Post-Design Modernism

October 2012

USM Production


The scene opens to a man uncomfortable in his skin. He is tired aloof and angry. As the play progresses, the character does not. The content of dialog and the emotional portrayal of Biedermann are relentless. This character constantly hits the same note, and this note is discordant. However, the main characteristic of a postmodern play is the questioning of excepted theatrical conventions; rather, a postmodern play causes the audience to question their preconceived notions of what a play should be. The intention of the play is to cause a level of discomfort in the audience, so it is understandable that the protagonist be written as aloof and irritating, even a caricature of reality. Yet, nowhere does Firebugs by Max Frisch portray the postmodern aspect better than in the area of design; the sound design, lighting design, and set design all strongly display a postmodern bent.

The sound design of this play is largely conventional; sound plays a supporting role backing up the themes and action of the play. The preshow music was driving, computerized music of the industrial genre. The juxtaposition of modern day music with a play written in the 1970’s is postmodernism in its simplest and most subtle form. This style of music led to a feeling of disconnection and hopelessness that meshed perfectly with the play’s theme. However, the plays sound effects, for the most part, served only in the traditional sense to back up the action of the play. There were no sounds incongruous to the action that they were developing. The street scene had the expected sound of car horns and traffic, and the finale with the explosion and fire had the roar of fire, the cacophony of busy firefighters, and other sounds one would expect. The sounds were jarring and unsettling but not in the typical postmodern style. Yet, there were two instances where the sound effects could qualify as postmodern. The recording that signified the start of the play asked the audience to put out their lanterns and extinguish any open flame to avoid disrupting the actors or the audience. The carryover of theme and unusual language of preshow admonishment leads one to question if it is part of the play or just part of the typical playhouse routine. Additionally, the siren that sounds during the fire scene was reminiscent of an air raid siren leading the audience to question their assumptions for other meaning or symbolism hidden within the play. This questioning of preconceived notions is part and parcel to the postmodern ideal. Therefore, the sound design plays a part in putting forward the postmodern agenda of this play.

The lighting design pushes the postmodern aspect of this play one step further; the open, unhidden light fixtures, the color of the lights, and the use of movable lighting add to the unnerving aspect of this play. Foremost, the lights of a play are typically hidden from the audience with their only evidence being the brightening of the stage. However, postmodern plays do away with such theatrical conventions, and the light fixtures were not hidden behind curtains or blocked from view in any way. The flaunting of conventions forced the audience to reinterpret how they approach a play and, hopefully, how they approach life in general. Next, the colors of the lights set the mood of the play and helped to advance the theme. Although technically part of set design, the dingy bulbs glowing with a soft orange light over Biedermann’s dining room added a shabby dangerousness that perfectly complemented the theme of the play. The blue lights flooding the scene added a somber, depressing, off kilter feeling to the set. The yellow light that bathed the attic foreshadowed the burning of the house in the climactic scene, and the yellow and red of the fire were blindingly fantastic. The mobile lights were used in unconventional ways. The spot light was used to draw attention to the absurdity of Biedermann’s decisions. Every time that Biedermann was faced with a chance to change the tide of action and bring himself and his family through unscathed, the lights dropped and the spotlight swung wide to train in on him. This use of spotlight served to alienate Biederman from the rest of the characters and the audience as they gazed in awe at him making another bad decision. Even more unconventionally, the chorus had extremely bright LED flashlights strapped to their helmets. Technically part of costume design, the flashlights on the helmets of the chorus were a sadistic masterpiece; not only does this clever idea stay burned into the minds of the audience, but also the idea stays burned into the retinas of the people in the first row. Therefore, the use of flashlights is postmodern intention and not simply irritating. However, irritating is postmodern, and the lighting design of Firebugs is definitely postmodern.

The abstract but functional set design, while promoting a postmodern feel, added a gloomy, paranoid treatment to the whole play. The color scheme stood out as a great contributor to mood. The scenery was colored a rusty brown with large gears strewn about like a junkyard for discarded goliath war machines. The parts that were left unpainted were bathed in a sinister, dark blue light.  The result was a backdrop that could stand alone as a three-dimensional abstract work of art. The set had multiple levels, and the borders of each level stood as symbols for walls that did not exist. The attic was the only room with even the semblance of walls. In fact, the walls of the attic were created in the audience’s imagination by the charred remains of the room’s loadbearing studs. Additionally, the imaginary walls spur the audience to question not just the conventions of the play but the conventions of life in general. Like walls on the set, normal life is structured and segmented; each segment is named and categorized, and like the set of this play, these walls cannot truly exist or life could not be appreciated as a whole. Thus, the total effect of this stage design served to put the audience on edge, and planted the seeds of haunted imaginings in the audience’s mind while maintaining a postmodern ethic.

Firebugs by Max Frisch portrays its postmodern roots with effective lighting, sound, and set design. The intent of a postmodern play is to cause the audience to question every aspect of a play and discern for themselves what is more important the story or the tools that are used to create the story. Yet, the question remains; was Biedermann’s incessant single emotion barrage the postmodern intent of a bad director, or the failing of a bad actor? Yet, Biedermann carries on without reflection, understanding, or a discernible change in emotion.


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