The Arsonists Explores the Downside of Appeasement

Categories: Theater

Firefighters (front l-r, Tristan Cunningham*, Kevin Clarke) observe as a policeman (r, Michael Uy Kelly) pays a surprise visit, and Mr. Biedermann (c, Dan Hiatt*) tries to get to the bottom of the arsonists' (l, Tim Kniffin*, c. l, Michael Ray Wisely*) actions in his attic in The Arsonists
Long time Bay Area actor Dan Hiatt who stars in Max Frisch's The Arsonists at the Aurora Theatre, says the comic parable contains elements of farce, tragedy, and a morality play.

"I like things that are unique and unclassifiable," Hiatt says. "It's its own genre."

Hiatt plays Mr. Biedermann, a respected businessman who lets two arsonists into his house, hoping that by appeasing them, he will keep himself safe and prevent anything bad from happening. Biedermann is a bit of a pompous stuffed shirt, and the tragic elements of the play come in because of the character's flaw, Hiatt says.

"He's never established a strong moral background," he says about Biedermann. "He has a lot of fear and guilt, and he won't acknowledge that. The last thing he wants is to be seen as anything other than polite and liberal, and that makes him ripe for being exploited by these arsonists."

Inspired by the coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 as well as the Nazis rise to power, Frisch wrote The Arsonists as a radio play in 1953 and later revised it for the stage.

"Frisch was Swiss, so he was close to Nazi Germany, and it was a waning for people not to co-opt themselves and allow evil into the world," Hiatt says. "It's every bit as relevant now in a different, more subtle way. It's about the problem of fear and how we respond to the threat of terrorism."

The play made Hiatt think of the famous line from the William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Complacency comes easily when our lives are comfortable, Hiatt believes.

"This guy is trying at all costs to maintain his easy, quiet life," Hiatt says. "He says that several times. In trying to maintain, he manages to lose the whole thing because he's trying to hang on to it so hard."

Mr. Biedermann (c, Dan Hiatt*) sings a friendly song with the arsonists (l, Tim Kniffin*, r, Michael Ray Wisely*) in The Arsonists
Bay Area performer, director and writer Mark Jackson directed The Arsonists. Hiatt calls Jackson " a contagiously energetic person" and says he was glad of the opportunity to work with him.

"He's got a great vision and he's got excellent staging," Hiatt said. "I really trust him to stage this play well for the Aurora -- he's worked a lot there."

Hiatt says Jackson's experience as an actor helps.

"He really knows what we need to do to get this play done. We had a lot of doing and not so much talking in rehearsal," Hiatt says. "We'd run through the play, and he'd say, 'OK, run it again.' I'm as lazy as anyone. I'd love to sit and talk about it and take notes, but running it again is really a good use of time and what will benefit actors the most."

The Arsonists opens April 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St, Berkeley. Tickets are $35-60. For information call (510) 843-4822 or visit

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