The Play

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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 them: Johann Wilhelm Möbius, a harmless patient who has been confined for a total of fifteen years.

As Voss departs, Möbius’s wife arrives. In a farcical scene typical of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Frau Möbius enters with her three sons and her new husband, a missionary by the name of Oskar Rose, whom she introduces apologetically. Since the missionary and his burgeoning family—it includes Rose’s own six boys by his first wife, who has died—are to be sent to the Mariana Islands, the former Mrs. Möbius informs Dr. von Zahnd that she can no longer afford to pay for...

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her former husband’s care. After reassuring the distraught woman that Möbius will be allowed to stay, Dr. von Zahnd brings the timid, middle-aged patient out to say good-bye to his former wife and their three boys. Möbius evidently has one of his frequent hallucinations in which a naked and cowering King Solomon appears to him. In a dark parody of a psalm, Möbius recites a graphically detailed song of humankind’s transience and hopelessness. He decries the advancements of space-age technology as futile and hollow. At the end he tells his horrified audience to leave him, and he announces his sincere wish that his family rot at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Later Möbius reveals to Monica, the nurse who loves him, that he only pretended to be crazy in order to make it easier for his family to leave him for good—the terrible things he said to them were meant to sever their emotional attachments in a humane way. Besides, he has put the finishing touches on his life’s work, an all-encompassing theoretical edifice he calls the “System of All Possible Inventions,” which has been dictated to him by King Solomon. Nurse Monica, however, who does not believe that Möbius is really ill, has bad news for him: She is being transferred to another part of the hospital, and he will be left vulnerable to the dangerous attentions of Newton and Einstein.

In the final portion of the act Möbius seeks to convince Monica that his life has become an act of penance for having revealed the existence of King Solomon. On the contrary, Monica argues, he has betrayed Solomon by his cowardly refusal to stand up for him, to proclaim his revelation. Monica then explains that, in order to help, she has arranged for an eminent physicist to review Möbius’s manuscript in the expectation that it will be made public. As the stage darkens, Möbius and Monica tenderly embrace before the window. Suddenly Möbius pulls down the curtain, wraps her in it, and suffocates her.

Act 2 begins, as does act 1, with Inspector Voss’s arrival at the Institute to investigate the murder of a nurse. This time Möbius is the suspect, and he openly confesses that he killed “Sister Monica” because King Solomon ordered him to do so. Voss admits his powerlessness and leaves the three physicists to their own devices. Alone with Möbius, Newton and Einstein reveal their true identities as scientist-spies who represent competing world powers and whose mission it is to win Möbius over to their respective political systems. The seriousness of their purpose is indicated by their willingness to commit murder to maintain their “cover” of insanity. They argue, threaten, and cajole, but Möbius accepts neither Einstein’s pragmatic vision of science in the service of power-politics for the good of humankind, nor Newton’s assurance of pure intellectual freedom to pursue research, which for him means freedom without responsibility for the consequences. Work for either side would be imprisonment, not freedom or power, and Möbius prefers the asylum. Finally, all three realize that the point is moot: Their acts of murder have effectively consigned them to perpetual confinement.

The final act takes a sinister turn when Dr. von Zahnd emerges to announce that Möbius indeed destroyed his “System of All Possible Inventions” in order to prevent the consequences of that knowledge from injuring humankind, but too late—she surreptitiously made photocopies of the work dictated by King Solomon. While the startled Möbius insists that there is no King Solomon, Dr. von Zahnd revels in her plans for world conquest in the service, not of political ideology or truth, but of her own bitter egoism. As she exits triumphantly, the physicists appear numb with defeat. “Newton” and “Einstein” take on the roles of the real Newton and Einstein in brief soliloquies, and Möbius takes on the persona of Solomon in a lament for the earth and its inevitable demise.

Dramatic Devices

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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 dramaturgy. Indeed, Dürrenmatt rejected the influential playwright’s guiding principles: that humankind can be changed, and that the stage is a revolutionary tool for kindling such change. Dürrenmatt is intent on proving just the opposite—that individuals are victims of forces beyond their control. For Dürrenmatt, individual moral integrity is always what is at stake, not the success of social or political ideals; thus, the ending of The Physicists shows the tragic defeat of the ethically motivated but misguided hero, yet also renders futile the two competing global ideologies.

Dürrenmatt became well known for his peculiar brand of modern tragicomedy with the international success of Der Besuch der alten Dame (pr., pb. 1956; The Visit, 1958). In it the playwright introduces the character that some consider the prototype for the misshapen, embittered, and devious figure of Mathilde von Zahnd: Claire Zachanassien. Claire, like Dr. von Zahnd, has been wronged by men and the world, and is intent on exacting retribution by means of the power she has acquired. In the case of the bejewelled amputee Claire, the instrument of power is money; in Dr. von Zahnd’s, it is knowledge. Both women regard the injustices they have suffered and the imperfections they see around them as grounds for the establishment of a new “justice” that is itself a perversion.

In many ways, The Physicists is a very traditional tragedy. It maintains the classical unities of action, time, and place; the entire play takes place inside one ward at “Les Cerisiers” within one twenty-four-hour period. The ending, Dürrenmatt’s tragicomic innovations notwithstanding, follows the pattern of traditional Greek tragedy, with the hero’s nullification of his own efforts. However, the spirit of the play, as a tragicomedy, is essentially parodistic even in disaster. Physics and humankind’s faith in physics are parodied throughout the play, as are ideas and ideologies (communism as well as capitalism). Contemporary psychiatry is one of Dürrenmatt’s obvious targets, and even classical culture becomes the object of visual parody, since the author’s stage directions require numerous examples of Greco-Roman decor to suggest the irrelevance of traditional expressions of humankind’s quest for order.


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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.


Critical Essays