Die Physiker

Die Physiker; The Physicists (first performed and published 1962; revised version published 1980)

This comedy was written in 1961-62 and first performed in February 1962 at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich. This was at the height of the Cold War, and shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The British premiere was in 1963 at the Aldwych Theatre in London and the US premiere was in 1964 at the Martin Beck Theater in New York.

The play delivers a comic, highly entertaining treatment of the themes of murder, madness and nuclear holocaust. The play is set in ‘Les Cerisiers’ [‘The Cherry Trees’], an expensive Swiss sanatorium for mental patients run by Fräulein Dr. von Zahnd.

In quantum physics, subatomic particles suddenly change their identity in radical ways. The same applies to the characters in this comedy.

The comedy revolves around the fictional physicist Johann Wilhelm Möbius, who pretends to be possessed by the spirit of King Solomon and has himself committed to a lunatic asylum in an attempt to avert a nuclear holocaust. Dürrenmatt commented that, like Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the play shows a man who takes extreme measures in order to prevent a disaster, only to discover that he has helped to cause it. In ancient Greece, a performance of a tragedy would typically be followed by a satire (satyr-play). Dürrenmatt’s opening stage directions reverse this order, stating that in this case the satire precedes the tragedy.

In Act One Inspector Voß questions chief nurse Marta Boll about the murder of Sister Irene Straub by the patient Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, who believes himself to be Albert Einstein. Less than three months ago Dorothea Moser, another nurse, was strangled by the patient Herbert Georg Beutler, who thinks he is Isaac Newton. Einstein cannot be questioned because he is playing the violin, accompanied on the piano by Dr. von Zahnd. Inspector Voß meets Newton who asks him if he wants to arrest him for strangling a nurse or making the atomic bomb possible. The Inspector says he doesn’t want to arrest him, but he informs Dr. von Zahnd that from now on she will have to employ male carers. Johann Wilhelm Möbius is visited by his ex-wife Lina and their three sons. Lina has just married a missionary, Oskar Rose, and they are now leaving for the Mariana Islands in the West Pacific. Lina asks the boys to play some music for Möbius but he shouts at them and tells them to leave. Then Sister Monika Stettler tells Möbius that she wants to marry him and that Dr. von Zahnd has given her permission for them to be wed. Monika tells Möbius that their train is about to leave. He strangles her.

In Act Two the police have returned. Monika’s body is taken away. Three enormous male carers serve dinner for the patients. Dr. von Zahnd asks Möbius why he strangled Monika and Möbius replies that King Solomon ordered him to do it. Dr. von Zahnd apologises to Inspector Voß and leaves. Möbius asks Inspector Voß to arrest him but the Inspector replies that lunatics cannot be convicted for murder. Newton reveals that he is Alec Jasper Kilton, a spy. Einstein reveals that he is Josef Eisler, another spy. But there is another devastating revelation still to come…

Dürrenmatt wrote a series of aphorisms to accompany the play, ‘21 Punkte zu den Physikern’; ’21 Points for The Physicists’.

The play contains allusions to Bertolt Brecht’s Leben des Galilei; Life of Galileo, which also shows a scientist who accepts incarceration in order to continue his scientific research.

Another German-language play about the atom bomb is Heinar Kipphardt’s In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer; The Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964). The play depicts how Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked under McCarthyism in 1954.

Further Reading in English

Ian Roe, ‘Dürrenmatt’s Die Physiker / Die drei Leben des Galilei?’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 27:3 (1991), 255-67

Kenneth S. Whitton, Dürrenmatt. Der Besuch der alten Dame and Die Physiker (London: Grant & Cutler, 1994)

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, ‘From a Tragedy of Physics to a Physics of Tragedy’, in A New History of German Literature, ed. by David E. Wellbery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 876-81

A. M. Wright, ‘Scientific method and rationality in Dürrenmatt’, German Life and Letters 35:1 (1981), 64-72

Web Link


Michael Billington Review of The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse, London, June-July 2012