Arts & Culture

‘The Arsonists’ asks questions about class, morality

Abigail Eck, Opinions Editor

Exploring themes of choice, conscience, private and public morality, the Augsburg University Theater Program’s production of “The Arsonists,” directed by Barbra Berlovitz, presents a timeless setting for a meditation on action and inaction in our everyday lives.

“The Arsonists” written by Max Frisch in 1952 as a radio play, transitioned to stage in 1958. This dark comedy follows Biedermann, the head of an industry that produces a brand of hair tonic, and two arsonists who pass themselves off as “guests” to enter his home. Although the setting is in an unidentified country, city, and time, there are close connotations to the Red Scare of the 50’s. There is clear civil unrest as Biedermann and others worry about arsonists that wander the streets, setting fire to seemingly random houses and businesses.

The play begins with the main character, Biedermann, proclaiming his belief that all of the arsonists need to be killed. He is upper class, swinging between his moral inner life and his ruthless business life. He is also easily flattered by the “homeless” man who tricks his way into his attic by playing on his moral sensibilities.

Then, there is Billy; the second arsonist, Billy is a trickster, blatant in his arson activities. When talking to Biedermann about sneaking into places they plan to burn, Billy states, “Comedy is the third best tactic, sympathy is the second best tactic, but best is the naked truth because, funnily enough, no one believes it.”

Ava Fojtik (3 of 4)

Now, take that statement as you will, but to me, this invokes some interesting thoughts about action and inaction in present day America in the light of dubious people in power.

Among this cast there is also a chorus of firefighters who, ironically, seem to be the most scared of them all; they watch, sing, and change nothing. Occasionally there is also a breaking of the fourth wall by this chorus, Biedermann shooing away his wife because he is having “a meeting with the chorus,” knowing things that were seemingly said by characters in privacy.

Through the themes of family, evil, private and public morality, war, conscience, mistrust of the stranger, fate, property, class systems, choice; this play questions how each of us fit into our society through our actions and inactions and how we think of the evils happening every day. From the environment to civil liberties, this play is undeniably relevant to the present, the performance lively and comic in contrast to these rather dark themes.

“The Arsonists” runs from November 9-18 at the Tjornhom-Nelson theater. For information and tickets visit the Augsburg Theater Department’s website.

This article was originally published in the Nov. 9, 2018 issue. 

“The Arsonists” opens Nov. 9. Photos by Ava Fotjik.