The Swiss novelist and dramatist Max Frisch (1911-1991) explored the nature of human identity, individuality, and responsibility. His work is characterized by an ironic depiction of the issues confronting man in a technological society.
Max Frisch was born May 15, 1911, in Zurich and raised in a conventional middle-class milieu. His father's sudden death in 1933 forced him to abandon his studies in Germanic philology and literature at the University of Zurich and become a journalist to support himself and his mother. He wrote primarily about sporting events for newspapers, but his work allowed him to travel widely. An assignment on the Dalmatian coast inspired his first novel, Jürg Reinhardt: Eine sommerliche Schicksalsfahrt (Jürg Reinhardt: A Summer's Journey) (1934), which later was shortened considerably to serve as the initial portion of the author's extended prose fiction J'adore ce qui me brûle—oder die Schwierigen (1943). These two narratives reveal Frisch's early concern with the theme of man's quest for his true identity.
In 1937, despondent because of a lack of critical notice, Frisch vowed never to write again and resumed his education with funding by a family friend. He earned a university diploma in architecture, a field he pursued successfully after his army service to 1954. One of his commissions was from the city of Zurich to create the Zurich Recreational Park. When he was drafted into the army in 1939, however, he started to keep a diary, which was published in 1940 as Blätter aus dem Brotsack (Pages from a Knapsack).
Four years later, encouraged by a drama critic, Frisch wrote his first play, the symbolic Bin, or the Voyage to Peking, followed by the baroque Santa Cruz (1944). The war years left their mark on the playwright, and his initial stage production, Now They Sing Again (1945), poignantly evokes the pathos and agony of the conflict. His grim farce, The Wall of China (1946), deals surrealistically with a man's impotence when confronted by the forces of history. When the War Was Over (1949), more conventional in structure, deals with Frisch's recurring theme of responsibility and guilt. The inability of intellectuals to expose evil and take a stand against it appears to Frisch to be a major factor in the rise and supremacy of Nazism.
In these productions various scenes at different locations may take place simultaneously with minimal stage sets. Influenced by Bertolt Brecht, the playwright believed that the stage should not allow the audience to escape into an illusion of reality. Characters alternately enact their roles and step out of them, thus confronting the audience directly with the issues. The actors portray allegorical figures, frequently wearing masks to conceal their real identities and thus achieving loss of individuality. To emphasize this absence of romantic personal expression, Frisch had four actors play 12 parts in Count Oderland (1951), a dramatic attempt to mirror the chaotic nature of the modern age. The mask projects a superficial image to the viewer. The image, whether created or accepted by the individual, is difficult to dispel; and the struggle to escape from this dilemma is the source of modern tragicomedy.
Frisch's ironic comedy, Don Juan, or the Love of Geometry (1953), deals with a man trapped by his public image who must free himself by escaping into marriage. In a more serious vein, Andri, the protagonist of Andorra (1962), is persecuted as an alleged Jew. Four years previously Frisch had plunged into black comedy and the theater of the absurd with Biedermann and the Incendiaries, a sardonic commentary depicting a world of meaningless habit and of never-ending production and consumption, with absurdity attached to any traditional value.
During the 1950s Frisch resumed his fiction writing, pursuing the same themes of his plays. I'm Not Stiller (1954), the author's best-known novel, portrays a sculptor who attempts to escape from his self-imposed prison and fulfill himself, only to capitulate in the end because his public will not accept the change. Similarly, Faber in Homo Faber (1957) never really lives; rather he hides behind a mask. And the only way that Frisch's protagonist, Gontenbein, in A Wilderness of Mirrors (1962) can truly get to know and understand people is by pretending to be blind; only then do they feel sufficiently secure to remove their masks. This role playing, according to Frisch, is both misleading and fatal to love because it renders impossible the necessary adjustments and compromises involved in a constantly evolving relationship.
In 1975 he published Montauk, a novel that many critics felt was deserving of the Nobel Prize. In this work he draws from his relationship with Ingeborg Bachman, another writer. The book was described by Rüdiger Görner, a newspaper biographer, as "the most rigourous and tender, scrutinising and melancholic book Frisch wrote." When a journalist once asked him if he would like to correct any misinformation that had been published about him, he replied, "Fame is based on misstatements, so you should not correct them." He received many honors and awards for his plays and fiction from foundations and universities around the world. Among the later ones were: the German Book Trade Freedom Prize, 1976; commander, Ordre des Artes et des Lettres, 1985; Commonwealth Award, Modern Language Association, 1985; and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1986. In 1986 Frisch stopped writing because of failing health. He died in Zurich at the age of 80 on April 4, 1991.
No critical biography of Frisch exists in English. Martin Esslin in The Theater of the Absurd (1961; rev. ed. 1969) considers several of Frisch's plays.
Further information on Frisch can be found in Deborah Andrews, ed., The Annual Obituary 1991 (1992), Mark Hawkins-Dady, ed., International Dictionary of Theatre: Playwrights (1994), and Leonard S. Klein, ed., World Literature: 20th Century (1967; rev. ed. 1982).