Critical Context

Dürrenmatt’s interest in the dangers of uncontrolled scientific advancement was longstanding. As early as 1950 he had expressed his “scientophobia” in a comedy called “Der Erfinder” (“The Inventor”), written for the cabaret stage. A short story from the same period, “Der Tunnel” (“The Tunnel”), is also illustrative of the author’s conviction that destruction and chaos loom just below the deceptively placid surface of everyday orderliness and conventional beliefs. In such early works, Dürrenmatt depicts a world in which technological growth is out of control and no one seems to recognize the danger. This plight is all the more disturbing in The Physicists, since science threatens to take on a more ominously powerful dimension than heretofore, transcending even the massive destructive capabilities of the atomic bomb.

Except for one lyric interlude—the starkly pessimistic “Song of Solomon” that Möbius recites to his children and former wife in the first act—Dürrenmatt’s language is decidedly matter-of-fact. The calm, convicted tone of remarks by the psychiatrist von Zahnd and her murderous inmates contributes much to the grotesque effect Dürrenmatt intends, highlighting the extremes to which the various characters take logic and reason in the pursuit of power. In fact, The Physicists marks a turn away from the varied and sometimes lavish use of language that characterized the most productive period of Dürrenmatt’s career, the decade of the 1950’s: His style grew more controlled and colder in the intervening years. Dürrenmatt’s “asceticism,” as one critic has called it, did not appeal to a large audience. The playwright increasingly abandoned the realistic elements that made his grotesquerie so fascinating and his parody so effective. As illustrated especially in such plays as the extremely pessimistic “comedy” Porträt eines Planeten (pr. 1970; Portrait of a Planet, 1973), Dürrenmatt’s art on the whole became more distant and more macabre, his characters more stiff, and these traits probably account for the limited critical and popular success of his later works.