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The Physicists: Friedrich Dürrenmatt

I just returned from the theater. They were playing The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a top Swiss playwright. Our Pilsner actors are sort of amazing – and it's a happy coincidence that the EU has agreed that Pilsen is the right city that will become the European Capital of Culture 2015 – but I am afraid that I can't convey these qualities to the dear readers, especially because 97% of them don't speak any Czech. ;-)

Instead, the rest of the text will be dedicated to spoilers and some historical overview.




It's likely that I've never seen the play before. Last time I heard about it was during the boring literature classes at the high school. Aside from hundreds of other works, we had to memorize some slogans about Friedrich Dürrenmatt's most famous play which was written in 1961 and first performed in 1962.

The very title, The Physicists, looked fascinating to me: a huge contrast relatively to the bulk of the literature which had nothing to do with physics and was therefore highly dull. ;-) And I remember that I was disappointed that no one really understood how excited I had to be. But it is no longer clear to me how much I actually understood the storyline.

Plot: spoilers are all over the place

Dr Mathilde von Zahnd is a famed and wealthy psychiatrist who runs a fancy sanatorium for the mentally ill. Their relatives (and sometimes the patients themselves) are very rich, so she is rich, too. A separate building is dedicated to three physicists. Well, they think they are physicists: Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Johann Wilhelm Möbius. (Just to be sure: it's not exactly the name of the 19th century mathematician and "discoverer" of the Möbius strip: his name was August Ferdinand Möbius.)

Police is investigating murders. It was the second murder in a few months. A nurse was killed in both cases. The culprits were Einstein and Newton, respectively. However, they're mentally ill so we see how the cop isn't allowed to interrupt Einstein who is just playing violin etc. It could damage the treatment of the patient. We see that already in the 1960s, some advanced politically correct standards of humanism may have posed lethal threat to the society or at least a few nurses.

In the second part, it seems increasingly likely that Möbius – who is mentally ill because he is regularly meeting with a flying golden king, King Solomon – is going to kill his nurse, too. You may already start to think that the plot is very simple and regular but everything gets somewhat more complicated. Möbius screams at his ex-wife, her new husband, and 3 of his sons, so that they may disappear from his life.

We learn that Möbius loves his young nurse and she loves him. And maybe he's not insane at all. Maybe he wants to save her life from bad luck and from a relationship with a person everyone considers insane. We are given lots of ideas what is actually happening in his head. Unfortunately, the regularity kicks in and Möbius strangles his nurse, too.

The cop returns. This time, he can already smoke cigars and drink fancy alcoholic beverages in the sanatorium. Instead, it's the famed psychiatrist who feels hot and anxious. Anyway, the cop already knows he doesn't have to arrest anyone and he's relaxed because justice consumes lots of energy.

We are slowly learning that Möbius is different from the two other patients, after all. He has apparently found a unified field theory – Friedrich Dürrenmatt didn't really know it was superstring/M-theory which was only born 7 years after the play was written. This theory of everything may not only unify all interactions but also give the mankind lots of new tools and weapons, some of which are horrifying if not fatal.

So because he is a morally superior being, he had to pretend he was a lunatic in order to save the humanity from his lethal and groundbreaking discoveries. He has pretended he was meeting with King Solomon. He was pretending he was angry when his former family visited him, in order to save the family. And so on.

Einstein and Newton hide a secret, too. In the first part, we learned that Sir Isaac Newton could have also been thinking he was the real Einstein but the main psychiatrist was the only one who could really decide who the patients believed to be. However, in the second part, a deeper and more real-life-like level of the reality is exposed.

They're neither Einstein nor Newton; they're average physicists who were hired as agents of two top secret agencies of opposing powers. For his salary, Einstein had to smoke cigars and play the violin even though he hates both. They had to murder the nurses because the secret about their health (and perhaps plans) may have been unmasked. Their being killers has happily re-confirmed that they're insane. It seems that they're supposed to be the Germans and America (two sides of the Second World War); none of the agents looks Soviet in any way. ;-) Friedrich Dürrenmatt looks pretty agnostic about which side of the conflict is better than the other even though you may say that one of them is closer to America (I suppose it's the Newton side). But maybe one shouldn't map them to actual powers.

Both agents need to hijack Möbius, the miraculous brain who can develop new weapons and many other marvelous things. We learn that both of them and their countries pretty much think that Möbius is the most ingenious physicist of all times. The letters "Mo" at the beginning of his name make the case even stronger. ;-) Möbius, however, has burned all his secret notes. So they really need him. Newton worries that he had to learn German and murder a nurse to no avail.

During a friendly exchange that includes some guns, the agents want to shoot each other, or shoot Möbius, and all possible plans are tried for a while. They can't agree who is the most important man in the room. However, at the end, Möbius convinces them to join him and pretend they're insane for their whole lives, too. They just know too much and their work could help to get Möbius and his discoveries out of the sanatorium which could mean the death of the mankind. They drink some wine and organize a sort of prayer for the nurses they had to sacrifice in order to save the humanity.

These holy plans are interrupted by Mathilde von Zahnd who enters the room. She has eavesdropped on their exchanges and she has copied all the unified field theory documents and universal inventions that Möbius burned just hours ago. So this sterile old virgin presents herself as the future master of the Universe. She has been meeting King Solomon, too. This king who has had thousands of girlfriends just happened to choose her as the new de facto God. Not even Möbius claims this special relation with the Biblical hero at this moment. It seems she is the only lunatic in her sanatorium. So the sanatorium was gradually reorganized into a fancy prison and she is starting the trusts and factories that plan to overtake the Andromeda Galaxy at some point in the future, among other doable goals.

So the three physicists were ultimately outsmarted by a mad woman and in between the lines, we're supposed to believe that a doomsday has become inevitable. The three physicists end up with some monologues containing pretty detailed biographies of themselves – Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and ... King Solomon. ;-)

Historical interpretations

As I said, the play was written in 1961. In some sense, the 1960s could have represented the peak of the human civilization, the peak of the belief in the progress of science and technology. The unified field theory could have been believed to be behind the corner.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt and other playwrights reflected some general expectations in the society, glimpses of the people's views about the future role of science and technology. There had to be lots of people who believed that the technology would be capable of doing really amazing things; that all the future would in some sense be all about science and technology and physics in particular.

No doubt about it, the degree of excitement has dropped in the last 50 years.

Another comment I want to make was that the reality is very complicated. The characters are pretending and they are also pretending that they are pretending and there are all kinds of stories that are only real at some levels of abstractions and that are addressed to individual consumers of the truth only. Still, Friedrich Dürrenmatt hasn't overshot this complexity. One may actually remember what's going on and what are the different levels of fake stories. And at the end, the reality becomes clear, at least I think it is clear.

Well, more precisely, I am still uncertain whether the psychiatrist was really insane. I suppose the playwright didn't believe that she could really be meeting King Solomon. But did he believe that she was able to use Möbius' notes to overtake the civilization? Of course, when I am asking these questions, another question to ask is whether Friedrich Dürrenmatt was insane himself. But sometimes, one can't tell the difference so I will not try to answer this question.

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