Biography: A Game by Max Frisch (trans. Birgit Schreyer Duarte). Seagull Books, 121 pages, 12.00.
With a cast of only five characters and a set that consists of a few pieces of furniture, Biography: A Game is a spare play that asks a simple question: What would you do if you could live your life over?
The Swiss writer Max Frisch began his career as a playwright. He is probably best remembered for the biting political message of plays like Andorra, in which anti-Semitism takes root in a small mountain country, and The Firebugs, a parable of appeasement in which a farmer takes in two arsonists and explains away each of their increasingly sinister activities.
Biography: A Game came later than these, and is less well known, but it must have been important to Frisch. The play was first published in German in 1967, and appeared in an English translation by Michael Bullock in 1969. Frisch revised the play in 1984, and an English version of the revised play, by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, has now appeared.
By the time he died, in 1991, Max Frisch was probably most famous for his late novellas Montauk, Man in the Holocene, and Bluebeard, each of which investigated questions of memory, identity, and the choices that define each of our lives. In its subject matter, Biography has more in common with these than with his earlier plays. Yet it comes closer than the other plays to realizing Frisch’s beliefs about what theater is and what it can do.
As Biography opens, we see all five characters onstage: a behavioral researcher named Hannes Kürmann, his future wife Antoinette Stein, a Director, a Female Assistant, and a Male Assistant. They are rehearsing a play.
DIRECTOR. Are the ashtrays there?
DIRECTOR. Why are there no ashtrays?
Enter Male Assistant with ashtrays.
MALE ASSISTANT (M.A.). Sorry!
(He puts down three ashtrays and steps back.)
Female Assistant is flipping through the dossier; then she reads out —
FEMALE ASSISTANT (F.A). ‘After the guests had left, she just sat there. What do you do with a strange lady who won’t leave, who just stays and sits there in silence at two o’clock in the morning? It didn’t have to be that way . . . ‘
When the stage lighting is on, the production notes explain, we see a living room. When the working lights are on, we see a bare back wall, “a director’s desk with a small neon light, and two chairs.”
The deliberate attempt to break the fourth wall, to underline that we are an audience watching a play, may remind us of Bertolt Brecht — and in fact Frisch was a friend and admirer of Brecht, and devoted many pages to him in the two volumes drawn from his journals: Sketchbook 1946-1949 and Sketchbook 1966-1971. But an incident that occurred in 1946, the year before he met Brecht, may have been equally important in helping inspire Biography some twenty years later.
One day Frisch arrived early for the rehearsal of someone else’s play, and was struck by the power conveyed by an empty stage.
I should mention that there was just an ordinary working light on stage, an ashy light devoid of magic or so-called atmosphere, and it was obvious that the whole effect came from the fact that, apart from this little scene, there was nothing to see; everything around it was wrapped in night; for the length of a few seconds there had been only this in view: a cursing stagehand and a young actress going yawning to her dressing room, two human beings who met in space, who could walk and stand, upright, who possessed sounding voices, and then it was all over, inconceivable as when a person dies . . .
Something about this little occurrence strikes me as significant, reminds me too of what happens when we take an empty picture frame and test it against a bare wall. Perhaps it is a room in which we have been living for years, but now, for the first time, we notice the pattern on the wallpaper.
In this we can see the germ of a play that does not attempt to take the audience to a distant land or time. Instead it puts a frame around a life and helps us to see its pattern.
In the Sketchbooks, Frisch also worked out ideas of choice and free will that are at the heart of Biography. “We live on a conveyer belt and have no hope of ever catching up with ourselves and improving a moment of our life,” he writes at the beginning of Sketchbook 1946-1949. “Time does not change us,” he goes on. “It just unfolds us.” Time, in fact, is “a magic device which separates out our nature and makes it visible by laying out life, an omnipresence of all possibilities, as a series.”
Frisch goes on to say that our fascination with the people we love comes from our sense that we can never come to the end of their possibilities. We travel, too, so that “once again we can sense the possibilities life has to offer us.” With characteristic tartness he adds, “They are few enough in any case.”
Few though they may be, they are essential. “A man’s dignity,” Frisch writes in 1947, “lies in his freedom of choice. It is that which distinguishes human beings from animals; animals are always just the result of something; they cannot know guilt any more than they can be free; animals invariably do as they must; and they do not even know what they do.”
Biography was first published in 1967, during the period spanned by Frisch’s second Sketchbook. But unlike Andorra and The Firebugs, whose plots he wrote out as stories in the first Sketchbook, he writes about Biography only in abstract terms. In the first of two 1967 entries, each called “Concerning the Play,” he explodes the ancient dramatic notion of a character’s inevitable fate.
The plot that seeks to give the impression that it could only have happened in this particular way may always seem very satisfying, but it is untrue: all it really satisfies is a dramatic form, inherited from classical times — a form based on Providence and climax. This great heritage affects not only one’s literary judgment but life itself: basically, one is always waiting for the classical situation to occur in which a decision delivers one inexorably into the hands of Fate, and the situation does not arise.
In the second he explodes the idea that a play should imitate real life, and hints at the theme of do-overs that Biography is built around.
In real life we can perhaps, through a later action, make good some mistake that has occurred, but we cannot wipe it out, cannot cause it not to have happened; we cannot select some other behavior for a time that is past. Life is historical, definitive moment by moment, it allows no variations. A play allows these things. Flight from reality? The theater reflects it, but does not copy it. Nothing is more nonsensical than an imitation of reality, nothing more superfluous: there is reality enough already.
Max Frisch believes that free will is the essence of being human. In Biography, he creates a situation in which his hero, a behavioral scientist, is given the opportunity to exercise his free will not only into the future but to alter his past.
Again and again, Kürmann instructs the director to start the play at an earlier point in the story, but the result is never satisfactory. Kürmann’s main concern is to avoid an entanglement with Antoinette Stein, the woman who lingers at the end of his party. “I’ll believe that I can’t live without Antoinette Stein,” says the director, voicing the thoughts of Kürmann. “I’ll make it my destiny. For seven years. I’ll keep going to the ends of the earth for you until we need two lawyers.”
Each time, Kürmann’s efforts to make things turn out differently go awry. He cannot seem to change his words on the night of the party so that Antoinette will go away. He is given the chance to go back to childhood and avoid a fight that cost a schoolmate an eye — but recoils from the prospect of living through adolescence once more. He goes back to a scene from his marriage to avoid slapping his wife, but the chain of events leads to something much more terrible.
On the surface, the plot of Biography seems to contradict Frisch’s belief in free will. Nearly every action Kürmann takes leads him to the same result. But the essential difference is that Kürmann’s destiny is determined not by the gods but by his own character, by the choices he has made in the past, and by the character and choices of the other people in his life.
Kürmann can make his life turn out differently, but not without cost. In the end it is not so easy to find paths that are better than the ones he has chosen, and to pay the price necessary to follow those paths.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He is currently editing an anthology of African memoirs and two volumes of Thoreau’s writings on wildflowers and animals.
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