From October 18thto 20th in Tarbutton Theatre, just in time for parents’ weekend, the Oxford theater group set the stage on fire with a radical, political play. An allegory for the rise of fascism in the 1930’s, Max Frisch’s The Arsonists incorporated witty banter, spontaneous theatrical entrances, and a multitude of emotive characters to address a controversial, pressing concern in Germany with a profound impact over 50 years later.
The staging of the production is scattered, retro and homely by taking each audience member into a standard home of the time. The furniture on stage demonstrates wealth with porcelain cutlery, a marble mantle with Chardonnay bottles, and portraits of the homeowners adorning the top left wall. Curtains open to a retro dining room, living room with fireplace (foreshadowing the plot) and burned newspapers encompassing the back walls.
The costuming reflects the status of the protagonists with neutral shades of suits for the male protagonist, elaborate dresses for his wife, the inclusion of a maidservant and weathered outfits for the “arsonists” who appear later in the play. The play includes minimal costume changes as well, which creates the effect of elasticity of time.
Frisch introduces a variety of stereotypes throughout his play which not only parallel with 1940s attitudes but also to the paranoia citizens feel towards their governments in modern-day societies.
As the student and parent audience came to a murmur at the beginning, an elderly man, Gottlieb Biedermann (Erin Eben), trembles and navigates the stage in confusion and paranoia. Biedermann maintains a trembling voice, is ignorant towards the arsonists who want to destroy his home and focuses on his well-being instead of fulfilling his job as a lawyer for citizens in need. Frisch uses Mr. Biedermann to emphasize how citizens should learn to be aware of the environment around them and make safety a priority.
In addition to Mr. Biedermann, Frisch uses his wife, Babette (Cassie Petroff), to showcase the paranoia stereotypical housewives of the time might have faced. This paranoia is especially due to the fact that women were not heavily involved in political affairs and instead were restricted to domestic situations.
The wrestler and one of the arsonists, Mr. Schmitz (Jack Wolfram), has a predominant presence and manipulates individuals around him to behave a certain way and take advantage of their surroundings. Frisch uses Mr. Schmitz to draw a strong parallel to the uprisings in Germany as a fair warning to the citizens of the time. His actions as an arsonist demonstrate how one should not be as naïve as the Biedermann family was when letting strangers into the home.
From the beginning of the play, there is a great degree of discontinuity and ambiguity. Each scene, amplified by booming noise and a chorus of firefighters, are disjointed and nonsensical.
The story is set in a small town where there were recently a series of planned fires that burned down gas stations, important buildings, and residential areas. The chorus of firefighters (Talyn Fan, Jordan Harper, Edith Kwon, Michael Roberts) appear from thin air and explain that the Arsonists are a group of radical individuals that cause the fires and cannot wait to destroy the rest of the city. The head firefighter proclaims that “if the thought of radical change scares you more than the thought of disaster, how can you stop the disaster?”.
The firefighters’ odd comments between scenes, married with the constant ringing of a clock tower in the background and the constant phrase “all hail the firefighters,” provide a direct parallel to mob mentality and the importance of authority in Nazi Germany.
“It was definitely a weird one, but I believe it grew on all of [the theatre crew] in the end because the theme is so important today, especially in the context of today’s political climate”, stage manager Kailey Graziotto said.
Throughout the play, I faced a plethora of emotions from confusion to surprise and sadness. The comedy that Frisch incorporates in his drama masks the fear that the citizens, especially minorities, faced during the uprising of fascism in Germany. The choppy plot and the characters’ personalities leave the audience enthrallingly confused to the end.
I wish that there was more clarity in the ending, rather than leaving it up for the audience to determine. I did not see the theme as clearly as I would have liked, especially with the inability to decipher the plot nor the monologues of the firefighters. Nevertheless, the play served a political purpose, the allegory provides a rich parallel to modern times and the performances from fellow student actors makes the play wholly worthwhile.