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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Physicists

Friedrich Dürrenmatt

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To purchase The Physicists

Title: The Physicists
Author: Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Genre: Drama
Written: 1962 (Eng. 1964)
Length: 96 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Physicists - US
The Physicists - UK
The Physicists - Canada
Die Physiker - Deutschland
  • German title: Die Physiker
  • Translated by James Kirkup
  • Includes "21 Points to The Physicists"

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Our Assessment:

A- : amusing and clever classic drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists is one of many physicist-centered dramas written in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time the potential that scientific innovation held was largely seen in the awesome destructive power of the atomic and hydrogens bombs. Science seemed to have outstripped man's ability to utilize it for the betterment of humanity. The Cold War, the arms race, and policies of mutually assured destruction suggested that instead science was too easily being used for bad -- indeed, literally world-threatening -- ends. Man could not be trusted with the knowledge that physicists were able to discover.
       Dürrenmatt's physicists take one of the few options available to them to keep the knowledge they have from falling into hands ill-prepared to do what is best with it: they get themselves locked up in a mental institution.
       The Physicists begins with a murder. A patient has murdered a nurse at the sanatorium. Because he is believed to be insane the criminal investigation is a largely superficial one. But the inspector does note his annoyance: three months earlier another patient had murdered another nurse.
       Three physicists live together in the wing. One believes he is Einstein, one believes he is Newton (but occasionally tells people that he is in fact Einstein, though "in fact he really believes he is Newton"), and one understands that he is Johann Wilhelm Möbius but believes King Solomon talks to him. In fact, however, the three physicists are all sane.
       Möbius feigns insanity because he discovered the "Unitary Theory of Elementary Particles". And he doesn't feel mankind is ready for the consequences:

The result is -- devastating. New and inconceivable forces would be unleashed, making possible a technical advance that would transcend the wildest flights of fantasy if my findings were to fall into the hands of mankind.
       The men who pretend to be Einstein and Newton are physicists in the employ of intelligence services, representing the Western and Eastern powers of Cold War times, sent there to get Möbius' great discovery.
       The murders of the nurses were necessary, because each grew too convinced that the patients were, in fact, sane. At the end of the first act Möbius finds himself with the same dilemma and sees murder as the only way to protect his secret.
       Things are further complicated, in the form of the founder of the sanatorium, Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, who is the only one who appears truly mentally unstable. She too knows more than she originally let on, and before they know it the physicists find they have dug themselves a hole out of which they can not easily escape.

       Dürrenmatt's comedy is very clever, and the situation he puts his characters in an ingenious and amusing one. The moral dilemma of the modern scientist no longer excites quite as much as it did at the height of the Cold War, but it is still a very effective play.

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The Physicists: Reviews: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama at the complete review
  • German literature

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) is best known as one of the leading German-speaking post-World War II dramatists.

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