The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Publication Date: October 7, 2010


Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Physicists playThe Physicists was written by the author, Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1961. Dürrenmatt is a twentieth-century, Swiss playwright, novelist and essayist who is renowned for his philosophical crime novels (The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion) as well as in his satiric, tragic-comic dramas that are centered around post-World War II. The Physicists is his first classically constructed work and is generally considered his best play. It deals with the ethics of science. In 1963, the play was performed worldwide and was finally staged in New York in 1964. If you don’t mind spoilers, continue reading.

The play consists of two acts and begins as a case of one nut short of a fruitcake. This outrageous, satirical piece starts out with yet another murder case in the European asylum Les Cerisiers (The Cherry Trees), an elite institution, owned and run by the hunchbacked doctor Mathilde von Zahnd, who is the only sane person left in her prestigious family. The story itself involves three physicists: Ernesti, who thinks he is Albert Einstein; Beutler, who believes he is Sir Isaac Newton, and last but not least, Möbius who identifies with and has visions of King Solomon, who appears and explains to him the world of physics. To complicate matters, Newton sometimes tells people that Einstein actually thinks he is Newton … the fact that all three nuclear physicists are just faking insanity opens a new can of worms.

The murder that took place in the asylum three months ago, involved Newton strangling a nurse. When inspector Voss arrives to investigate the second murder, we know that it is more of an illusory nature. Dr. von Zahnd does everything to accommodate her patients and after all, she argues, they are not accountable because of their insanity. Nevertheless, Einstein admits killing the nurse and leaves to play his violin in an attempt to calm himself.

Möbius is the propagandist in the play and puts great effort into appearing insane by acting violently to his visiting family. He is desperately trying to cut all ties to his former life. The reason he feigns insanity is to conceal his discovery of the “Unitary Theory of Elementary Particles.” According to Möbius, society is not ready for this advanced knowledge and he fears abuse of his discovery.

As the play develops, physicists killing off nurses become a recurring theme. Möbius also kills a nurse that gets too close to him. In the second act, Inspector Voss puts in yet another appearance—already knowing that this murder will not lead to any arrests either. From the readers’ as well as from the physicists’ point of view, there is a tragic logic to these murders because the deaths seem necessary. In this act, Newton and Einstein have their coming-out. This is the climax of the play and comes as a shock. Both admit to Möbius that they are just pretending to be insane to infiltrate the institution and to get their hands on his discovery for military purposes. Both work for their country’s secret services—each for the other side, of course. Both Newton and Einstein try to convince Möbius to side with them and both are ready to fight it out.

Möbius finally admits that he burned all his papers so that his discovery couldn’t be abused. After going into length about findings, he persuades Einstein and Newton to keep the knowledge a secret for the benefit of humanity, which also includes staying in the asylum for the rest of their lives. The public prosecutor orders all female nurses are replaced by male nurses, turning the institution into a prison, which under the given circumstances, protects their secret. Sadly, the three deaths and the imprisonment are all in vain. Their conversation had an eavesdropper, and therefore, all the efforts and plans that Möbius, Einstein and Newton put into concealing the discovery are torpedoed by another person. As the play ends, all three physicists are trapped inside with no means of escape, and all three realize that humanity is doomed. I don’t want to give away any more spoilers but the play ends with an interesting plot-twist or as the play states:

“A story is not finished, until it has taken the worst turn”

In very many stories, the main character is portrayed as a nutty or insane science professor. Usually, the nutty ones have no interest in questions outside their scientific realm. Curiosity, rather than fame or power motivates their research. The insane ones, usually those outside of the scientific arena, always try to dominate the world in some way for their own purposes and see scientific discoveries as means to an end. The drive behind discovering serves the purpose of obtaining power and control of society.

The Physicists is different, though. Möbius is driven by ethical concerns. He does not trust that others will use his discovery responsibly. And he is not wrong. Dürrenmatt points out the dilemma that governments and society faced during post-World War II. It also addresses the relationship and the responsibilities of society and individuals as a whole. In wake of the Cold War, societies all over the world were going through complex social, cultural and political changes. Ethics surrounding advanced research and the ethical aspects of nuclear technology weren’t up for discussion shortly after World War II because the arms race between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had already begun. In the end, it brought the world close to the brink of World War III during the Cuba crisis in 1962 and led to the installation and maintenance of a military-industrial complex, something that Eisenhower warned about in his Military-Industrial Complex Speech in 1961.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

There are unacceptable risks: the destruction of humanity is one of them.

Scientists, Dürrenmatt says, have reached their limits. It’s not scientists that need to discuss the social, cultural and political ethics and set limits, but society.

Möbius emphasizes this sentiment when he explains to Newton and Einstein,

“our knowledge has become a frightening burden. Our researches are perilous, our discoveries are lethal. For us physicists, there is nothing left but to surrender to reality…. We have to take back our knowledge and I have taken it back.” But the insight Möbius gains after Dr. von Zahnd’s self-disclosure is that “What was once thought can never be unthought.”

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

The now-permanent coalition of the military and mass industry Eisenhower observed, was at that point predictable. It is debatable that military-industrial complex exists for the purpose of being ready for war at all times can lead to a situation in which even peace implies a state of war.

Of course, it is the ever-increasing resources of science and technology that make the maintenance of such a military-industrial complex possible.

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About Friedrich Dürrenmatt
For more information about Friedrich Dürrenmatt visit his website (in German—use Google Translate) or the website dedicated on the University of Chicago server. for more book look up his author’s page on Goodreads.