The legendary playwright and director discusses the 1953 absurdist political allegory, now on stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre.
Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych is known for his black humour, but in his latest directing project with Canadian Stage, it’s better described as charred.
The Arsonists, originally titled Biedermann und die Brandstifter, is an absurdist comedy, written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1953. It opened this week at the Bluma Appel Theatre, in an English translation by Alistair Beaton. The central character is an everyman named Biedermann, who unknowingly welcomes two dangerous arsonists into his home. The story that follows was conceived as an allegory for Nazism and the willingness of “regular” citizens to be corrupted by evil.
This particular project came as a surprise to Panych. He was already planning another production with Canadian Stage when The Arsonists came into the picture. But after finding his own unique approach to it, primarily by incorporating original music by Outside Music musician and singer Justin Rutledge, Panych has developed a very personal connection to the “odd little play” he now loves.
Torontoist: What first drew you to The Arsonists?
Morris Panych: That’s a funny story. Nothing, really. I was supposed to do another play and we were in the middle of casting it, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. I guess because we had such a success with Art we thought that we would do something, you know, popular. But [Matthew Jocelyn, artistic director of Canadian Stage] decided he didn’t want to do that, so he showed me this script. I already knew the script because Albert Schultz [artistic director of Soulpepper] had shown it to me the year before. I was like “What is with this script? Why are people…” Anyway I read it a second time, and I thought, well, it’s fun. It’s a little crazy. It’s weird, it’s really weird. It’s an odd little play.
But what was it, in the play, that you really connected with?
There’s a Greek chorus and we didn’t have a lot of people for casting, so we decided to set it to music. I hit on the idea of using Justin Rutledge because I had seen him in a show at Theatre Passe Muraille [in Divisadero, directed by Daniel Brooks] and I thought he was really cool. I interviewed a couple other people but nobody seemed as engaged as he was in the ideas. So when Justin got on board, I thought, “Oh this could be something good.” So that’s what attracted me to the play, it was kind of through the back end. I liked the script but I wanted to make sure there was something I was into doing with it, because we had started with this whole other idea.
So now that it’s up on its feet, how do you feel about it?
There are certain things that are puzzling to me still. I like how quirky it is, I like how in your face it is, I like how it’s trying to say something intelligent and complex in a very farcical way, which is something I try to do with my own writing. I like the absurdity of it. I’m not sure everybody’s going to get it, it’s kind of crazy. I love the music, I love everything about it now. I don’t have any children, but it’s how I imagine you are with your children. You go through periods of thinking they’re puzzling or weird, but you always love them because you spend so much time nurturing it.
Tell us what it’s about.
Well you can read any one of these fucking posters they put all over the place giving the entire synopsis. It’s extremely irritating. You go, “Why would we do the play if you’ve already told the story out here?” Anyway, whatever.
In your own words?
Well, they would have to be my own words. It’s kind of a crazy parable about how gullible people will make themselves, how willing they are to not believe in the truth that’s happening right in front of them. Like, to drink the Kool-Aid and think that nothing’s really happening.
There are parallels now, like with our own government. We know what they say they’re up to, but we don’t know what they’re really doing. There are less and less checks and balances. I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re Nazis or anything, but they’re operating in a weirdly secretive way. But people have come to accept that; people are willfully blind to things sometimes. We know that in the past, in Nazi Germany, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary, in France, and all over Europe before the Second World War people were in total denial.
Can you relate personally?
When I was younger, I was sort of a socialist, I guess. I believed in certain things, I protested Vietnam and blah blah blah, and all this sort of stuff, and I think they were all valid for me. But over time, I grew tired of my own life of questioning everything. It becomes a very difficult life of constantly turning on the TV and being angry and thinking of everyone being capitalist pigs. After a while, you just sort of fold into the general malaise of society as you get older, because you don’t have the energy to fight it after a while.
The play says it: people just want a quiet life. They don’t want trouble, they don’t want bother. They don’t want trouble. The minute they smell trouble they just run from it. And that’s how things like this happen: because people are scared, they’re thinking the worst.
Has this play shaken you up at all?
No, no. I always have a certain degree of vigilance. But how do you mobilize? What do you do? The whole proroguing thing that Harper did a few years ago, a lot of people still think that was a joke. That was serious shit. I was part of a core group of protestors. That was really an affront to democracy, and a lot of people just shrugged it off. Like, wow, this is how it starts. Who knows how far that could go given the will of people to give up their knowledge of what’s really going on just to live a peaceful, quiet existence. I think the play says that in a very comic, in-your-face, absurd way.
I know that absurdity is tricky, it’s hard to emotionally engage with absurdist theatre. You find it amusing and engaging, but the emotional content is often not there. So what we tried to do was create a little bit of emotional connection with the characters. You have to often sit on them to make them believable.
How do you want people to feel as they leave?
I have no fucking clue, I have no idea. I think you have to go in completely unarmed, no expectations. That’s why I hate these things that say “farce” and stuff.
This post originally stated that Justin Rutledge is signed to Six Shooter Records, when in fact he is currently signed with Outside Music. We regret the error.