About this Evening

Just a moment ago, Biedermann [name translates to petty bourgeois] rebelled against all the arsonists, peddlers and good-for-nothings at his local pub, when they already arrive on his doorstep. Despite instructions, his maid Anna is unable to turn the arsonists away. Knechtling [name translates to servant], on the other hand, is turned away: the employee feels cheated out of the patent for his invention, which is the bread and butter of Biedermann's family business. Yet, Biedermann will not listen to him. He, who actually strives to be honest and open-minded towards phenomena of the zeitgeist, sends him away again, not without imprecations. In all other respects, however, Biedermann is clearly committed to the tradition of not imposing his ideological views on anyone and carefully keeping his nose out of other people's business. This has brought him great prestige and wealth. Meanwhile, the arsonists have taken up residence in his attic, where he now also happens to be from time to time. What is going on there? Does it seem as if the arsonists don't wish him well? In the end, Biedermann's wife will barely be able to keep her composure, the maid will have collapsed, Knechtling will have killed himself, and Biedermann's house will be in flames – why did it have to come to this, how could it have to come to this?

Nicolas Stemann
Stage design
Katrin Nottrodt
Costume design
Marysol del Castillo
Sebastian Vogel / Thomas Kürstner
Film / cinematic installation
Institut für Experimentelle Angelegenheiten / Claudia Lehmann / Konrad Hempel
Carsten Schmidt
Benjamin von Blomberg
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Audience Development
Silvan Gisler
Touring & International Relations
Sonja Hildebrandt
Artistic Mediation T&S
Nicole Breitenmoser
Production intern
Linda Hügel, Philipp  Stevens
Stage design assistance
Naemi Jael Marty
Costume design Assistance
Renée Kraemer / Sophia May
Collaboration Film
Sabrina Tannen
Stage design intern
Philipp Stäheli
costume design intern
Lisa Alexa Gieseler
Dramaturgy intern
Maya Scharf
Audience Development & Dramaturgy intern
Anna Vankova
Eva Willenegger
Katja Weppler
Surtitles Translation
Corinne Hundleby
Surtitles Operators
Raman Khalaf (Panthea)
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Performance rights: Suhrkamp Verlag AG Berlin

Supported by Peter and Gigi Frisch
Special thanks to Dr. Tobias Amslinger and Prof. Dr. Thomas Strässle from the Max Frisch Archive.

Detailed Cast

Patrycia Ziólkowska: Biedermann / Chorus
Niels Bormann: Anna, a Maid / Schmitz, a Wrestler / Police officer / Chorus
Kay Kysela: Babette, Biedermann’s wife / Eisenring, a Waiter / Police officer / Chorus
Daniel Lommatzsch, Sebastian Rudolph (alternating with Urs-Peter Halter): The chorus, consisting of the men of the fire brigade
Anina Steiner, Ann-Kathrin Stengel, Hannah Weiss: Widow Knechtling
Thomas Kürstner, Sebastian Vogel: Live Music

About this Play

Biedermann und die Brandstifter [The Arsonists] by Max Frisch was first performed on 29 March 1958 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich under the direction of Oskar Wälterlin. The play is based on earlier works from 1948 to 1952 and is regarded as Frisch’s most important dramatic work, although he himself was dissatisfied with it: the fable was too didactic, and Frisch was also dismayed by the crude, anti-Communist reception of the premiere. At the time, the Zurich audience sympathised with Biedermann as a supposedly defenceless victim of adverse political circumstances. In response, Frisch wrote an epilogue highlighting the hypocrisy of the title character and making direct reference to National Socialism. The author soon deleted this epilogue, however, as it undermined the open, parable-like character of his own work.

In fact, the play can be interpreted as a political parable about how an over-saturated, self-centred bourgeoisie deals with the ideologies of National Socialism or Communism. A first prose sketch of the material was written in 1948 as a reaction to the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, the drama – with or without an epilogue – can be interpreted as a subtle analysis of sympathy during National Socialism. Frisch also offers another interpretation: He sees the arsonists as a repressed element of fear in the Biedermänner, the petty bourgeois, themselves. In any case, the protagonist's supposed defencelessness and good faith remain questionable: Why, or for what purpose, does he tolerate the arsonists' intrusion into his house, or the metaphorically charged burning of it?

The German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki has described Max Frisch as an “author of fear”: Frisch was born on 15 May 1911 in Zurich, where he died almost exactly 80 years later, in April 1991. The son of an architect, he studied German as a young man and worked as a journalist. From 1936 he trained in his father’s profession at the ETH Zürich, but after initial success as a prose writer he returned to literature. Frisch is known for his novels (including Stiller, Homo Faber, Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän), diaries and dramas (including Biedermann and Andorra). His work revolves around questions of the artist’s self-discovery and can be understood as a confrontation between a rational, mathematical, objective view of the world and the unpredictability of life itself. So what is the rational male subject – the Biedermann of the play with the same name – so afraid of, one might ask. Doesn't the chorus in the play warn: “He who shuns change more than disaster, what can he do against disaster?”

The drama becomes truly productive, however, when Biedermann is seen neither as a victim nor as a passive figure of fear or oppression, but as an active entrepreneurial subject in the truest sense of the word: he steals the creative invention of his employee Knechtling in order to commercialise it. Nevertheless, he believes himself to be in the right, because he is supported by a political-legal system that is designed to secure his position as an entrepreneur at all costs. The violence emanating from Biedermann is twofold: on the one hand, he enriches himself through the creative power of others, and on the other, he succeeds in disguising his own actions as mere conformist behaviour. He is able do so as long as it is covered by a social ideology – that of bourgeois economic liberalism – which masquerades as neutral, although at its core it is still patriarchal and hostile to pleasure.

Biedermann’s real opponent would therefore be not only the supposed extremes of the political spectrum, but also the imagination, of which Kant already claimed in his “Critique of Judgement” that its “unregulated freedom” would lead to nothing but “nonsense” if its wings were not properly clipped by reason. Although less politically rigid than Bertolt Brecht, whose legacy Frisch explores in this “Lehrstück ohne Lehre” [translates to “Play Without a Lesson”], his Biedermann in this interpretation is on the trail of a central question about the violence of capitalist economic activity: What does the exploitation of others have to do with the suppression of one's own sensuality, the fear of the infinitely productive multiplicity of life itself?

Finally, one could speculate that if the Afro-American philosopher and poet Fred Moten and Max Frisch had met in New York City in the autumn of 1987, Moten would have approached Frisch and said: “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” The spirit, not of Knechtling, but of Ingeborg Bachmann, might have replied: “Art gives us the opportunity to find out where we stand and how we should stand, how we are and how we should be.” Both statements apply to us, the audience tonight: What can we do, what should we do? (MF)