The Arsonists isn't the best thing Swiss writer Max Frisch ever wrote, but it's almost certainly the most popular—especially in the United States, where great Frisch novels like I'm Not Stiller and Man in the Holocene sit at numbers 187,790 and 559,401, respectively, on Amazon's sales list. At least The Arsonists (aka The Firebugs and, in the original German, Biedermann und die Brandstifter) gets performed on a regular basis. Right now it can be seen at Strawdog Theatre, in a version that does many things well . . . though not enough of them.
The secret of The Arsonists' (comparative) popularity? Moral and political simplicity.
First produced as a radio play in 1953 and adapted for the stage five years later, it's a satirical fable centered on a cut-throat industrialist named Gottlieb Biedermann (i.e., Godlove Honestguy), who made his fortune hawking a stolen hair-rejuvenation formula but still thinks of himself as a pretty decent fellow. Gottlieb's got a lot on his mind as the play begins. Not only is the real inventor of his snake oil clamoring for a share of the profits, but there's an epidemic of arsons in the town where he and his wife share a mansion. Seems the culprits charm their way into their victims' homes, securing a meal and a place to sleep before they pull out the accelerant.
Biedermann reads about it in the local paper and shakes his head over the gullibility of some people. Then, of course, he gets a visit from a certain Schmitz, who'd appreciate a meal and a place to sleep. A beefy former circus wrestler, Schmitz is surprisingly agile when it comes to talking his way past Biedermann's defenses, throwing precise combinations of flattery, guilt, and intimidation. In no time at all he's eating Biedermann's food and boarding in Biedermann's attic.
Schmitz is soon joined by his associate, Eisenring, who doesn't even try to finesse Biedermann, knowing that his host will do the work of lying to himself even if he's told the whole, apocalyptic truth. Or sees it, for that matter: an attic full of detonators, fuses, and 55-gallon drums of gasoline can't shake Biedermann out of denial. He remains convinced he can befriend his executioners.
When it first appeared, less than a decade after the end of World War II, The Arsonists was seen as an allegory of the Nazi rise to power, implicating the politicians who tried to mollify Hitler by feeding him Czechoslovakia, the capitalist elites who thought they could make a pet of him despite his forthright declarations about world domination and genocide. But by now it's a perennial metaphor, applicable wherever disciplined fanaticism meets smug bourgeois tolerance. In this summer of insurgency, you can pick your real-world parallel.
Thing is, the metaphor is as reductive as it is adaptable. There's something exceedingly strange, for instance, about the fact that Biedermann never attempts to buy off Schmitz and Eisenring, which is the first tactic you'd expect from a wealthy man, especially if he sees the possibility of getting away cheap with a Here, go buy yourself a nice meal. And the relationship between Biedermann and the police is never sufficiently explored. Eisenring explains the businessman's reluctance to call the cops by observing that everyone over a certain income level is guilty—that is, they're afraid of the can of worms they might open by lodging a complaint. But if the ongoing tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, has made anything clear, it's that there are two systems of justice even in a so-called liberal society: one for the Us and another for the Them. As an Us in good standing having a hard time with a couple Thems, wouldn't Biedermann suppose he has nothing to fear, no matter what crimes he's committed?
Granted, Schmitz and Eisenring would prove implacable no matter how much money or legal power Biedermann brought to bear. They're pros, and this is a fable, after all. Yet Frisch's decision to frame their triumph so narrowly, denying Biedermann any options other than the hope to ingratiate and the will to pretend, oversimplifies the situation. Inasmuch as Biedermann is essentially helpless, it also sucks any tension out of proceedings. I spent a large part of this 90-minute adaptation (based on Alistair Beaton's 2007 translation) getting progressively more bored as the repetitious chugged along toward the inevitable.
Not that there weren't compensations. Director Matt Hawkins has a couple of marvelous Thems in Scott Danielson and Ira Amyx. I've seen Schmitz played as a thick-skulled thug, muscle for Eisenring; Danielson makes him sweet-faced and open, with puppy-dog eyes that he deploys as effectively as Audrey Hepburn ever did. It's a canny, amusingly paradoxical choice. Amyx, meanwhile, gives us Eisenring as a kind of protonerd, explaining things to Biedermann in the same tone of indulgent condescension present-day geeks use with the technologically illiterate. Rebecca Wolfe is appropriately exasperated as Anna, the maidservant who sees through it all, Sarah Goeden appropriately unhinged as Biedermann's wife, Babette. Robert Kauzlaric, however, does very little but dither as Biedermann himself, which only serves to emphasize the script's shortcomings.