I went with a friend Tuesday night to Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium‘s performance of The Arsonists, a new translation of Max Frisch’s The Firebugs. It was a fast-paced, smart (and appropriately ridiculous) production that left us wanting to talk about class and responsibility and expectations, but that’s someone else’s dissertation. More up my alley, though, the play also made some very astute use of food to convey both class and the social codes of graciousness by which we are meant to abide.
In brief, The Arsonists takes place in the home of a wealthy businessman, Biedermann, who at the production’s opening is railing about the increasing threat of Arsonists. Arsonists are people who arrive in your home, take advantage of your hospitality, and then set your house on fire; Biedermann is horrified by this criminal trend in a genteel newspaper-reader’s way, and proclaims that he would offer no bed to any potential Arsonist.
Naturally, he is visited by a homeless man with rough manners and unspecified motive, a wrestler named Joe. Once Joe is inside the house, Biedermann feels compelled to be polite to him, although he weakly protests at first that he has no spare beds. (Joe assures him that he wants no such thing; though he later takes a corner of the attic.) Biedermann politely asks Joe if he would like a little wine and bread; Joe enthusiastically accepts, and adds that he would appreciate a tomato, pickle, and some mustard on top of that. Then he plops down into Biedermann’s chair and makes himself at home. When the maid arrives with his refreshment, he playfully admonishes her for forgetting the mustard; she goes huffily back to the kitchen to get it, and Joe moans to Biedermann that he can see that the maid doesn’t like him, that she would see him out in the rain if she could. Biedermann reassures Joe that this is not the case, that no one would send him out in the rain, that he was welcome to sit and enjoy his refreshment.
This exchange sets the template for Joe’s increasingly demanding presence in the Biedermann house. He never asks for anything until the Biedermanns offer; when they offer, he asks for just a little more; when he gets it, he complains about the quality and/or wails that that he is unwanted and disliked, compelling the superficially polite Biedermanns to reassure him of his welcome. This repeated exchange draws out some sharp implications about class expectations. The wealthy Biedermanns do not, in fact, want to welcome Joe into their home, but they do not want to seem impolite or ungracious, and they also fear making him angry. But they – and we, the audience – also do not expect or appreciate that homeless Joe asks for so much and receives it so ungraciously. Whenever Joe makes a remark that indicates both his knowledge of the refinements he could be receiving and his displeasure that these expectations have not been met – the Beaujolais could be warmer, the table has no cloth – the audience titters. (In this collective response, which I certainly shared, I nonetheless heard an echo of conservative fears that food stamp recipients spend their government support on steak and lobster. Latoya Peterson has a great critique of that straw argument, also linked on my Quick Bites page.) In the performance we saw, Mr. and Mrs. Biedermann glided on glibly through their script without acknowledging that Joe overstepped a social boundary. In fact, over breakfast Joe’s manipulation of the social code of hospitality ended with Joe theatrically sobbing about his poor, mannerless life and Mrs. Biedermann physically restraining him from leaving the house, begging him to take another cup of coffee and remain their guest. The audience laughed outright at this scene, perhaps because of the great discrepancy between what each character wanted and the performance they gave to manipulate the other. For while Joe is transparently manipulating the Biedermanns into accepting him (and his friends, and his barrels of petrol) into their home, the Biedermanns are certainly trying to manipulate Joe into the role of honored guest, with the (misplaced) hope that he will leave quietly without disrupting either their home or their appearance of being gracious hosts.
The thoughtful twist of this play is that the Arsonists act as a symbol for evil; Frisch’s original post-WWII piece was a comment on how evil might been invited into the home, welcomed even, and entrenched over time. (I had a college professor who referred to this as the “banality of evil,” a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of Facism.) One could extend that metaphor to include the rituals of feeding that take place in this play: the Biedermanns feed evil, even press nourishment upon it even though they do not really wish to, because it seems at the time to be the right thing to do.