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The Arsonists is an absurdest comedic play written by Max Frisch, a Swiss playwright whose work was considered to
be highly representative of German literature after World War II. His works dealt with issues such as human identity,
responsibility, morality and political awareness -- almost always written with a strong sense of irony. The Arsonists, or
Firebugs as it is also known, was written in 1953, and premiered in 1958. The play was written as a metaphor for
Nazism and Communism and shows how normal citizens can be taken in by evil.
This dark comedy is set in a town that is being regularly attacked by arsonists. Disguised as homeless, they talk their
way into people's homes, settle down in the attic, then prepare to burn it down.
The central character, a businessman called Gottlieb Biedermann, is seen at the beginning reading newspaper
reports of arson, convinced that he could never be taken in. Within minutes, the first arsonist has appeared (Joe
Schmitz). Through a combination of intimidation and persuasion he talks his way into spending the night in the attic.
As the play unfolds, a second arsonist appears (Billy Eisenring), and before Biedermann can do anything to stop it, his
attic is filled with drums full of petrol. He even helps them measure the detonating fuse wire and ultimately gives
them matches. He refuses to believe what is happening around him, and becomes an accomplice in his own
downfall. When his wife admonishes him for giving them matches, he defends his action by screaming back at her, “They had no matches!
How could they be arsonists?”
The name Biedermann is itself a play on the German word "bieder" meaning conventional, conservative or upstanding, and is frequently
used in an ironic context. The name translates to der biedere Mann or the worthy man.
Note: I wanted to ensure the play was well visualized for everyone who was not able to attend a performance. In the interest of space and
because there are so many screencaps, these images are small, however, they are all pop-ups that will expand when you click on them.
The Odyssey Theater Ensemble
The Arsonists Cast:
Mr. Gottlieb Biedermann:
Mrs. Babbete Biedermann:
Arsonist Joe Schmitz
Arsonists Billy Eisenring:
Anna (the Maid):
The Philosophy Professor:
Members of the Chorus:
Directed by: Ron Sossi and
Set Designer: Birgitte Moos
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As Biedermann attempts to light a cigarette, the chorus of
fire fighters keep blowing out the flame. He says, “It’s not
easy lighting a cigarette these days -- the whole world
thinks they are about to go up in flames.”
The fire fighters appear on stage occasionally as a chorus to offer commentary on the situation
and to explain how they keep watch over the city.
As Biedermann reads the morning paper, he tells Anna (Diana Cignoni) that the fire bombers
were at it again, and cautions her that the homeless come knocking at the door looking for a
handout and a place to stay. She then tells him that a man is waiting in the hall for him... he is
looking for a little humanity.
The homeless man appears and scares Biederman right out of
his chair. His manner becomes nervous and timid. John Achorn
is the homeless man, Joe Schmitz.
Biedermann offers him a cigarette. Schmitz tells him people are afraid of him. He says how he saw Biedermann in a restaurant the night
before, proclaiming that the arsonists should hang. He says how he worked at the circus... until it burned down... and how he used to be a
wrestler. He clearly has the upper hand in the conversation.
“No spare beds! That’s what they all say as soon as a homeless man appears at the door!” He had overheard Biedermann telling Anna
that that had three spare beds. Mr. Biedermann anxiously awaits Anna to bring bread for his guest as he offers him an ashtray.
In addition to the offer of bread, Schmitz also asks for some butter, cheese, cold meat, pickles -- anything they have extra on hand,
possibly some mustard too... managing to add “Where would we all be if we stopped believing in each other.” He thanks Biedermann for
not treating him like an arsonist. Biedermann tries to explain why people are afraid -- the arsons are all the newspapers write about, so
trust is hard since it’s always the same scenario.
Schmitz, or Joe as he as asks to be called, has a small complaint that the wine isn’t quite the right temperature. Meanwhile Anna has
announced another visitor whom Biedermann turns away. It’s a former employee by the name of Knechtling, who wants to share his profits
from the hair tonic product he invented.
Joe licks only some of the mustard off of his hand before he offers to shake Biedermann’s hand, thanking him for his humanity. A
disgusted Biedermann is quick to wipe his hand on a handkerchief. Having talked his way into spending the night in the attic,
Biedermann shows him up to the room, warning him to be quiet so his wife won’t hear. He doesn’t want to alarm her because
she has a heart condition. He also asks Joe to promise him that he isn’t an arsonist.
Mrs. Biederman (Beth Hogan) has praise for her husband for checking the attic for arsonists. She thinks he is the one up there not realizing
that the noise she hears is Joe dropping his shoes on the floor as he quietly sings, “I don’t want to set the world on fire...” Later on when
Biedermann is sleeping she hears coughing in the attic and thinks someone is up there. She is nervous and can’t sleep a wink. Meanwhile,
the fire fighters are shouting joyously, “All hail the fire fighters! Everyone is safe one more night!”
Biedermann prepares to head to work as his wife tells him she is afraid someone was in the attic. He tells her not to worry saying we have to
have faith and a bit of trust. “Where would we all be if we thought everyone was an arsonist!” Just then Joe appears and startles Mrs.
Biedermann. Her intention is to serve him breakfast and have him be on his way. However, as she serves him coffee with shaking hands, he
gives her an imploring, innocent look as he drinks it. When he asks if she wants to get rid of him she is too timid to say yes, and denies that
she thinks he is an arsonist. He then tells her the story of how his father, a miner, died when he was young, and his mother too, so he was
raised in an orphanage.
Even when he asks her if she thinks he eats like a pig, she giggles nervously and denies it, afraid to hurt his feelings. He plays on her
sympathies again by saying that he is used to the hunger and the cold -- so he will leave if she wants him to. She ends up asking him to stay
so he won’t think bad of her. Joe then realizes she won’t send him away, and complains that his soft boiled eggs are too runny. He also hints
that his friend Billy will be joining them. By the time Biedermann arrives home from work, the second arsonist has arrived through the
skylight, and they have started to fill the attic with drums of petrol.
Biedermann goes to the attic to tell Joe that he must go. He is unaware that Billy is also in the attic and the two of them are bringing in barrels of
fuel. He is shocked to find the second man there and becomes even more nervous than he already was. It turns out Billy was a head waiter at a
restaurant... before the place burned down... Even though Biederman blusters that he is really angry about the second man and wants them
gone, he is too intimidated by them to really do anything about it.
When Biedermann realizes there is a barrel of fuel in the attic he demands to know where is comes from, to which the arsonists sarcastically
reply, “I think it’s imported.” The canvas sheet is taken off the other barrels, sending Biedermann into a complete panic. He asks what’s really
in those drums. He reminds them that the papers are full of reports about the arsonists and that he will call the police if the drums aren’t
removed. The second arsonists, Billy, is seeing a different side of Biedermann, and Joe keeps repeating, “He wasn’t like that yesterday.”
When a policeman arrives to tell Biedermann that his former employee killed himself by sticking his head in a gas oven, Biederman shows no
sadness at the news. The policeman asks about the drums. An uneasy Biedermann tells him that it’s his invention of hair rejuvenator, and
let’s the officer believe the two men are his employees. A new day comes and Biederman again reads the newspaper accounts of what has
happened the previous day.
As Biedermann goes to catch a taxi to go to work, the chorus states that we fail to clearly see what is happening right now, and instead we
dwell on what has already happened by reading the newspapers. They try to make him see the truth about the barrels of fuel in his attic. He
reminds them that we can’t go around thinking everyone is an arsonist, and says that he was just about to throw them out in the middle of
the night -- he couldn’t sleep because he knew it was fuel in the barrels.