Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Physicists is a play about the ethical dilemmas of modern science in an age of remarkable technological achievement. Can the pursuit of truth ever become immoral? In the case of Albert Einstein and the development of the atom bomb, for example, can the scientist be held responsible for the deleterious results of the technological application of his discoveries? Dürrenmatt explores these questions through his characters, who personify the prevailing contemporary attitudes on the use of power gained through knowledge.

The play revolves around the inevitability of scientific advancement; as Dr. von Zahnd says in act 2, “What can be conceived, will be conceived.” Möbius’s refusal to allow his work to be used by either side in the Cold War and his withdrawal to the asylum appear as noble, if quixotic, attempts to take a moral stand, yet his tragic mistake lies in thinking he can exert power over knowledge by withholding his talents and the results of his scientific speculations from the world. He must finally conclude at the end of the play that the scientist’s work, even if conducted in the presumed safety of a mental hospital, is never ethically neutral, for the scientist is always either the conscious or unwitting accomplice in morally corruptible acts that result from his discoveries. “What has once been conceived cannot be taken back,” Möbius complains as he realizes that his new comprehensive theory has fallen into the hands of the spiteful and power-mad Dr. von Zahnd.

The impetus for Dürrenmatt’s play may be found in Robert Jungk’s polemical history of modern atomic science, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists (1958), on which Dürrenmatt wrote an essay in 1956, the year the original Swiss edition appeared. In his book, Jungk exposed the moral apathy and culpable insouciance of many scientists, who were eager to further research into the secrets of nuclear energy without regard for the human and environmental consequences. The heroes of Jungk’s narrative are clearly those physicists such as James Franck and J. Robert Oppenheimer who finally saw the dangers of partisan misuse of science and spoke out against unbridled pursuit of progress in the realm of nuclear physics.