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Release: Jan. 21, 2000

Self-deception, moral responsibility fuel the flames in 'The Firebugs' Feb. 3-13

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Issues of self-deception and moral responsibility fuel the flames in the University Theatres Mainstage production of the satiric parable "The Firebugs" by Swiss playwright Max Frisch, Feb. 3-13 in Theatre B of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 3-5, and Wednesday through Saturday, Feb. 9-12, and at 3 p.m. Feb. 6, 12 and 13.

Written in 1958, Frisch's incendiary satire takes place in a town where arsonists are wreaking terror and destruction. So what does one Gottlieb Biedermann (which in German means "God-loving honest man") do when the firebugs set up residence in his own attic? Confront and expose them to end their destruction of the community, or placate them in hopes of protecting the quiet life and security of his own family?

As a young architect and journalist during World War II, Frisch was assigned to guard Switzerland's border with Nazi Germany, and only a few feet within the safety of his neutral country he began to ponder the horror that was consuming Europe. How was the insanity of Hitler's regime allowed to reach this extremity? Was he in some way responsible? How come we seem unable to learn from the past?

Taking inspiration from his friendship with Bertolt Brecht and a production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," Frisch chose to grapple with these questions in "The Firebugs," even employing a modern version of the epic Greek chorus in "The Firebugs," just as Wilder did in his play. Because the subject of the play is arson, Frisch created a chorus of firefighters.

In his denial, selfishness and complacency, his Biedermann is a clueless but guilty Everyman, not overtly or militantly evil but complicit in the destruction of his community and home -- a symbol to Frisch of the cowardly inaction that made Europe an accomplice in Hitler's reign of terror. Even though he has attempted to appease the terrorists by giving them matches, Biedermann is unable to view himself as anything but a victim.

But the issues raised by "The Firebugs" are universal and still timely. Frisch said he addressed "the impossibility of going on living and at the same time retaining our morals -- a dilemma exacerbated in times of terrorism. What instrument does terrorism use? It uses our will to live and thus our fear of dying. . ."

So director Cheryl L. Kaplan, a graduate student in the UI department of theatre arts from Ames, has transferred the story to America, where our dreams of security are still rooted in the 1950s "Father Knows Best" idealism that was contemporary with Frisch's "Firebugs."

"It is easy for Americans to view the Holocaust as something that happened over there, and was done by those people," she says. "We think not only that it didn't happen here, but that it couldn't happen here. I hope that by setting the play in America, we will see that Biedermann is one of us."

In a half-century writing career, Frisch produced novels, memoirs and plays, and for many years he was considered a leading contender for the Nobel Prize. He wrote: "I would consider that I fulfilled my job as a dramatist if a play of mine ever succeeded in posing a question in such a way as to compel the members of the audience that, from that moment on, they were unable to go on living without an answer."

Other artistic contributors to the UI production of "The Firebugs" are scene designer Parit Thossilaporn, lighting designer Kelly Perkins Smith, costume designer Loyce Arthur, sound designer Ethan Bade and dramaturgs Kristen Gandrow and Tom Gibbons.

Tickets for "The Firebugs" are $15 ($7 for UI students, senior citizens and youth). They may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be on sale one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Tickets may also be purchased at a substantial discount as part of University Theatres' three-play season package. The three remaining productions in the Mainstage season are "The Firebugs"; "Orestes 2.0" by Charles Mee, Feb. 17-27; and Shakespeare's "The Tempest," April 6-16.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

For UI arts news and information, and arts calendar updates, visit the ArtsIowa website, <>.