by Dan O'Neil
Originally published on CULTUREBOT on September 4th, 2015
Fire, as a concept or symbol, has taken on a wide range of meaning throughout literary and dramatic history. I think almost immediately of The Firebugs, a German play written in 1953 by Max Frisch, in which a duo of arsonists go house to house and talk their way into the home owner’s attic under guise of simply staying the night. Of course, by morning the house is ablaze – to the great surprise of the homeowners, who had gone so far as to offer the arsonists (upon their request) matches. Here, the house on fire (i.e., the logical outcome of harboring arsonists) acts generally as a metaphor for fascism in action – “We never dreamed it could happen here!” takes on different meaning when you’re the ones who invited the perpetrators to live upstairs. Then there’s Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, replete with burning books and flaming houses. In Bradbury’s novel, the act of burning has an alternative political resonance – it’s the active suppression of ideas for the betterment of ‘public happiness.’
However, if one were to consider and examine the use of fire as a symbol in Fireface, a Third Space production currently playing at The Brick, I think its closest literary ally might be Stephen King’sFirestarter. Remember that one? I probably read that book sometime around age twelve, which was the right age to feel that surge of heated emotion that comes with the territory of hormonal changes, puberty, and the sensation of ‘coming of age.’ In King’s novel, the fire comes from a nine-year-old girl who is being pursued by a dystopian government because she is capable of setting shit aflame, in a big epic way. It’s also science fiction – the firepower comes from her mind, not from any rational means.
Fireface, a German play written by Marius von Mayenburg and first staged in 1998, is not science fiction – it’s a family drama that falls somewhere nearer to dark comedy bordering on horror. As a play, it seems primarily interested in shocking you by showing you callous youth behaving recklessly, and it features a central character who seems plucked out of a Stephen King novel. Kurt (played convincingly by Tim Creavin), is a dead-eyed adolescent on the verge of puberty, who is more than a little bit into his older sister (Olga, rendered through a combination of teenage detachment and manic exuberance by Rachel Keller), and a burgeoning arsonist who doesn’t flinch at the idea of setting his own face on fire when Ogla decides to lose her virginity to a suitor named Paul (played with appropriate angst and bad-boyness by Steven Robertson). His parents, only referred to in the play as Mother and Father (Danielle Delgado and Paul Albe), just don’t quite understand what those kids might be up to by locking themselves upstairs in a room together. While the parents don’t literally provide the matches, as in the Firebugs, their willful ignorance will, to put it lightly, come back to haunt them.
The production itself, directed intelligently by Benjamin Viertel, gives us a front-row seat to Kurt’s descent and Olga’s sexual awakening. Brown carpeting, a couple of chairs, a creaky table, and a gray designer sofa take up the central corridor of the Brick, and the audience is seated in two single rows along the wall. There is ample food play – I think a few people near me got little bits of noodles to take home with them if they so chose. (It’s not gonna stain, don’t worry about it.) The staging is precise, jumping from moment to moment without pause, and the performances remain engaging throughout – the deadpanned scenes between the Mother and the Father in particular add humor to a piece that greatly benefits from giving its audience permission to laugh every so often. The moments that are designed to shock are generally successful, if slightly pre-ordained by the stage action that precede them. That said, I think audiences are pretty hard to shock these days. The night I was in the audience, the largest gasp was elicited when Olga actually lit her cigarette and took a drag. I guess we’re so used to watching actors pretending to smoke on stage that the real thing seemed somehow transgressive. Again though, the reason that it feels transgressive? (FIRE.) What if she doesn’t put it all the way out? We’re also treated to various glimpses of Kurt with the Zippo full blaze, and one kind-of-moving-in-a-way scene wherein Olga and Kurt hold their Zippos together to create one single flame. They’re… in love.
All in all, I find it disturbingly easy to relate to the compulsions of pyromania, and I suspect many of us take pleasure from fire that is derived from some inner welling up of desire, beyond the act of enjoying the simple natural beauty of a flame, or making use of the warmth it provides us in colder months. I never burned down buildings, though. (What I did do once was build a little house made out of a cardboard box, set it up on a big stretch of pavement where there was relatively low risk of it spreading, and then torch the thing. Again, I was probably around twelve.) For me, what’s compelling and dangerous about fire, and specifically the act of setting things aflame, is this sense that things can get out of control pretty easily; fascism is a thing that can spread, consume; government censorship starts with the banning of a single book, and before you know it, they’re burning down libraries; and that little girl in Firestarter is capable of cracking the planet in two if someone doesn’t figure out a way to contain her supernatural powers and urges.
In Fireface, things eventually do get out of control – a lot out of control, to the extent the fire becomes Kurt’s only solution for escaping the situation he’s created. There is also a desire, though, for the fire to become something other than the means of destruction. A teenager who likes to burn things isn’t a terribly unique creation, and I’m not sure that the play gives fire (as an idea) enough space to flame into something that provides us with additional insight (into being a teen, hating your parents, being sexual with your sister, say). Honestly, maybe it’s not necessary – maybe we can fill in those blanks on our own, we don’t a metaphor acting on us at the same time. Perhaps that’s where the pleasure of watching a kid turn into an arsonist psychopath derives from; instead of starting with fire as a physical thing and slowly filling it with meaning, maybe Mayenburg is doing the opposite – showing us a metaphor and slowly emptying it out until there’s nothing left but that last flicker of flame.