The Labyrinth of Language: The Fire Raisers

  • Michael Butler


With the two parable plays, The Fire Raisers and Andorra, Frisch finally achieved international recognition as a playwright. Thematically and technically, his previous stage works can be seen as an extended theatrical apprenticeship leading to this breakthrough. And yet the origins of The Fire Raisers, at least, are far from portentous — indeed, they are both prosaic and largely fortuitous. In his conversation with Heinz Ludwig Arnold, Frisch recalls the Bayrische Rundfunk offering him DM3000 for a radio play and suggesting that he look for a suitable theme in his Sketchbook 1946–1949.1 There Frisch found the short prose sketch, simply entitled ‘Burleske’ (II, 556–61), which dated back to 1948. The subsequent radio play, Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter, first broadcast on 26 March 1953, was thus a commissioned work which owed its existence primarily to Frisch’s need to earn money. The second stage in the metamorphosis of the prose sketch to full theatrical form was no more auspicious than the first. Having completed and published his novel Homo Faber in 1957, Frisch was badgered by the Zurich Schauspielhaus for a new play. Kurt Hirschfeld suggested the radio play as a possible starting point. In other words, The Fire Raisers — the enormous success of which was to make Frisch financially secure for the first time — sprang initially not from any didactic desire to put the world to rights, but from economic necessity and the chance encouragement of literary middle-men. Nevertheless, in the same interview Frisch records that these mundane circumstances in fact enabled him to tackle the work in a more satisfyingly objective state of mind than otherwise might have been the case.


Fire Raiser Enormous Success Moral Blindness Violent Posturing Epic Theatre 
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  1. 2.
    The communists were in any case the strongest party in post-war Czechoslovakia. In the 1946 elections they won 38% of the popular vote. The fatal error was rather the refusal of Marshall Aid in 1946 and the conscious decision to build post-war policy on a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union which Benes signed in 1943. See Angela Nacken, ‘Prag 1948. Exempel kommunistischer Machtergreifung. Gottwalds “Revolution” vor 25 Jahren fordert einen Leicht verletzten und die Freiheit’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 24 February 1973. Re-printed in: Ingo Springmann (ed.), Max Frisch. Biedermann und die Brandstifter. Erläuterungen und Dokumente (Stuttgart, 1977) pp. 92–9.Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    Friedrich Torberg, Neuer Kurier, 10 June 1958. For some representative reviews from the Eastern Bloc, see Springmann, p. 67ff and Walter Schmitz (ed.), Materialien zu Max Frisch ‘Biedermann und die Brandstifter’ (Frankfurt/Main, 1979) p. 111ff.Google Scholar
  3. 15.
    Cf. Adele Weise, Untersuchungen zur Thematik und Struktur der Dramen von Max Frisch, p. 89. The first critic to point to the central importance of language in The Fire Raisers was Werner Weber in his review of the first performance, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 3 May 1958. See also Gertrud Pickar’s article, ‘Biedermann und die Brandstifter’, the Dilemma of Language’, Modern Languages 50, 3 (1969) pp. 99–106.Google Scholar
  4. 23.
    See John Brewer, ‘Max Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter as the Documentation of an Author’s Frustration’, Germanic Review 46, 2 (1971) p. 128.Google Scholar

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© Michael Butler 1985

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  • Michael Butler

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