Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt, Die Physiker (The Physicists)


Published by Diogenes, 1998


A fashionable lakefront sanatorium, close to the city with its boarding schools for young ladies and ‘light industry hardly worth mentioning’, makes the setting of a satiric drama by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Performed on countless stages all over the world up to the present day, it is a story of insanity and genius that leaves the spectator alternate between amusement and uneasiness.


‘The Physicists’ takes place in only room of the mansion. At first, the three inmates seem to be harmless and easy to steer. Mentally disturbed, they consider themselves great minds. Mr. Beutler, for instance, firmly believes to be Sir Isaac Newton whereas Mr. Ernesti claims to be no less a figure than Albert Einstein. The long-standing patient Johann Wilhelm Möbius, on the other hand, does not come forward with any great name. Rather, he suffers from the delusion that King Solomon has revealed to him laws of physics for 15 years. The three are placed under the care of the elderly Fraulein Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, who has invested all her money in the sanatorium.


The trouble begins after her inmates have strangled three nurses just because they wanted to smuggle them out. The reason why the physicists absolutely want to stay is revealed to the reader: They want to escape from the repercussions of their scientific findings. Developed by Möbius, the ‘Principle of Universal Discovery’ could well become a terrible weapon in the wrong hands. As a matter of fact, the other two inmates are not just physicists like Möbius but agents of different secret services, each trying to win Möbius over. And he is not insane at all but fakes it in order to minimize the risk of his discoveries.


This is the basic dilemma: How does science deal with its research results, how does it meet the accompanying ethical responsibilities? It is not only Möbius who would love to hand it over. Eisler/Einstein and Beutler/Newton also hold others responsible, either the party or the general public. It is not theirs to decide, though. Before the physicists are able to destroy their records to prevent the worse, Fraulein Dr. von Zahnd has already made copies. Helplessly, the three sane physicists are trapped in the sanatorium while it is its head who is mentally disturbed, making the preparations to assume world dominion.


Born in the Swiss city of Konolfingen in 1921, the dramatist Friedrich Reinhold Dürrenmatt wrote a large office-bow draw with his work ‘The Physicists’. There were so many spectators flocking to the Schauspielhaus Zurich to view the premiere on February 21, 1962, that the event took place on as many as three evenings. In 1962/63, German theaters performed the play almost 1,600 times. London and New York also acclaimed Dürrenmatt.


The Swiss had the finger on the pulse. Unsettled by the far-reaching events of the late 1950s and early 1960s – nuclear rearmament, Cold War, building of the Berlin Wall – many people found themselves increasingly helpless. Dürrenmatt carries this latent feeling of the individual’s impotence to extremes by giving his drama-like story the worst end possible. Today, in a time of seemingly uncontrollable threats such as cybercrime or the mania of religious fanatics, the laughter continues to stick in the theatergoers’ throat.


Annika Backe


Signet Sunflower Foundation