According to the preface Max Frisch was an architect who also wrote plays. He was born in Switzerland in 1911, living through both world wars. This play was written in 1958 and translated into English in 1960.
The complete title is "The Firebugs (A Learning-Play Without a Lesson)" except, perhaps the lesson that if two men come in your house and say they are arsonists, pack your attic with explosives and ask you for a match - perhaps they are what they say they are and will happily burn you up - despite how hospitable you are - because they want to burn you up.
The play is organized into eight scenes which take place in the Biedermann's upper-middle class home, in the living room and the attic. It begins with a short scene, Gottlieb Beidermann, a professional man lights a cigar and is surrounded by The Chorus of Firemen who deliver a choral song, probably spoken, about being ready to save the town. Biedermann complains that one can't light a cigar anymore without everyone thinking of houses on fire.
The next scene is longer. It takes place at Beidermann's house, his servant Anna is bringing his wine and Beidermann reading about the latest fires and how the arsonists get into people's attics by posing as peddlers. Then a peddler, Schmitz, comes to the door and insists to be let in, he says he's seeking Kindness, Humanity. Beidermann lets him in, and lets him stay in the attic. During this scene we're also introduced to Beidermann's wife Babette, who doesn't like the look of this at all. Her husband ignores her and the Chorus of Fireman end the scene, watching over the town.
Eisenring, Schmitz's partner turns up with barrels of gasoline which they are arranging in the attic. Schmitz worries that Gottlieb will discover them and call the police, to which Eisenring responds,
EisenringAnd there's the crux of the play. These two men, revealed to be ex-convicts and certainly firebugs, are welcomed by Gottlieb into his home. Sure that he will be able to befriend them and show them what a great guy he is and then they won't burn him up. He lies to the police about what's in the barrels, he ignores his wife and servant who are increasingly distressed by these men, he has them to dinner - first hiding the finery to make them more comfortable - then dragging it all out at their request. He helps measure the fuse, construct the detonator and finally provides them with a match...all because they ask and he offers his help, however he can.
Why would he call the police?
Because he's guilty himself - that's why. Above a certain income every citizen is guilty one way or another. Have no fear.
Class is discussed over the possibility of being 'nabbed' while stealing sawdust. Gottlieb observes that his "kind of people seldom get nabbed," to which Eisenring responds, "Because your kind of people seldom steal sawdust. That's obvious Mr. Beidermann. That's the class difference." Gottlieb then explains his view on class...
I don't hold with class differences - you must have realized that by now, Mr. Eisenring. I'm not old-fashioned - just the opposite, in fact. And I regret that the lower classes still talk about class differences. Aren't we all of us - rich or poor - the creation of one Creator? The middle class, too. Are we not - you and I - human beings, made of flesh and blood? ... I don't mean reducing people to a common level, understand me. There will always be rich and poor, thank heaven - but why can't we just shake hands? A little good will, for heaven's sake, a littel idealism, a little - and we'd all have peace and quiet, both the poor and the rich. Don't you agree?
During this monologue, he lights up a cigar. Eisenring's only response to his enlightened view-point is to point out that he shouldn't smoke in the attic because it is now filled with gasoline barrels, he then goes back to constructing his fuse.
The comedy and absurdity comes from Beidermann keeping up this hospitality and ruse of idealism, trying to show what a great guy he is. By the end, everything is burning and this PhD character appears trying to have his say. He finally gets it out and what he needed to say was,
I was intent on improving the world; I knew about everything they were doing in your attic, everything. The one thing I didn't know was this. They - they are doing it for the pure joy of it.Up until the end Beidermann remains in denial, even while everything is blazes and The Chorus of Fireman are crying out in grief at the disaster. He points out quite logically, when his wife asks if he gave them a match - that of course he did, and that proves they weren't the arsonists. If they were real arsonists then they would have their own matches of course.
(PhD, Scene 8)