Friday 26 June 2009

The Fire Raisers

Leaflet for The Fire Raisers at the Royal Court Theatre 1961
© The Royal Court Theatre, London

At the moment I'm cataloguing A-Z correspondence files from the Anderson Collection and it's great the amount of surprises it throws up. There are lots of interesting letters from members of the public and from some big names as well. The other day I catalogued a letter from the playwright, author and architect, Max Frisch, congratulating Anderson on his production of Frisch's play The Fire Raisers. Lindsay Anderson produced this play at the Royal Court Theatre in 1961 and the production starred Alfred Marks, James Booth, Colin Blakely, John Thaw and Doris Hare.

Stage shot of The Fire Raisers at the Royal Court Theatre 1961
© The Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling

The play concerns Mr Biedermann ('honest man' or 'worthy man'), a wealthy bourgeois man suffering guilt over how he made his fortune. Living in a town recently subject to a string of arson attacks Mr Biedermann refuses to believe that two dodgy characters who have managed to work their way into his home are the culprits of these attacks. The two arsonists build up a collection of petrol drums in Biedermann's attic and even then he refuses to believe they are the arsonists, in the end giving them the match they use to set his home on fire. Written in 1953 this play was intended as a metaphor for Nazism and Communism but I think it works well as a parable about the dangers of pretending not to see what is going on around you.

In a contemporary review of the play the theatre critic Irving Wardle used a Brecht poem in his review, part of which I thought I would reproduce here:
"In one of Brecht's didactic poems the Buddha answers a doubting pupil by telling a story about a burning house. Its occupants, he says, were in no hurry to leave: -
One of them
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside,
Whether it wasn't raining,
Whether the wind wasn't blowing,
perhaps, whether there was
Another house for them, and more
of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here,
I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
This uncomfortable little parable could stand as an epigraph for Max Frisch's The Fire Raisers, a streamlined satire on bourgeois idealism which would have earned the approval of the Master....
The final third of the play in Lindsay Anderson's production is nothing short of terrifying... as the incendiarists deliver a solid blow to one's sense of security." (Irving Wardle, Fire up above, The Observer, 1961).

Alfred Marks and chorus of Firemen
in The Fire Raisers, Royal Court Theatre 1961
© The Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling

Back of above photo with Lindsay Anderson's handwritten description
© The Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling

I went to see a production of the play, this time entitled The Arsonists, at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2007. It was directed by Ramin Gray in the Jerwood Theatre downstairs and this was its first major UK revival since Anderson's production in 1961. I really enjoyed seeing the play, and it was great to just be sitting in the Royal Court Theatre, somewhere where Lindsay Anderson spent so much of his time.

When cataloguing the letter from Max Frisch to Lindsay Anderson I checked online and found that there is a Max Frish Archive at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich - where the papers of Thomas Mann are also held.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you're noting Anderson's contributions to the theater, since they get almost no mention except in a very tiny little corner of academia.