Last Thursday, English Theatre Leipzig (ETL) premiered Max Frisch’s The Arsonists. It was the first time they had done a play that had been translated from German. In keeping with the international cast, I feel like the translation by Alistair Beaton allowed for each character to have their own voice.
For first time director Julia Kragh, it was important to choose a piece for ETL that was familiar to a German audience, so she went back to what she had read in school. Upon re-visiting The Arsonists, she saw a relation to what’s happening in our world today.
It’s kind of plug and play. You can substitute just about any group in the arsonist category depending on your perspective.
In all his works, Max Frisch deals with individual identity.
In order to accept others, we have to accept ourselves. That means we have to be ourselves. This realisation of self is not fixed, but evolves as we are confronted with new choices. The choices we go for make us unique individuals.
In I’m Not Stiller, Frisch set out a criterion for a fulfilled life as being “that an individual be identical with himself. Otherwise he has never really existed.”
As The Arsonists opens, on the Leipzig stage, we see actor Peter Hubbard as Gottlieb Biedermann, recklessly trying to light his cigarette in public and being thwarted by fire fighters. As he talks, we see that he is quite one-dimensional in his petty bourgeois thinking. His name has come from his grandfather, his money from hair tonic.
Upon his return home, we see him reading the Daily Mail for the latest news on a series of fires being set throughout the city. His hair glistens as he smugly sits on his throne at the head of the table.
He is equally matched by Lindsay Raggett as his wife Babette. She is everything you’d expect her to be, busy being busy and keeping things just so. Her job is to keep up appearances.
In addition to being a writer, Frisch was an architect.
Despite having designed more than 12 buildings, only two were actually built. One was for the shampoo magnate K.F. Ferster, who sued Frisch for altering the dimensions of the staircase without consulting him. The character of Gottlieb Beidermann was modelled after him in retaliation.
And retaliation it was. This was the play that put Frisch on the map.
The first sketch was written in 1948 in response to the Communist takeover in Prague. In Switzerland, it was clear that the arsonists were the communists, but in Germany is was just as clear that they were Nazis or fascists. He actually added an extra act for German performances.
In 1935, Frisch had become involved with a Jewish woman named Käte Rubensohn, who had come to Switzerland to finish her studies because of the anti-Semitism and race-based legislation in Germany. When he visited Germany that same year, he criticised the anti-Semitism, but not the National Socialists. He had failed to predict their future path, as had his Swiss homeland.
Later he credited the relationship with Rubensohn for allowing him to keep his eyes open and not sympathise with Hitler and Mussolini like others at the University of Zurich where he studied German Literature and Linguistics.
He had plenty of experience with average people failing to see what was happening around them. Though the character of Biedermann is fashioned after Ferster, he stands for more than that.
When you call someone a “Biedermann” in German, it means they are stuck in their ways to the point of being gullible and easily led on. They are so worried about what other people think of them that they are unable to think for themselves.
This is what allows Karsten Zahn as Joseph Schmitz in the ETL production to manipulate Biedermann into letting him stay in the attic, even though he knows the arsonists are starting fires in the attics. It couldn’t happen here, right?
As a student, director Julia Kragh thought Biedermann really ignorant, but as an adult, she knows life is not just black and white. She made a conscious effort to keep him and his wife likeable.
Schmitz manages to appeal to both of the Biedermanns’ good natures. He appears to lack intelligence and yet knows exactly what to say and when to say it. He remains in the attic and is soon joined by his friend, Ralf Messmann as William Eisenring. He tells it like it is. Not able to handle the truth, Biedermann takes it as dark humour.
Julia reminds us that Trump told us everything he was going to do. He was open about his sexism, ableism, racism and more. Still, there he is, appealing to his base and “Making America Great Again.” As the play was premiering, Trump’s approval ratings were going up.
And all the while, ETL’s firefighting chorus is warning us all.
By Frisch’s definition, none of the characters exist. None are actually thinking for themselves.
Biedermann and his wife are trapped in being seen to be doing the right thing. Schmitz and Eisenring are doing what society expects from orphans and thieves. Perhaps the only one who is actually thinking is Deborah Bode as Anna, the maid. But even she is unable to react to the obvious danger unfolding.
Under the direction of Julia Kragh, the ETL cast gives excellent performances in this dark comedy that often borders on slapstick. She purposely did not see any other production of the play, but knew she had to keep it light and over the top.
Like me, she doesn’t like to be preached to. You will laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I seem to find myself doing that quite often during the last year.
Special shout out to wardrobe. I loved the hair! It was a character in itself, and rightly so.
by Max Frisch
translated by Alistair Beaton
Director: Julia Kragh
Assistant Director: Hannes Flor
Producer: Peter Seaton-Clark
15 & 16 September @ 8 pm.
Neues Schauspiel Leipzig
Lützner Str. 29