a tradition in German-speaking countries between peers who intend to start using the informal you form "du" instead of the formal "Sie"). At the end of this little ceremony, Eisenring asks Biederman for a match. Biederman hesitates, and Schmitz says that if he really doesn't think they're arsonists, then he should give them the match, which he finally does.

The stage has been getting darker and darker during this scene, until it is nearly pitch black at the moment when Biederman gives the men his matches. Biederman and his wife have a fight at this point, and the house catches fire and blows up.

At this point the play is often ended. It is considered a one-act play, but there is an epilogue, which takes place in hell, where Biederman, his wife, and house keeper have ended up.

The play has a number of layers of meaning, and many interpretations can be made from the seemingly simple story. I see the play as a post-WWII allegory and a warning to the world about complacency around dangerous people. Biederman is given a couple opportunities to throw them out of the house, like the policeman showing up, but he doesn't do anything because it would require too much effort. Others see it as what can happen internally if you consistently let destructive people tread on your personal boundaries. It is a good read and worth producing (I can't find a translation in English anywhere though) and I think it's a good guess that it would speak on some level to anyone who saw it.

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