Burning down the house

The Arsonists at London's Royal Court Theatre is a firecracker of a play, and provides the sparks for serious debate on nihilism and its apologists.

Emily Hill

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The house lights are still up when Max Biedermann steps on to the stage – a Canary Wharf suit with a Basil Fawlty demeanour – to light a cigarette.

‘Tsk tsk’ cries a madam in the front row. ‘GO ON!’ shouts a man three rows back. Biedermann lights the cigarette and immediately a chorus of six firemen surround him, hosing the cigarette down. ‘It’s not easy these days, lighting a cigarette’, Biedermann opines. ‘Don’t you just hate it?’

The opening fizzes – and kindles into the rest of The Arsonists, a satire on accommodation and appeasement in which pillar-of-the-community Biedermann gives shelter to a pair of firestarters. The play wonders at those who stamp out the smallest instances of flames, but are powerless in the face of mass arson; at those who bow and scrape to those who wish to destroy them, in the misguided belief that creeping charm is the antidote to evil.

The Arsonists is a new translation of Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s Fifties play, Biedermann und die Brandstifter. Although Frisch himself noted that his work is ‘a moral play without a moral’, it mounts a mortar attack on liberals who talk the liberal talk but can’t defend the liberal walk. The kind of people who pay lip service to the idea of forging a better society, but in fact hand the matches to those who want to see it go up in flames. The Swiss playwright may have had the insidious nature of fascism in mind, but this new production calls to mind the murderous splatter of the suicide bomber.

It is a form of self-loathing – and the sort of position now espoused by certain Western liberals and their heroes, like the Indian Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy. In an interview with Haaretz, Roy stated: ‘[A]ll the battles that we fight, if the people that we are supporting end up winning, we will be the first ones to be hanged from the nearest tree. The Maoists, the Islamic movement in Kashmir. Sometimes you are fighting on the side of people who have no space for you in their imagination.’ (1)

The premise of the play is simple. Arsonists are setting fire to London. And all the Fire Brigade can do is wait for the licking flames. ‘Watching / Listening / So the combustible threat / Hidden from sight / Is revealed / Before it’s too late / To put out the flames.’ Gottlieb Biedermann (brilliantly played by Will Keen) has a very nice, affluent life, with a nice wife, a beautiful home and a diligent maid at his beck and call. ‘The play itself is an extended metaphor about the weakness of personal ethics in the face of evil’, explains the play’s translator, Alistair Beaton – the liberal satirist responsible for Channel 4’s entertaining hatchet job on former cabinet minister David Blunkett, A Very Social Secretary.

Biedermann, Beaton notes, is ‘a man of contradictions. In his business life, he is brutal and unforgiving. In the domestic arena, he tries to live a life of blameless, middle-class decency… It is this sense of bourgeois propriety that renders Biedermann defenceless when two Arsonists turn up at his door.’ Others would be better deserving of Biedermann’s sympathy: the maid he causes to cry by telling her to remove all the house finery for fear it provoke the Arsonists; the loyal employee Biedermann fires from his hair rejuvenating company – and who promptly sticks his head in the oven, at Biedermann’s suggestion. But Biedermann is motivated by fear for himself, not by compassion. When another Arsonist moves in to the attic and fills it with drums of petrol, Biedermann’s desire to accommodate only ramps up several notches, and very soon, he’s served the Arsonists his best wine and joined them in a round of ‘London’s Burning’; by making them his friends, by seeking to understand them, they won’t hurt him, surely?

Theatre in London may be very many things, but it is not right-wing. The Arsonists has therefore created a frisson of bemusement as many commentators trace in it uncompromising right-wing posturing. Some somewhat deluded commentators have even seen the Arsonists as metaphors for arrivals on the boat of Mass Immigration. Letting the Arsonists into their midst, Quentin Letts suggested in the Daily Mail, meant Biedermann and his wife deserved the inferno they brought upon themselves: ‘Come the end there is little to be felt but a strong sense of “serves the beggars right”… If you give arsonists a box of matches there is only one possible fate, just as there may well be if we hurtle towards greater immigration and tolerance of the rights-assertion crowd.’

The Independent, on the other hand, decries any association between modern Britain and Biedermann: ‘The play is the opposite of pertinent to our times. Far from being latter-day Biedermanns, we are, if anything, too prone to paranoia; trigger-happy in a state of fear that may inure us to the steady erosion of our civil liberties.’ The play is not about the terror threat, it is not about Iraq or Afghanistan, but it does raise pertinent questions. It does not advise against immigration, as Letts suggests; it advises against closing down your own argument for fear of provoking those that threaten you into action; at failing to get to the bottom of issues, because our civilised veneer might crack and the debate might get heated. The battle of ideas, as far as Biedermann is concerned, is a heap of ashes, and there’s no way to move forward.

It also warns against attributing intellectual reasoning to meaningless actions. As often argued on spiked, attributing rational thought – beyond a kind of haughty disgust for society and the people who live in it – to suicide bombing is misguided (see Car bombs packed with nihilism, by Brendan O’Neill). In The Arsonists, there is a doctor of philosophy who seeks to explain the ideology of the Arsonist ‘movement’. And as one of the Arsonists declares, ‘You know, sometimes I wonder why you’re with us. You don’t really enjoy it, do you, setting places on fire? You don’t get off on it. The sparks, the flames, the smoke, the noise. Dogs barking, people screaming, fire engines arriving too late. Ashes…’

And as Biedermann’s own house is about to go up in flames, the doctor of philosophy has a change of heart, declaring he can ‘no longer be silent’; he fishes a document from his jacket and reads. But what he says cannot be heard above the unleashed inferno. The noise of nihilism drowns out the possibly intelligent statement.

The Arsonists, makes you pause quite as uncomfortably as Biedermann, shift about in your seat and compare. But it is, above all, a comic piece. It does not define any contemporary position, but rankles it – in an extremely amusing way.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and freelances for Dazed and Confused.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Theatre

(1) The god of big things, Haaretz

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