One of the major themes of German playwright Max Frisch’s 1958 play “The Firebugs,” contained in the play’s final refrain, “Stupidity, now to be called fate, woe to us, alas,” is that today’s bad ideas are tomorrow’s disasters — a warning the Guthrie Theater’s creative team should have heeded before drowning Frisch’s darkly comic play in a sea of clownishness and buffoonery. Guest director David Gordon appears to have mistaken the word “stupidity” for a stage direction, and the result, predictably enough, is a fizzling, ineffectual dud.
The main character in “The Firebugs” is Gottlieb Biedermann, a successful businessman who, immediately after reading in the newspaper about a rash of fires in his community started by arsonists who insinuate themselves into the lives of unsuspecting homeowners and load the attic with explosives, allows two strangers fitting that very description to take shelter in his own attic.
Afraid his guests might retaliate, Biedermann finds it impossible to kick the firebugs out, even as they cram his attic from floor to ceiling with barrels of gasoline clearly marked “Flammable.” Reasoning that no real arsonists would be so guileless, Biedermann finds endless ways to rationalize the firebugs’ behaviour, and in the end Biedermann hands the firebugs the match they need to turn his house into a blooming orange fireball.
The strong point of Frisch’s play is that, as metaphor, the firebugs can stand for any potentially destabilizing threat to society, be it nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, racism, classism, terrorism, technology, drugs, skinheads, unwed mothers, politicians, cable television or carpenter ants. To this list of endless possibilities Gordon has added a few extra metaphors of his own, the most oppressive of which is the idea that the world is a circus.
On a split-level set framed by a partially concealed circus tent, Frisch’s characters romp around the stage in big floppy clown shoes doing silly clown things. The members of a fireman’s chorus bang each other in the head with ladders and perform the old routine of 20 people piling out of an impossibly small firetruck.
Biedermann is characterized as a balloonishly fat, bald, Babbitt-like man who smokes cigars the size of a tree branch. And firebug Joseph Schmitz, who is a former circus wrestler, has Popeye arms, a hairy chest and a Snidely Whiplash mustache, but is played by women.
That’s women, plural, because the other annoying gimmick employed by Gordon and associates is that of having different actors trade off playing the main characters. In between scenes, and sometimes in the middle of scenes, the actors strip off their cleverly designed body suits, switch characters in the blink of an eye and continue on as if nothing has happened. These spontaneous character switches are intriguing the first few times, but by the end of the play they look like precisely what they are: a gimmick to make the play look more like an ensemble piece than it really is.
This loony, largely misguided adaptation of Frisch’s play seems to have been guided by two facts: That Frisch called the short story from which the play is derived “Burlesque,” and that Frisch, as quoted in the program, once said the stage — any stage — should in general remind one of a “circus ring.”
It’s difficult to tell how Michael Feingold’s translation would play in a more realistic interpretation. Transforming Frisch’s play into a literal circus is disastrous precisely because it destroys the play’s genuinely human elements and trivializes the foreboding sense of menace so crucial to the tension between Biedermann and his pyromaniac house guests. As with any cartoon, the danger is never perceived as real because the action takes place in a universe where the physics of calamity are meaningless.
The impulse to treat this play as an elaborate farce, bogging it down in foolish theatrical gamesmanship, betrays an unfortunate lack of confidence in Frisch’s writing. Some one else is going to have to convince Twin Citians that “The Firebugs” isn’t a bomb.