Rod Serling, where are you?

Max Frisch’s The Arsonists’ (2nd review)

3 minute read
Castellan as Biedermann: Give the audience slapstick, or shivers? (Photo: Earl Wilcox.)
Castellan as Biedermann: Give the audience slapstick, or shivers? (Photo: Earl Wilcox.)
Contrary to its subtitle— A Morality Play Without a Moral— Max Frisch's The Arsonists is a moral play with a moral. In fact, it contains more than one moral: some serious and defensible, others highly questionable.

For example: Reason can save us from evil; belief in Fate or God's will renders human action futile; humans can't live in fear all the time; if radical change is viewed as worse than a disaster, little can be done to stop disasters; woe unto a culture in which stupidity is disguised as Fate; and when you live among arsonists, it's better to believe in fire brigades than in God.

The latter is my favorite of the lot, because it recalls Emily Dickinson's tart observation:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see ----
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Yet behind, above and through these several morals lurks one that's dominant, profound and extremely serious.

Although the Swiss playwright Max Frisch wrote The Firebugs (here translated by Alistair Beaton as The Arsonists) in 1953— a decade before Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared— he anticipated a version of Arendt's famous "banality of evil." In Arendt's case, the phrase captured the insight that "very ordinary people motivated by the most mundane, banal considerations can commit horrendous crimes." In Frisch's hands, it captures the no less frightening truth that ordinary but silly, clueless citizens who choose "not to think carefully at all" can themselves become powerful enablers of evil.

Over the top

Despite its reputation as "an absurdist romp," The Arsonists actually deals with important and serious subject matter. Unfortunately, both the script itself and, more significantly, this particular staging by The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium trivialize features of the human community that should give the audience shivers.

This is accomplished most successfully by the frenetic, over-the-top, in-your-face slapstick portrayals of Gottlieb Biedermann (Liam Castellan) and his wife, Babette (Kirsten Quinn), and only somewhat less so of the other protagonists: the two arsonists, Josef Schmitz (Ethan Lipkin) and William Eisenring (Mark Knight).

Cramped quarters

The "Greek" chorus (John D'Alonzo, Monah Yaney, Jaime Pannone, Bob Schmidt, Michael Dura and Tomas Dura), while theatrically effective, contributes to undercutting the seriousness of the subject matter by informing the audience of the obvious.

The cramped space of the Walnut Street Theater's Studio 5 compromises the play's dramatic impact. There simply isn't sufficient room for the set, sometimes as many as five actors, plus a six-member chorus.

As we left the theater, my wife and I discussed with another audience member the fact that The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium took approximately 70 minutes to trivialize a play that in the hands of Rod ("The Twilight Zone") Serling would have left an audience quivering in only 20 minutes.♦

To read another review by Marshall Ledger, click here.
To read a reply, click here.

What, When, Where

The Arsonists. By Max Frisch; translated by Alistair Beaton; Tina Brock directed. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium production through September 18, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut St. (215) 285-0472 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation