Choices and Consequences
‘Biography. A Game.’
A Play by Max Frisch, a Swiss playright (1911 – 1991)
I read recently a remarkable play. Biography. A Game – written by Max Frisch.
I paid the usual visit to the Curator coffee shop here in Totnes, Devon, England and started reading the play. Having read half the book, I returned home to pack for overseas, then returned to the coffee shop to read the last half of the book.
The play explores the theme of how our life can change on the smallest of events, on the interpretation of a detail. We may or not like many of our choices but we have to live with the consequences that can go on and on.
Even if we had made different decisions, we have no assurance that our life would have worked out better. The human being can spend an inordinate amount of time living in the “what if” rather than “what is.
Biography is rich in the storyline as well as in the intensity of the symbolism. I would imagine that Max Frisch had become deeply familiar with the groundbreaking works of Carl Jung, the founder of Jungian analysis in Switzerland. The Buddha also recognised that symbols (Pali language: nimitta) had as much significance for human beings as the bare facts. The world equally reveals itself as bare actualities of past and present as much as the psychology of interpretation with the symbolic element of what presents itself.
Frisch explores “what if “in terms of past events. There is this acknowledgement that our life turns its direction on small events, momentary decisions, impulses or a sudden reasoning. It is remarkable to think about what might have happened if we had made choices differently.
In early 1970, I remember hitchhiking up from Singapore, through Malaysia, to Thailand and north to Laos. I stayed in Thai Buddhist monasteries at night. In Chumpon, I asked a young monk where I could meet and have some discussion in Engllish with a senior Thai monk on deep issues. He directed me to Ajahn Buddhadasa of Wat Suanmoke (the Monastery of the Garden of Liberation), outside Chai Ya in the south of Thailand. It meant that I had to travel back a few hours to get to the monastery. Did I want to turn around? Should I just continue my journey north? I turned back and made the journey to meet with the Ajahn. A few months later, I ordained as a Buddhist monk. What would have become of my life if I decided to keep heading north rather than go back?
In the larger picture, our choices make little difference in the ultimate sense. Biography. A Game is one of those books that deserves a regular re-reading to draw upon its insights and our capacity to acknowledge and meditate on the choices and symbolic significance of them in our life.
Carl Jung point out that in the dream world every detail, sentient and material, matters. I believe the same principle applies to Biography.
It would be an enormous artistic challenge for a film crew, especially the director, to convey the significance of reflection, self-enquiry and the tendency of the mind to live in the dream world of what if. What if I had done things in a different way? What if I had made another decision?
In the play, the ‘Director,’ a central character, reminds another principle character, named Kurmann, a researcher of human behaviour, about his fight in school which deeply affected him, so that he acts from memory, not from the present. What if I had not blinded the schoolboy in one eye? What if I had not married my wife? What if I had not slapped her in a lengthy argument?
I made a few pen dots on lines that touched me as I read through the play. Throughout the text, references are made to cigarettes, pipes, smoking, lighters and ashtrays. Perhaps the symbolism (Frisch smoked a pipe) acknowledges cigarette smoke clouds over the situation, making it difficult to see clearly. Ashes in the ashtray is all that’s left over from the smoke as well as the health risks all referred to later in the play. Choices to smoke have consequences.
Some Stand Out lines
Page 5. . Antoinette asks “What made you think of Wittgenstein?” This is surely a reference to the last line of Tractatus where Wittgenstein states “of what words cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” The play is resplendent with moments of silence.
Page 6: The character called ‘the Director’ says “You’re just smoking in silence.”
There are also references to alcohol that obscures the mind. The Director said: “The more I drink, the less comes to my mind. And the less comes to my mind, the more openly I will talk.” Brilliant.
Page 8 There is the game of chess. “You open with the king’s pawn.” This surely points to the perception that life works like a game of chess with one movement influencing another.”
Page 12. Kurmann drinks and says that he is engaged in behavioural research. His work gives him this enchantment with the past including his personal past.
Page 13 The Director encourages him to stop thinking about what is coming next..
Page27. Antoinette offers her perceptions of men as she sucks on her pipe. She makes a point that she does not have any brothers. She clearly wants her own life but she has become involved in Kurmann. “I don’t want her to become my wife.” The director then asks: Tthen why did you give her the pipe?”
Page 28. A key question from the director “Where, Kurmann, would you like to start again in order to change your biography?” You have permission to make choices again. You’re drinking too much.” Kurmann is turning 50, the symbol of a midlife crisis. He says I only need to act differently one single time.
Page 37 What’s with the church bells? It is the moment of potential for change but Kurmann takes up his pipe to lose himself in the smoke.
Page 39. Kurmann fuels the guilt over his past while the director reminds him of choice. As one reads through the play, one gets an increasing sense of the mythology of the notion of a real choice.
Page 45. There is a list of items to be found in the apartment but they all seem out of place. The symbol of a disconnected life.
Page 54. The professor doesn’t like his papers to be touched. Another symbol of not wanting to get too close to something that is significant. Is it guilt from the past haunting the perception.
Page 57. There is the taking of a blood sample. This is possibly the symbol of going deeper into the being of Kurmann to find out about him and his condition.
The Director tells Kurmann that he knows he only wanted a different kind of biography; he knows he did not want to change the world.
Page 60. There are different kinds of alcohol not to be taken and the demand for a different kind of diet. Is it the wish for a different kind of life? The nurse assistant says it doesn’t have to be this way. Another thread on choices that weaves its way through the play. The Director insists regularly that the behaviour researcher had a choice and the choice was with him.
Page 71. Director tells Kurmann that his memory is making things up. It shows that the view of the past, and the choices, do not necessarily reflect the actuality of what happened.
Page 73 It is so easy to have different versions of one’s own biography.
Page 83, Once again the director refers to the drinking habits of Kurmann and the cost to his liver
Page 87. Is the account of the slapping, her outrage and question from her? “Would it be the end of the world if she slept with another man?
Page 94. There is a conversation of the two men loving the same woman with an observation that one might be married to a person but not know the person. So true.
Kurmann gets disassociated from the real when he says he cannot communicate without the whisky.
There is the issue of the divorce but the silence keeps making an impact on Antoinette. The divorce reminds us that social religious contracts can prevent us from making a change.
Page 104. Kurmann says that he has this belief that it had to happen this way. There’s no other way. He can’t prove it but believes it. The Director does not agree or disagree but once again brings in the notion of choice.
The Director then brings in, out of the blue, yoga for those who suffer a banal biography. A symbol to make a real change to one’s life. He reminds Kurmann that he has little time left. He encourages him to feel his body through breathing to the point that he no longer has any control over his thoughts. This could be an encouragement for him to get real and not live in the spell of choices, what if and unreliable memory.
Page 112 The main assistant tells Coleman of his stomach cancer. There is no ashtray in here says Kurmann. Smoke and alcohol have accumulated in impact in time with the consequences.
Page 116 Kurmann admits that he is scared of dying slowly. Every time I get an injection I don’t remember what I want to write.
Page 119. The Director (a symbol of the self as a witness of the past and present) turns to Antoinette and makes references to choices for her. She wishes to begin seven years ago at 2 o’clock in the morning with the musical clock and the ashtrays – the pleasure and the pain and the consequences. Antoinette concludes that she only wants to hear the musical clock.
In the closing scene the Director tells Kurmann he is free as he has a biography without Antoinette.
The book is rather beautifully published by Seagull of London and New York. Birgit Schreye Duart translated the play in 1984.
One realises that freedom is not about choices, nor about rewriting one’s history, nor making one’s biography different. There are consequences for whatever decisions one makes. Freedom is about living wisely with our actions and their outcome, chosen or not.
Biography: A Game is truly a masterpiece.