PMCCPMCCPMCC

Search tips
Search criteria 

Advanced

 
Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
 
BMJ. 2007 October 6; 335(7622): 725.
PMCID: PMC2001034
Between the Lines

A burning question

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Great works of literature have meanings beyond the most obvious, and judged by this standard Max Frisch's play The Fire Raisers is a great work. Frisch was a Swiss who worked for a number of years as an architect before turning full time to writing. No doubt unfairly, we do not normally associate the Swiss with literature: who ever uses the phrase “Swiss literature,” for example? Nor do we expect the best societies always to produce the best literature; for what is good for people is not necessarily good for writing.

In The Fire Raisers, an entire town is subject to a rash of arson attacks, so that everyone is terrified by the prospect of further attacks. The action of the play takes place in the home of Herr Biedermann, a rich bourgeois who makes his money from the manufacture and sale of fake hair restorative. Two dubious characters, Schmitz and Eisenring, take up residence in Herr Biedermann's attic. He does not want them there, but is too cowardly and pusillanimous to evict them.

Gradually, they make it clear to Herr Biedermann that they are the arsonists of whom the town is afraid. They move drums of petrol into the attic; they ask Herr Biedermann for help with the fuse with which they are going to light the fire; they even ask him, successfully, for the matches with which to start it.

Throughout the preparation of the fire, Herr Biedermann—though he hates, fears and despises Schmitz and Eisenring, and again through cowardice and pusillanimity—refuses to accept the evidence before his eyes.

Eisenring explains Schmitz's uncouth behaviour by his unhappy childhood, and Herr Biedermann, through sentimentality rather than from real sympathy, feels unable to answer. He invites the two interlopers to a dinner of goose stuffed with chestnuts (before accepting the invitation, Eisenring makes sure there is to be red cabbage also), and though the two are complete ruffians, they insist that the best silver, including finger bowls, be laid on a damask tablecloth. After dinner, they burn the house down, and the final scene takes place in Hell, where Herr Biedermann and his wife protest their innocence.

Frisch, of course, lived through the Nazi takeover of Germany, but saw it from the German-speaking fringe. It doesn't take much historical knowledge to understand that he is writing about the Nazi era, but not just about the Nazi era: his play is about the perpetual human temptation not to see, and then to compromise with evil.

Eisenring tells Herr Biedermann the secret of his success (but still Herr Biedermann disguises the truth from himself): “Joking is the third best method of hoodwinking people. The second best is sentimentality. The kind of stuff [Schmitz] goes in for—an orphanage, and so on. But the best and safest method—in my opinion—is to tell the plain unvarnished truth. Oddly enough. No one believes it.”

And Hitler, as we know, did not do anything that he did not say he was going to do in Mein Kampf.

What has all this to do with us, you ask. Well, a friend of mine was recently told by a manager of no clinical experience whatever that, by such and such a date, such and such a number of patients should have been on such and such a drug for such and such a period of time. If not, funding would decline.

Sometimes I wonder whether we in the medical profession have been, in our own small way, a pack of Herr Biedermanns.

A friend was recently told by a manager of no clinical experience that, by such and such a date, such and such a number of patients should have been on such and such a drug for such and such a period of time. If not, funding would decline


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Group