Monday, October 04, 2004

Max Frisch-Bitingly Funny Germans

Part I-I decided to share some hilarious fun I had in college with a great German class, which was about 20th Century German Theater. The class covered three playwrights, Max, Frisch, Freidrich Durrenmatt, and Bertolt Brecht.

This first part is about Swiss Max Frisch Frisch (1911-'91) and his most famous work, "BIEDERMANN AND THE FIREBUGS", (Die Brandstifter-more properly known as "The Firestarters" in England). Frisch was also a novelist, architect, and journalist; another of his famous works was the novel, "Homo Faber".

Here follows a general synopsis of the above-mentioned play from a 1998 review in Boston; "Although Biedermann was first staged in 1958, it's rooted in the disasters of the '40s, commenting most directly on Europe's (Switzerland's?) complacency during the rise of the Nazis. Set entirely in the bourgeois home of pretenious hair-tonic magnate Gottlieb Biedermann (he defines the expression "shady businessman"); The play explores the spineless protagonist's relationship with a couple of itinerant pyromaniacs who talk/bully their way into his house, use it as a base to terrorize the town, then pack it with explosives, and burn it to the ground with the entire family inside. A piggish ex-wrestler and a foppish waiter who met in prison while doing time for arson, the firebugs distract their host with jokes, bonhomie, and guilt trips but make little effort to hide their intentions. Initially Biedermann denies the obvious; later he tries to placate the firebugs with a lavish meal. In the end, however, he supplies them with the match. The best way to hoodwink people, one of the pyros observes, "is to tell the plain unvarnished truth. Oddly enough, no one believes it."

There are several jokes, some of which don't translate into English quite as well. There is a Greek-like Chorus, which comes on stage from time to time to comment on the action; in one of these bits they say, "Biedermann, Jedermann" (Biedermann, Everyman), which Frisch uses to point out the hypocrisy of the average suburanite. Also, Biedermann is exceedingly polite, to the point of fawning over his "guests", while at the same time treating his wife and employees like doormats.

Finally, I'd like to end with the best discussion of his work by an unknown author (the link has expired-I had saved a copy).

"Recurring themes in his works are identity, guilt and innocence, self-image and the problems that come up when we form images of others and see them only through this narrow channel.

Another issue of Frisch that is one of the leitmotifs of his literary as well as his political writings is his Swiss home. Switzerland's self-image as a respected consensus democracy, a cradle of human-rights and tolerance is thoroughly questioned and revised in Frisch's works. The small alpine country is itself a minature stage wherr problems, struggles, ideologies and pretensions become evident in a focused representation of the modern world.

Yet his position lacks the annoyingly permanent ideological raised finger that is characteristic for other authors such as Bertolt Brecht who has inspired Frisch in the use of his form and style of the so called epic theatre. [Interjection here-one biographer thought all his plays were "borrowed" in style from Brecht and Thornton Wilder!]

Frisch is more of a moralist who lets his readers explore the depths of the human soul and sets the path for him to draw his own conclusions while enjoying a good book or an evening at the theatre. It is self-recognition not promoting an ideology that Frisch is aiming at. In his plays he does not present the reader or the viewer with a version of the world that pretends to be objective - Frisch believes that reality evolves in the mind and imagination of every individual. All that the playwright can thus hope for is to substitute this story that we deem reality. It is only in this sense, as a "change of ideas" that real change is possible."


The Moody Minstrel said...

Ach, Gott! Mein Herz ist voller Gefühl, und ich weiß nicht warum! Was ist los auf dieser Weise?

I read "Biedermann und die Brandstiftern" in class (in the original German) while I was majoring in German at Oregon State. I got a big kick out of it while finding it disturbing at the same time.

I read some other disturbing plays in that class, but I can't remember the titles right now. I recall one of them was "The Physicists". The title of another was the name of a fictitious town in which the drama takes place (Andorra? Something like...?).

I'd better dig in my old books next time I go back to Oregon...

Don Snabulus said...

Well, here in America, we don't mix our art and ideas. You can see Cats or Fahrenheit 911. You can see Phantom of the Opera or Passion of the Christ. You can watch Survivor or a pretty NPR special on Monet.

We want our people of ideas out where they can take our abuse or nods of agreement. We want our artists to make us feel beautiful. Those who try to mix ideas and art are simply ignored because it doesn't sell (or we beat up their owners of the galleries they display in).

You are either with dualistic thinking or against it...or for the other half of you dualists, anybody but non-dualistic thinkers (the ABNDTers). Ignore the rest. Dang Europeans always stirring the pot...

ladybug said...

Yes, I also read "Die Physiker" by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Hard Core! He's much more preachy than Frisch, or even socially-conscious Brecht. All my classes were in German too, the language is so much more biting and wicked funny than in English, but hey, it's better than translating it into French, where it would just lay there and sound really bitter. Of course my thoughts on Mr. Durrenmatt is coming up, with that very play in mind. I found them all disturbing, delightfully cynical and friggin' scary (esp concerning Die Physiker)!

The Moody Minstrel said...

You're much better at remembering names than I am. I tend to make a subconscious point to forget them.

The best part of that German drama class was that my classmates and I (all German majors) actually took parts and acted them out. "Die Physiker" was a lot of fun...but that ending requires a d20 sanity check...

Anonymous said...

Ja ist dieses Montag. Das ist Hans. (Si, hoy es Lunes).

The Moody Minstrel said...

One of the other works we read was Brecht's "Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan". It was very entertaining if a little too blatant in its political/moral message. I think it did make a very good point, though (one that I witness almost every day at my school).

Still, of all the works we read, the one that I still feel is the most disturbing was the one whose title I can't remember. (No, not a case of "Sir Not Appearing In This Film".) The title is the name of the town in which it takes place. The gist of the story is that there is an "adopted" boy that everyone thinks is a Jew, and so they discriminate against him like crazy (and every major citizen of the town has his own monologue in which he tries to deny or justify everything). In fact, he's not a Jew at all, but rather the son of his "adoptive" father and a woman from the black-populated, hostile country across the border. As the "Jew" rises in stature within the town and starts showing various kinds of promise, the town immediately goes hysterical about the "Jewish problem". In the end, they allow themselves to be conquered by the black-populated enemy country so that the latter can rid them of the Jews.

The play ends with an absurd but chilling scene in which all the men of the town have to put bags over their heads, take off their shoes, and march in front of an inspector from the enemy country. The reason for this is that Jews supposedly have unique feet, so they can be rooted out in this manner. As it turns out, pretty much every man in the town has the "Jewish look", but all they have to do is pull the bag off their head and confirm their identity, and they're off the hook. The exception, of course, is the "Jewish" boy that was the inadvertent cause of the whole thing. When he pulls the bag off his head, the mob tears into him.
Symbolically, while all this is going on, somebody steals the shoes of the doctor who is the ringleader of the anti-Jew effort while everyone is concentrating on tearing apart the "Jew". (And of course, nobody cares that the enemy country has just conquered them.)
The play ends with the "Jew's" girlfriend (actually, unbeknownst to anyone but their father, his half-sister), her head recently shaved because of her being a "collaborator", beginning to whitewash the town as the doctor searches for his shoes and the soldiers from the enemy country move in.
"Yes, everyone, we must all beware of the terrorist scourge! Help us to stay the course!"

ladybug said...

Omigod, That's sounds harsh! Also, Andorra is by Max Frish also (but I didn't read it and don't know what it's about). Sounds like something by our friend Freidrich of "Die Physiker" fame.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Oh, so the title really IS Andorra! Okay, I was right! The play I was just describing was Max Frisch's Andorra.