by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt
Frequently set as an A Level German text, "Die Physiker" is a two-act play which takes place in an asylum. The piece is very hard to categorize. There are elements of the absurd and the grotesque. Moral questions are raised. Some parts of the action verge on the farcical, whilst at other times, it appears to be a murder mystery play.
The setting is an asylum called Les Cerisiers, presumably somewhere in Switzerland. At the beginning of the play, one of the nurses has been murdered, and the police inspector is there to investigate her death. She is the second sister to have died at Les Cerisiers in as many weeks.
We are soon introduced to Doctor Mathilda Von Zahnd, the doctor who owns the mad house. Newton is the next major character to appear on stage. Then Einstein, and finally Mobius, the main character. These three are all inmates / patients at Les Cerisiers. All three used to be physicists before entering the asylum. Newton and Einstein believe themselves to be two of the most famous physicists of all time, or so it seems.
The next key development occurs when Mobius murders Sister Monika. There seems, at first, to be no motive for this act. However, the audience soon realises that he killed her because they were in love. Because Monika loved Mobius, she refused to believe that he was insane. She insisted that she believed him when he claimed to be visited by the ghost of King Solomon. This dramatic turn of events ends the play's first act.
It transpires that all three "insane physicists" are in fact merely pretending to be mad, each for a different reason. Mobius, being the goodie, is doing so for an honourable reason. He does not want his "amazing discovery" to be used to destroy mankind. He has created some sort of device which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could be used to make humanity extinct. And yet he is a gifted scientist. He could never simply stop working. The asylum is the only place where he has the freedom to carry out his research, without the responsibility which would come with deciding who should obtain his knowledge. Newton, meanwhile, is an agent of an unnamed secret service, which represents the West. Einstein is his eastern counterpart. Both men posed as insane in order to get close to Mobius and convince him to sell his discovery to their country. It all comes down to power politics.
By the end of the play, Mobius has convinced his pursuers to remain in the asylum. He has made them see that the consequences of nuclear war would be far too serious. This huge self sacrifice is in vain, however. Doctor Mathilda Von Zahnd makes an appearance. She explains that for years she has been making photocopies of Mobius' notes. She knows he is really a gifted physicist, and she also knows that both Newton and Einstein are imposters. She is mad and power-crazed. She plans world domination, and there is nothing the physicists can do to stop her. This is the grim conclusion of the play. "The world has fallen into the hands of an insane doctor."
In 1966, the cold war was at its iciest. The threat of nuclear war was never far from people's minds. At the same time, the responsibility of politicians and scientists was being brought into question by those who dared challenge the system. Friedrich Durrenmatt took the opportunity to express his views and fears on the situation in this play, which was to become his most famous and successful.
I have thoroughly enjoyed studying this play for my German A Level, which is surely a mark of quality (if studying a text at A Level fails to ruin it, nothing will). I can recommend it. Whilst being a bit of a mindfuck, it raises some interesting and important issues, which are still relevant today. Also, the play has some hilarious moments.