This article was written by Laura Schroeder for the Duluth Playhouse.

The Arsonists was written by a Swiss playwright, Max Frisch, in 1953. It started as a radio play titled “Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter” (translated to Mr. Biedermann and the arsonists), but has been known throughout its history by names such as The Firebugs or The Fire Raisers. This play was adapted for the stage in 1958 with six scenes and spurred decades of inspiring productions.

“If anyone has a conscience it’s generally a guilty one.” – Max Frisch

The Arsonists is known as a dark comedy, and something that fits well with that vibe is the fact that this play is also thick with social commentary. Written in a setting of politically tense 1950s GermanyThe Arsonists focuses on Biedermann’s struggle with himself as well as the large-scale struggle of humanity. In the 1950s, Germany was still recovering from World War II, the German state ceasing to exist in 1945 after Germany’s unconditional surrender to the victorious Allied Powers. In Germany, the end of the war is referred to as “zero hour”, meaning almost everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up. This discord in government is not only seen in Germany, but in any setting or government.

Benedict Cumberbatch in the Royal Court Theatre’s production of The Arsonists in 2007.

“The weakness of [the play] is that it makes everything too simple. As propaganda this is two-edged, double faced and useless. It is all very well to say, come to no compromise with the fire raisers. But who are they? If this piece is played in Moscow the answer is Kennedy; if in New York, Khrushchev. The message changes with the geography.” – Original review from the Times

The Underground Theatre has earned a reputation for doing risky, off-kilter productions, and The Arsonists is no different. This play follows Goetlieb Biedermann, a man who became wealthy selling hair follicle replacer and has become distinguished in his community because of it. The town this man lives in is constantly attacked by two self-proclaimed arsonists who disguise themselves as salesmen, gaining entry to townsfolk’s homes, and eventually, setting them ablaze. Biedermann is convinced he could never fall prey to arson himself, and prides himself on his awareness of what is happening. He represents the common man amidst a sea of evil, something each person deals with at some point or another.

“Strictly speaking, every citizen above a certain level of income is guilty of some offense.” – Max Frisch

The cast of The Arsonists during their first read-through of the script.

This play is unsurprisingly relevant today, both for the similarity in political climates in any country as well as the constant personal introspection of the audience seeing it. If you’re ready for shock, absurdity, and just plain good content, join us for The Arsonists!






  • What: The Arsonists 
  • Where: The Underground Theatre (506 West Michigan Street)
  • When: February 20-29 2020
  • Showtimes: Thursday – Saturday @ 7:30pm
  • Tickets: Standard – $20  // Student Rush – $18
  • Purchase:   //  218-733-7555 (M-F, 10am-6pm)