Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch observed World War II from the vantage of the neutral ranks of the Swiss Army. He kept diaries of what he saw, translating the horrors of war and fascism into the 1940 book Pages from a Knapsack, and later into plays in which he tried to understand how fascism took root in ordinary people’s lives. The Arsonists (it’s also called The Fire Raisers) is one of them.
It was written in 1953 with a Eurocentric predilection for angular and oblique performance art, specifically in the prevailing style of the Theatre of the Absurd, so its relationship to realism and narrative is loosey-goosey. But it’s easy to follow because it’s so direct and to the point that it’s almost like a synopsis of a story acted out.
There is a Greek chorus of eight firefighters, decked out in bright red jumpers and helmets, who set up the story for us. It revolves around Gottlieb Biedermann (Jeff McGrath), a stern and unimaginative every-businessman, and his nervous bourgeois wife Babette (Cherly Games). They put on the airs of respectability and contentment, but it’s their maid, Anna (Kelly Yarborough) who is truly herself – bitter and grouchy.
A rash of fires set by sneaky arsonists is consuming parts of the unnamed town where the story takes place (the only set piece is Biedermann’s long dining room table and, behind that, an attic built into the backdrop) when Gottlieb Biedermann is visited by a supposed homeless man, Schmitz (Brandon Burns), seeking shelter. But Schmitz – and this is no spoiler – has ominous motives. His reluctant hosts let him stay in their attic, but soon, Schmitz brings his friend Eisenring (Chris Deacon) into the attic, too.
All the acting is overacting, like some weird children’s show from Pee-wee Herman. The characters wear cabaret make-up that suggests caricatures. McGrath’s Biedermann is blustery, a phony, kind of an ass. We want to yell at him to wake up to the barely disguised subterfuge in front of him.
The firefighters chorus, ever watchful, does: “Exhausted by fear, they hope for the best, until it’s too late.”
“I’m a free man. I’m free to not think at all,” Biedermann tells them. He’s not just complacent, he’s damn near complicit. There are men with evil intentions in his house, using threats and guilt and flattery to insinuate themselves into his good graces, and they are ever planting themselves deeper into the fabric of the Biedermann’s lives. The maid, the simple proletariat, can sniff them out, but her employers are too insulated from their senses by their status and money.
The play is more admirable and engrossing than it is purely enjoyable, though the sizable audience on Sunday afternoon laughed at some of the ridiculousness and the conceits. It’s better to take it as it comes, like an allegory, than try to apply logic or compare it to reality. And Western Stage’s artistic team added cool industrial music – like Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Rammstein’s “Du hast” and Social Distortion’s cover of “Ring of Fire” – to further blur the historical setting. The aim of a play like this, though, is to inspire thinking, about ideas and actions and consequence. About how fascism starts out innocuous, friendly, even, but doesn’t seek friendship; it only wants blind allegiance and complacency.
Joseph says he doesn’t read the newspapers. Beidermann does – he has a cummerbund and a vest with newsprint on it – but it’s just more adornment for him. When Biedermann swoons with grief that he may have been duped, he exclaims, “My God.”
But Eisenring, who’s dressed like an anarchist, tells him “I don’t believe in God and neither do you.”
Playwright Frisch is really testing his characters’ (and our) core beliefs.
The chorus pleads with the audience, with the Biedermanns: “If the thought of radical change scares you more than the disaster, what can you do to avert disaster?”
If I could paraphrase, the playwright is saying pretty frankly to the Biedermanns, “You think you’re so altruistic that you extend an invitation to all who seek it. But you’re so eager to pretend that you don’t see the truth – that some people are wicked. You think that in order to see and recognize wickedness, that it means you are not good, so you see none of it.”
This play doesn’t exist in an enclosed environment of its own construct. It’s engaged with the world outside, like the best political history lectures. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1953 when Frisch wrote the work as a radio play, or in 2007 when the Royal Court Theatre revived it using Alistair Beaton’s translation (also used here). After the play you can watch the news and it will have a more ominous and familiar timbre. It’s about fascism, yes, but it can be about any number of destructive creeping forces, like religious fundamentalism, the prison-industrial complex, homophobia, xenophobia, the march to war, Wall Street’s class warfare.
“I don’t believe in class,” Biedermann says by way of defense. “We’re all just human beings.”
That sounds nice, but that’s just being ignorant.
THE ARSONISTS plays 7:30pm Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday, at Western Stage Studio Theater, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. $24. 755-6816, www.WesternStage.com