Last night I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the UK premiere of Šimon Voseček’s operatic adaptation of the Max Frisch play Biedermann und die Brandstifter, presented in David Pountney’s English translation as Biedermann and the Arsonists and directed by Max Hoehn.
The play’s been a favourite of mine for years. It’s touch and go with things you study at school, isn’t it. How many people have been turned off Shakespeare for life as a result of doing Othello at GCSE? Of course it’s rarely Shakespeare’s fault, more likely to be a combination of the teacher and the child and other variables. But with Biedermann, which I did for A-level German, I was lucky to have an excellent teacher and an excellent class.
Gottlieb Biedermann is an ostensibly respectable businessman selling his own phoney brand of hair tonic (Hormoflor) and living with his wife Babette and their maid Anna. His town is in the grip of a spate of arson attacks. The play opens with Biedermann reading the paper (translations mine):
BIEDERMANN: They should hang them … Another arson attack. And always the same story, believe it or not: a peddler, who makes his nest in the attic, a harmless peddler… They should hang them!
ANNA: Herr Biedermann –
BIEDERMANN: What now?
ANNA: He’s still there.
ANNA: The peddler who wants to talk to you.
The peddler is Schmitz, an unemployed wrestler, who insinuates himself into Biedermann’s house and, with the help of his colleague Eisenring, proceeds to burn it down, with Biedermann’s tacit endorsement. It’s not that Biedermann’s an idiot exactly, but he’s hamstrung by his middle-class guilt. One reason why he doesn’t chuck Schmitz and Eisenring out is that he can’t bear to be thought of as prejudiced.
The arsonists are also crafty: they dodge and wheedle, using manipulation and negative psychology. My favourite of Eisenring’s deflections:
EISENRING: Don’t worry about the bathroom, Herr Biedermann. There was no bathroom in prison, you know.
EISENRING: Didn’t Sepp tell you I came from prison?
EISENRING: Not a word?
EISENRING: He only ever talks about himself!
Crucially, they don’t lie: as Eisenring observes to Biedermann, he has found telling the truth to be the most effective strategy (ahead of sentimentality and jokes), since no one believes it. Biedermann goes so far as to help him measure out the fuse for the detonator. The arsonists’ plan almost fails at the end, as they have no matches, but Biedermann comes to the rescue.
BABETTE: What did you give them? I saw it – matches?
BIEDERMANN: Why not?
BIEDERMANN: If they were really arsonists, why would they have no matches?
I love the play’s dark and absurd humour. A secondary plot strand involves the suicide of an employee of Biedermann. Biedermann arranges for a wreath to be sent to the widow, but an administrative mix-up means she is sent the bill and he receives a wreath with a bow attached bearing the legend ‘TO OUR UNFORGETTABLE GOTTLIEB BIEDERMANN’.
The play is a popular choice for study in school because the morality is so ambiguous. To what extent is Biedermann complicit in the arson attacks? The arsonists never pretend to be anything other than what they are, though their brazenness increases as the end approaches. Does Biedermann’s blindness stem from delusion, or embarrassment, or what?
The familiar and unattributable quote about the only thing necessary for evil to triumph being for good men to do nothing inevitably comes to mind. When one views the play in its historical context, it’s most easily read as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, perhaps with special reference to Frisch’s country Switzerland. Michael Billington, in his recently published book The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present, notes that the Communist coup in postwar Czechoslovakia was the immediate catalyst for the play’s composition. Whatever Frisch may have had in mind, his play speaks to us of ourselves, often uncomfortably so.
As does Voseček’s opera. I’m very poorly versed in opera post-Britten, and perhaps it was a result of my own shortcomings in this respect and of the opera being sung in English that I found myself thinking most regularly of Britten as I attempted to place it musically. Some of the opening scene’s rhythmic urgency put me in mind of the vigour of the arrival of the new crew members in Billy Budd, while Biedermann’s (Mark Le Brocq) stridency occasionally recalled Bob Boles, and the lyricism of Alinka Kozári’s Babette, singing an arietta while she stuffs a goose, made me think of Ellen Orford.
Voseček’s music is lush, with a rich array of tuned percussion, and most memorable in its eerie achievement of approaching siren effects in the final scene. The libretto, wisely, is taken pretty much wholesale from Frisch, with the best jokes preserved. I had hoped for the inclusion of ‘Lili Marlene’, which Frisch has Schmitz whistle during one scene, but it was omitted; in its place, ingeniously, a twisted quotation from Don Giovanni, as Schmitz briefly becomes the Commendatore. The lengthy afterpiece, set in hell, is sensibly left out: Voseček’s ending, with the fuse approaching the detonator, is most satisfying.
David Pountney’s translation is a success. The final scene involves Schmitz repeatedly making a crude pun on the German word for gun (Schießgewehr becoming Scheißgewehr), which rarely translates well into English. Pountney’s solution seems the most satisfactory, an emphasis on the first syllable of the word ‘arsonist’. (I’m afraid I can’t remember what Alistair Beaton does in his translation of the play, which I saw at the Royal Court in 2007.)
It’s a shame there are only three performances of this opera scheduled, and tickets for the remaining ones so thin on the ground, particularly given how well sung and performed it is throughout. The opera deserves to be seen and heard widely. I hope at any rate that people will be inspired to seek out Frisch’s play, as provocative now as when it was first staged in 1958.