December 3, 2007: Frisch, The Arsonists

Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. New translation by Alistair Beaton. Directed by Ramin Gray. Program in the form of a cheaply printed text of the play, with cast list. Opened November 1, 2007.

Moral-political allegory is not, and never has been, my favorite kind of play. Max Frisch would have us suppose that his central character, Biedermann, a well-off middle-class man, is so deeply immersed in the material culture of his day, and so guilt-stricken that he is one of the Have’s and not a Have-Not, that he is perfectly obtuse and cannot recognize that the two men who have descended on him and his ditzy, compliant wife Babette are not what any fool can plainly see: arsonists, plotting to blow up a petrol station, by indirect means of setting fire to four or five surrounding houses, including the Biedermanns’.  I have to admit that the dinner scene was interesting and well done, but overall the play, which had its German premier in 1958 and first English-language production at the Royal Court, under the title The Fire Raisers, in December 1961, does not wear well in the current revival. Perhaps stepping up the pace — which was not slack but not swift either — and emphasizing the farcical elements might have made it more palatable.

I have to admit to a bias against the production, born of a neck-craning side balcony seat and an audio aid that lacked its battery, resulting in my inability to decipher precisely about sixty-percent of what was being said. All the same, the main course of action was clear; all too clear, in fact. It seems to be ultimately a trite, unremarkable play which perhaps should be honored for its place in history and left to rest in peace. The acting, I should add, was pretty good, and the five firefighters who made their swift entrances down a slippery pole at stage right and served as a unison chorus (mostly but not always in exact unison) were an interesting invention.

But finally — part of the ultimate weakness of the play’s structure — it was not clear how they contributed to the thematic valences of a play that seeks to indict conventional bourgeois society for its too-ready acceptance and blithe tol­erance of those hostile forces in society that would like to blow it up. The blow-up does occur at the end of the play — of course; we’ve been waiting for it for an interval-less hour and a half — but the climax doesn’t pack much of a wallop of meaning. Alongside the catastrophes of real-life such as the 9/11 disaster or, much more recently, the riots and burning of libraries buses and cars in the north­ern Parisian suburbs in the past two weeks, the play demonstrates the weaknesses inherent in all plays (or almost all) that aim at a kind of agitprop rhetorical mechanism that seems to want to send an audience out of its seats to engage in an active reformation of society, but ends up only eliciting a round or two of applause. The Women of Troy does a somewhat different thing, and does it far better.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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