The Play

The Physicists takes place in the grand villa “Les Cerisiers,” formerly the residence of the von Zahnd family, now transformed into a private sanatorium for the mentally ill. Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, the last descendant of that once vital aristocratic family, makes her living here by treating—at exorbitant fees—the neuroses and psychoses of the “spiritually confused elite” of the Western industrialized nations.

Police Inspector Richard Voss has been summoned to investigate the strangulation of a young nurse. The murder suspect is patient Ernesti, who calls himself Albert Einstein and affects the mannerisms and appearance of the great physicist—even to the point of playing the violin, which he is doing when Voss arrives (the audience hears the agitated strains of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” in the background). In the first of many ironic sequences, the head nurse refuses to allow the inspector to interrogate the murderer, since the patient is after all “a sick man” who must be allowed to “recover” from the trauma he has just experienced. Furious, Voss demands to see the director of the Institute, Dr. von Zahnd, only to be informed that she is at the moment occupied—accompanying Einstein on the piano.

As the body of the slain nurse is taken away, Voss is joined by a jovial Isaac Newton (patient Beutler in eighteen century costume), who cheerfully recounts his own recent use of a curtain cord—Einstein used the cord to an electric lamp—to murder a nurse who had fallen in love with him. Newton realized, he said, that his purpose in life “consisted in contemplating Gravitation, not in loving a woman.”

Inspector Voss is overwhelmed by the flood of Newton’s admissions and explanations, including the revelation that “Einstein” is in fact mentally ill, believing himself to be Einstein in reality, whereas “Newton” is on the other hand only pretending to be Newton. In truth, however, as Newton explains, it is he who is actually Einstein. In this vein “Newton” assures the inspector that he himself, that is, the real Albert Einstein, wishes to take full responsibility for making construction of the atom bomb possible. He then launches into a diatribe against the insensitive misuse of theory by practical-minded technicians, after which he returns to his room.

The hunchbacked Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd enters and reports that Einstein is resting peacefully and seems to have recovered from his trauma. Voss quickly gets to the point: The authorities are convinced that the occurrence of two murders at the Institute within the past three months indicates a certain laxness of security and may well provoke public outrage. Dr. von Zahnd responds glibly that her profession is quite capable of determining which mental cases are dangerous and which are not—the fact that mistakes have been made is not a matter of concern for the legal authorities but for medical scientists alone. She briefly recounts the case histories of Einstein and Newton, who both arrived at “Les Cerisiers” in the past two years, and reveals that yet another physicist shares the ward with...

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Dramatic Devices

The most striking critical innovation of Dürrenmatt’s craft lies in equating destiny with chance in tragedy. By replacing the traditional inevitability of the tragic hero’s fate with the accidental or coincidental, he creates situations that are often shockingly horrible but at the same time comic because of their grotesque irony. In The Physicists the outcome of events is inevitably disastrous but has humorous overtones, since chance rules from the beginning: The hapless Möbius, in his attempt to escape the moral consequences of his work in science, has stumbled into the one insane asylum whose director is mad enough to want to accept his apparent delusions and even cultivate them toward her own dark ends. At the same time, von Zahnd is rational enough to pretend that she is indifferent—a strategy that allows her to succeed in her evil schemes. As the antagonist, she eventually succeeds in obtaining from Möbius that which he set out to conceal, and thereby the traditional tragic conclusion is achieved (as in the case of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex) with the hero’s attainment of the very opposite of what he intended. Paradoxes such as these (noble intentions leading to disaster, the apparent insanity of the “sane,” the search for freedom in confinement and isolation from the world, and so on) represent the essence of Dürrenmatt’s dramatic motivation.

Many critics have pointed out Dürrenmatt’s conscious rejection of Bertolt Brecht’s...

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Sources for Further Study

Crockett, Roger A. Understanding Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Murdoch, Brian. “Dürrenmatt’s Physicists and the Tragic Tradition.” Modern Drama 14 (December, 1970): 270-275.

Peppard, Murray B. Friedrich Dürrenmatt. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Tiusanen, Timo. Dürrenmatt: A Study in Plays, Prose, Theory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Weimar, Karl S. “The Scientist and Society: A Study of Three Modern Plays.” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (December, 1966): 431-448.

Whitten, Kenneth. Dürrenmatt: Reinterpretation in Retrospect. Indianapolis: Berg, 1990.