The physicists

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Title: The physicists
Genus: comedy
Original language: German
Author: Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Publishing year: 1962 (revised 1980)
Premiere: February 21, 1962
Place of premiere: Schauspielhaus Zurich
Place and time of the action: present
  • Miss Doctor Mathilde von Zahnd , psychiatrist
  • Marta Boll , head nurse
  • Monika Stettler , nurse
  • Uwe Sievers , head nurse
  • McArthur , nurse
  • Murillo , nurse
  • Herbert Georg Beutler , called Newton , patient
  • Ernst Heinrich Ernesti , called Einstein , patient
  • Johann Wilhelm Möbius , patient
  • Missionary Oskar Rose
  • Missionary Lina Rose
  • Your boys:
    • Adolf Friedrich
    • Wilfried-Kaspar
    • Jörg-Lukas
  • Richard Voss , criminal inspector
  • Guhl , cop
  • Blocher , cop
  • Coroner

The Physicists , according to the subtitle a comedy in two acts , is a drama by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt . It was created in 1961 and premiered on February 21, 1962 under the direction of Kurt Horwitz in the Schauspielhaus Zurich . In 1980 Dürrenmatt revised the piece slightly for his work edition .

The title characters are three physicists who live as patients in a private psychiatric clinic . One of them made a discovery that harbors the danger of the destruction of the world and thus leads to the play's basic question about the responsibility of science. Dürrenmatt links this topic with his drama theory, according to which every story, triggered by chance, must take the worst possible turn. That is why the physicists are often classified as tragicomedy or grotesque .

The first performance by the physicists was already a success. In the following season it became the most frequently staged play in the German-speaking area and is now one of the greatest German-language theater successes after the Second World War.


At the center of the plot are three physicists who pretend to be mentally ill. The first of them claims to be Albert Einstein , the second claims to be Isaac Newton . The third, Johann Wilhelm Möbius, discovered the so-called universal formula , which in the wrong hands could lead to the annihilation of all humanity. With his assertion that King Solomon appears to him , he wants to make himself unbelievable and thus prevent the misuse of his revolutionary discovery. Newton and Einstein, on the other hand, are actually agents of rival secret services and only allowed themselves to be sent to the madhouse to gain access to Möbius' findings and to use them for their own purposes.

The three physicists murder their nurses because they fear for their secrets. When the police arrive with their investigation into the deaths, Möbius destroys his formula. He succeeds in convincing his two colleagues to withhold their dangerous knowledge so that the world is saved from destruction. But the physicists' pact comes too late. Mathilde von Zahnd, the misshapen owner and chief doctor of the madhouse, has already copied all of Möbius' records. As the only really crazy one, she actually believes that she is acting on behalf of King Solomon and wants to use the formula to achieve world domination . The physicists, however, publicly branded as madmen by the murders they orchestrated, remain locked in the madhouse and no longer have any way of preventing von Zahnd's plans.

Work history

Hydrogen bomb " Castle Romeo " on Bikini Atoll , 1954

The world political situation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the time when physicists came into being , was shaped by the Cold War between the great powers of the United States and the Soviet Union . The political situation and the threat of a nuclear war were exacerbated by the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Already in 1957, 18 nuclear scientists of the Federal Republic had with the declaration of Göttingen Eighteen against the military use of nuclear power and equipment of the Bundeswehr with nuclear weapons agile. In 1959 Günther Anders published his "Theses on the Atomic Age", which resulted in similarly pointed statements as Dürrenmatt's later "21 Points" to the physicists: "What can affect everyone affects everyone."

For Friedrich Dürrenmatt, too, the 1950s led to an increase in his global political engagement. With the writing Theaterprobleme in 1955 he had based his theater work on a social foundation. A forerunner of the physicists can already be seen in the cabaret sketch The Inventor , which Dürrenmatt wrote for the Cabaret Cornichon in 1949 . There a professor appears with a miniature bomb that could destroy the entire world. However, he ensures world peace by hiding them in a lady's cleavage .

In 1956, Robert Jungk's book Heller than a thousand suns appeared , which dealt with the development of the atomic bomb , the so-called Manhattan Project , and the fate of the researchers involved. In December 1956, Dürrenmatt wrote a literary review of this book for Die Weltwoche , in which he developed theses that would later be found in physicists . He argued there that there is no way of “keeping what is conceivable secret. Every thought process is repeatable. "The problem of the atom bomb can only be solved internationally," through the unity of scientists. "In the future, thinking will become more and more dangerous, but it is impossible to" establish the duty to remain a fool as an ethical principle. " After the scientists' resolutions came too late, "those who do not understand it now have [the nuclear power]."

Dürrenmatt occupied himself with epistemology and the ethical questions of the natural sciences throughout his life . He had a particular fondness for physics and mathematics since school . However, he admitted to “boggling” in these subjects and declared: “I do read mathematical or physical books, but I can only guess at their content.” Dürrenmatt maintained personal contact with nuclear physicists , including Konrad Bleuler , his name in the character of Herbert Georg Beutler. The physicist's place of action goes back to Dürrenmatt's knowledge of the Préfargier psychiatric clinic near his home town of Neuchâtel and a personal visit to another clinic near Lausanne , which was run by his cousin's husband.

The author gave various answers to the question of why the originally male role of the head of the institution was changed to a woman and what role the actress Therese Giehse , who was admired by Dürrenmatt and to whom the play is dedicated, played. He reported to Jürg Ramspeck : “I did indeed show the goose the physicist's design , whereupon the goose said that she would like to play the insane doctor. In an interview with Urs Jenny , however, he emphasized: “Actually, not even the pretty anecdote is true that for the sake of Therese Giehse I would have turned the psychiatrist into a doctor in the physicists . The change provided a decisive contrast, a tension that I had been looking for for a long time. ”In an interview with Fritz J. Raddatz he continued:“ First I had designed a psychiatrist. Then I realized that the strictly logical world of the three physicists can only be faced by a mad woman. Like a mad god who creates his universe ”.

Dürrenmatt developed his physicists in 1959 parallel to the work on The Meteor and the story Christmas . Under the impression of the failure of the previous play Frank the Fifth , Dürrenmatt planned "to write a comparatively simple piece." In 1961, Dürrenmatt worked out the piece, the notes were supplemented by the directing instructions for the premiere and published in 1962 by the Zurich Arche Verlag . The “final version” published in 1980 as part of the edition of the work by Diogenes Verlag differs only in minor details. The poem Dramaturgischer Rat , written in 1961, is directly related to the piece .

Chronological analysis

Act 1


Albert Einstein 1921, photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer

The piece takes place throughout the “villa” of the madhouse “Les Cerisiers” ( French for “The Cherry Trees”), a block in which only three patients, the physicists Newton, Einstein and Möbius, are treated. The small town in which the clinic is located seems to offer an idyllic setting due to its quiet location and the “blue mountains” in the background. The “modest” university there, the correctional facility and the “ramshackle” madhouse itself, however, convey a somewhat decadent and petty-bourgeois impression, which already points to the difference between the outer facade and the problems hidden behind it.

Conversation between Inspector Voss and head nurse

Inspector Voss comes to the sanatorium to clarify the circumstances of the death of the nurse Irene Straub, who was apparently strangled by her patient Einstein. While the inspector asks the head nurse about the incident, she not only forbids him to smoke like a naughty little boy, but also constantly rebukes him that Einstein is by no means a murderer, but a sick person. The inspector's assessment criteria do not match those of the head nurse, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. In the eyes of the head nurse, Voss is a mere troublemaker who intervenes in the orderly processes of the madhouse. She does not portray the death of the nurse as worrying, but she regrets the murderer, who can be heard playing the violin next door, and for the time being protected from interrogation by Voss, since Einstein first has to "calm down".

Conversation between Inspector Voss and Newton

Isaac Newton in a portrait by Godfrey Kneller

Three months earlier, Newton had killed his nurse Dorothea Moser in a similar way. At that time, too, the inspector was unable to arrest the killer because of his feigned madness. Both cases have in common that the perpetrators were loved by their respective nurses and were pressured to leave the sanatorium with them in order to start a life together outside. So it happens that the inspector wants to subject Newton to a second interrogation. However, he turns the tables, brings the conversation to a completely different topic and level and puts the inspector in a situation that he is apparently not up to. Voss becomes, as it were, the “perpetrator” himself and is completely disconcerted with crazy questioning. When he wanted to allow himself a cigarette, becoming more and more nervous, Newton explained to him that only the patients, but not their visitors, were allowed to smoke in the clinic, thus again demonstrating the questionable and paradoxical concept of order of this institution. Newton's reproachful reference to the fact that a petty murderer is convicted but not the inventor of the atomic bomb underscores this contradicting morality as a characteristic of a bourgeois grotesque world order.

Conversation between Inspector Voss and Miss Mathilde von Zahnd

When Voss informs the director of the institution that Newton also thinks he is Einstein, she replies: “[…] I decide who my patients think they are”. The parallel to Göring's statement “I decide who is Jewish” is probably not chosen by Dürrenmatt by chance. She shows the power and arbitrariness of the prison doctor and lets her become the incarnation of evil . When Voss wants to make it clear to her that security measures are urgently required after the now second murder of a nurse, she suggests to the inspector that the murders of the nurses are a result of the deformation of the brains caused by radioactivity. However, since the third inmate did not come into contact with radioactivity, there was no danger from him. In addition, healthy people finally murdered "also and significantly more often."

Visit from Mrs. Rose

After 15 years in a psychiatric hospital, Möbius receives a visit from his wife Lina Rose, who has since divorced him. She is accompanied by her new husband, missionary Oskar Rose, and Möbius' three children Adolf-Friedrich, Wilfried-Kaspar and Jörg-Lukas. The first appearance of the Rose family serves as an introduction to the actual plot and provides background information on his family and his professional career. Möbius confirms his apparent madness on the one hand through his outward behavior: he initially pretends not to recognize his family and sits down at an upturned table to recite a "Psalm of Solomon, the space travelers". His apocalyptic lecture becomes more and more passionate and ludicrous until he finally climbs into a fit of rage and drives his family out of the room under curses - a staged measure with which he tries to finally break off contact with his family (without them saying goodbye is unnecessarily difficult to make) to secure the further stay in Les Cerisiers and thus to save the world from the consequences of his invention.

The caricature exaggerated appearance of the family makes them ridiculous. The unconditional desire to maintain the idyllic outward appearance of a harmonious marriage and the bourgeois conventions reveals their rigidity. Through Ms. Rose's exaggerated devotion to her ex-husband "Johann Wilhelmlein" - she once not only financed his studies, but now also pays for his stay in a sanatorium - and through her seemingly selfless, pious sacrifice for her new husband, the missionary, the other six Bringing children and thus demanding further sacrifices from Ms. Rose, she takes the commandment of Christian charity ad absurdum and basically just wants to be regretted by everyone.

Conversation between Möbius and sister Monika

The nurse Monika Stettler confesses her love to Möbius: she believes in him and the King Solomon who appears to him. At first he tries to talk her out of her feelings because he cannot risk making contact with the outside world. However, when she persists and suggests marrying him and starting a family, Möbius sees the secrecy of his research endangered and strangles his lover with a curtain cord. The new turning point that this scene brings mainly has a dramaturgical function, because the death of the third nurse serves Miss Doctor von Zahnd to make Möbius unbelievable in the eyes of the world.

Act 2

The first two scenes of the second act repeat the investigation scenes of the first act, but with “reversed relationships”: The external plot largely corresponds to that of the first act, but the opinions and dialogues are mirrored. - The dead nurses have now been replaced by strong male nurses, all of them masters of martial arts.

Conversation between Inspector Voss and Miss Mathilde von Zahnd

The inspector, who reappeared for questioning, has now accepted the principles of order of the madhouse and even corrects Miss von Zahnd: She speaks of Möbius as a "murderer", he only of a "perpetrator". She plays the confused and is surprised by Möbius' crime. He rejects the obligation to clarify and surrenders to a situation that he cannot change anyway - Dürrenmatt's ironic recommendation of adaptation instead of resistance as a criticism of a society that shuns responsibility.

Conversation between Möbius and Fräulein Mathilde von Zahnd

As before, Möbius excuses himself with the reference to King Solomon, who not only helped him to his genius, but also appeared to him to give him the order to murder. Although his madness is only a pretense, Fraulein von Zahnd believes him - a sign of her own madness, which is becoming more and more evident.

Conversation between the three physicists

Part 1: The three physicists admit to their roommates that they are not really crazy. Newton's real name is Alec Jasper Kilton, he is the founder of the "Correspondence Doctrine", has signed up as an agent (presumably with the CIA) and stands for the capitalist western bloc. Similar to Einstein, who is actually called Joseph Eisler, who discovered the "Eisler effect" and stands for the communist Eastern Bloc. Both are after the work of Möbius, who believes he has discovered "the system of all possible inventions" and the so-called " universal formula " and tries to protect them by being brought in as a madman. Each of the two agents wants to spy on Möbius' research results for his country. Both draw their pistol, but recognize the pointlessness of a duel, since both can handle the weapon equally well.

Part 2: The discourse between physicists about the possibility of scientific research in today's world is the intellectual climax of the piece. The physicists represent the following positions:

Einstein (Eisler) Newton (Kilton)
want to win Möbius for their respective government
  • Reminds Möbius of his duty as a scientist to hand his discoveries over to mankind
  • admits he has no real influence over his political clients
  • instead of neutrality calls for a decision in favor of a political system

Conclusion: He cannot guarantee the use of the scientific results and puts the responsibility on the party

  • demands that as a genius you have to give up your knowledge that is common property to “non-geniuses”
  • assures that the freedom of physics should be preserved
  • lures with Nobel Prize
  • explains that the scientists themselves are not responsible for the use of their findings

Conclusion: He rejects any responsibility and blames it on the general public

want to stay in the madhouse
  • exposes the apparent possibilities of a free decision as a dead end
  • fears that Kilton's and Eisler's ways can only lead to disaster
  • wants to prevent the risk of the downfall of mankind from being accepted

Conclusion: He calls for the scientific knowledge to be withdrawn

The End

When Möbius reveals that he has already burned his notes, the agents realize that their renewed rivalry has become pointless. Möbius tries to convince the two of them first of all on moral grounds of the necessity to remain in the asylum: science has become terrible, research dangerous, its findings deadly. The only remaining option he sees is capitulation to reality and the reluctance to gain knowledge: “We are only allowed to think in the madhouse. Our thoughts are explosive in freedom. ”However, this persuasion does not work with the agents, they still want to leave the clinic. Therefore Möbius reminds them of their murders: If his knowledge were made public, the murders would have been in vain and the victims for the protection of humanity would become ordinary murders - and they as perpetrators would become ordinary murderers. He can convince them to see their imprisonment as atonement for the murders committed and thus to make their contribution to the salvation of humanity. The outcome of the play therefore initially seems positive: the heroes sacrifice themselves, personal guilt is atoned for, the disrupted world order seems to be restored.

Miss von Zahnd has the physicists fetched from their rooms and disarms the two agents. She tells that King Solomon has appeared to her for years and that she deliberately assigned her nurses to the three physicists, so that they had to die. As a result, the physicists were tied to the institution as “perpetrators”, since they would be seen as “murderers” outside of it. Fraulein von Zahnd explains to the three that she had copied all of Möbius' manuscripts before they were destroyed and kept them for herself. With this, the claim is borne out in a banal way: “What was once thought can no longer be taken back.” While the three physicists remain locked up in the madhouse as supposedly madmen, the head of the institution will unscrupulously make profit from the records, without considering what big ones The dangers lie in the new technologies - technologies that can destroy all humanity. The dramaturgically necessary “worst possible turn” mentioned by Dürrenmatt in his “21 Points” has occurred.

Final monologue

In three final monologues , Kilton, Eisler and Möbius address the audience directly. The two secret agents slip back into the roles of Newton and Einstein and provide a brief summary of their biographical data. Möbius now fully identifies with King Solomon: "I am poor King Solomon." The end is reminiscent of a court hearing in which the accused speak the final word. They symbolize three stages of scientific progress:

  • Newton stands for the classic ideal of the unity of science. In his time, the results of research still present themselves as undoubted successes and advances for human development, without their critical consequences being questioned.
  • For the first time Einstein finds himself in a conflict of conscience that he can no longer control the results of his research, in the dilemma between science and ethics. He loves people, but recommends building a weapon of mass destruction. His research is used as a means of power. Left on his own, Einstein understands the ethical challenge, but fails before it.
  • Möbius symbolizes the future vision of a science and humanity in the end times . People have destroyed the world through their own inventions. Once rich, wise, and powerful, King Solomon has become poor and miserable. Like him, science has lost its original strength and power. It recognized its ethical responsibility too late and led humanity to misery.

Overall interpretation

The piece poses the question of ethics in science and is based on the knowledge that once thought or discovered, something cannot be undone. Newton (or Beutler) and Einstein (or Ernesti) represent two different forms of science: One represents “pure science” pursued for its own sake, the other pragmatic, applied science. Knowledge results from both, which ultimately kills. Both fail. As a solution to this dilemma, Möbius chooses the path of retreat and isolation. The fact that it ultimately fails, too, leads to the conclusion that science inevitably leads to the negative.

It has been assumed that Miss Doctor von Zahnd was also just an inmate of the madhouse and only played the role of the doctor. However, this contradicts the fact that she inherited the madhouse from her family and invested her money in the sanatorium. So she is actually the owner and manager. Even so, their madness is evident. Finally she is convinced that King Solomon appears to her and that she must take over the world.

Also, whether Newton and Einstein are just crazy or agents or crazy agents is of secondary importance. The primary recognition is that science always falls into the wrong hands. The comedy also shows that common problems can only be solved together. The solution proposed by Möbius to isolate himself is pointless, since he is outwitted by Fraulein von Zahnd. The three physicists remain condemned to passivity and cannot escape their dilemma.

When Möbius proclaimed the spaceman psalm (also allegedly suggested by Solomon) to his family, he emphasized with this passionate credo that the earth was the only living space available to humans. Science should therefore be careful not to endanger this unique planet, because otherwise mankind would "sink into the deserts of the moon ... in the dust", "boil away in the lead fumes of Mercury" or "dissolve in the oil puddles of Venus".

Characterization of the most important people

Johann Wilhelm Möbius
As a physicist, he made several great discoveries and developed the unified field theory as a world formula and “the system of all possible inventions”. Since he is aware of the fatal consequences of his inventions and cannot take responsibility for them, he pretends to be insane and lets himself be sent to the madhouse in order not to endanger humanity. He pretends to have his inventions revealed by Solomon , who for him has changed from the formerly wise psalm poet of the Song of Songs to the “poor king of truth” and “naked and stinking [...] in a room [crouching] ". The psalm, which Möbius recites while crouching on an upturned table, paints a gloomy picture of the possible apocalyptic consequences of scientific knowledge. During a farewell visit from his ex-wife Lina (who is now married to the missionary Rose) Möbius pretends not to recognize her and their three sons, in order to make it easier for them to forget him. How much Möbius sacrificed himself to save humanity is also evident in the fact that he rejects the marriage proposal from Sister Monika, who has seen through his game. Although he loves her too, he kills her in order not to get "freedom" and to endanger humanity with his inventions.
As he fears that he is being spied on by various powers, he burns his scientific manuscripts without realizing that the head of the institution, Miss Doctor von Zahnd, has already secretly made copies of them.

His last name is based on the German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius .

Herbert Georg Beutler, called Newton, actually Alec Jasper Kilton
He's also a physicist and pretends to be crazy. Later it turns out that he is also an agent of an unspecified western secret service. In order to be able to spy on Möbius, he had to learn German specifically and pretend to be Sir Isaac Newton. He tries to persuade Möbius to work for the national defense of his western state. He promises him the Nobel Prize and reminds him of his duty to hand over his discoveries to humanity. He rejects the responsibility of the scientist for his discoveries, instead shifting the responsibility to the general public.
Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, called Einstein, actually Joseph Eisler
He is the third of the three supposedly “crazy” physicists. He is also an agent, represents the second major power bloc of the Cold War and spied on Möbius. He asks him to choose one of the political blocs and to serve him. He admits that as a scientist he is not free in his system and that he has no opportunity to exert political influence, and therefore cannot guarantee the moral use of scientific results. Ultimately, he shifts responsibility on to the political rulers.
Miss Dr. hc Dr. med. Mathilde von Zahnd
The 55-year-old hunchback mad doctor, an old maid , is the owner and manager of the sanatorium and the last, apparently only normal member of an old noble dynasty of rich and important madmen. At first she plays the generous, human doctor. In the end, however, her mask of the apparently motherly caring Samaritan woman falls off , and she reveals herself to be a power-obsessed, unscrupulous only really mad woman . This change within the drama is also made clear by the twice changing portrait of their ancestors, because each of the three portrayed ancestors symbolizes their appearance at the respective point in time of the action. With the help of intrigue and manipulation, she has seized Möbius' brilliant and dangerous manuscripts and turns out to be an uncontrollable and threatening third power.
Richard Voss
He's the typical hat-and-coat inspector, an experienced and educated person who seems a bit overworked and tired of his job. At first he tries to establish justice by punishing the murderer, but fails because of the crazy organizational concepts of the madhouse. In the second act he has accepted the insane standards and can therefore relax and forego having to arrest the murderer.
Monika Stettler
She is twenty-five years old (at the time of her murder) and is ennobled by the chief physician as her “best nurse”. She is a young, enthusiastic nurse, a little naive and overly optimistic. She understands her patients with great empathy . Nevertheless, she feels exploited in her job, because she also has to sacrifice herself for people who are not important to her. Romantic as she is, she only wants to be there for people she loves. For 2 years she has only looked after Johann Wilhelm Möbius, who is almost 20 years her senior, quickly sees through his disguise as a madman and falls in love with him. She considers him to be a misunderstood genius and cannot stand the way he, in her opinion, lets his potential go unused. For his sake, she wants to give up her job and has already prepared a life together and planned his future career. In her anticipation and enthusiasm, Monika does not notice how little Möbius is taken with her plans. So he finally feels compelled to murder her in order to keep his inventions a secret. Her love is primarily of a selfish nature, it becomes clear in her twofold formulation "I want".

“With the help of the figure of sister Monika, Dürrenmatt takes a critical look at prevailing social values. Sister Monika's personality, positive at first glance, because she acts socially and is capable of love, turns out to be an egoistic character who is blind to the warnings of the environment. ”(Möbius to Monika:“ They run into their doom ”).

Application of Dürrenmatt's drama theory

In the second act Dürrenmatt applies his theory of drama : "The worst possible turn a story can take is the turn into comedy". In his opinion, one can only make fun of the problems of modern society - since dying has become a mass phenomenon, the tragedy is no longer interesting. It's not the dialogues that are funny, it's the grotesque situation. He explains these grotesque events at the most important passages in the book (mad doctor is the only madwoman in the old building; a well-tended petty-bourgeois town next to a penal institution in the swamp).

The appendix to the comedy contains the "21 points about physicists", which read as follows:

  1. I am not starting from a thesis, but from a story.
  2. If you start from a story, it has to be thought through to the end.
  3. A story is thought through to the end when it has taken its worst possible turn.
  4. The worst possible turn is unpredictable. It occurs by accident.
  5. The art of the playwright is to use chance as effectively as possible in a plot.
  6. Dramatic action is carried out by people.
  7. The chance in a dramatic action consists in when and where who happens to meet whom.
  8. The more planned people proceed, the more effectively chance can strike them.
  9. People who proceed according to plan want to achieve a certain goal. Chance always hits them worst when it enables them to achieve the opposite of their goal: what they feared, what they tried to avoid (e.g. Oedipus).
  10. Such a story is grotesque, but not absurd (absurd).
  11. It is paradoxical.
  12. Neither can the playwright avoid the paradox like the logician.
  13. Physicists cannot avoid the paradox any more than logicians can.
  14. A drama about the physicists must be paradoxical.
  15. It cannot aim at the content of physics, only its effects.
  16. The content of physics concerns physicists; the effects concern all people.
  17. As for everyone, only everyone can solve.
  18. Any attempt by an individual to solve for himself what concerns everyone must fail.
  19. Reality appears in the paradox.
  20. Whoever faces the paradox is exposing himself to reality.
  21. The drama can trick the viewer into exposing himself to reality, but not force him to withstand it or even to overwhelm it.


Dürrenmatt divides the play into two acts. The second act is a reversal of the first act. This observation can be proven in several aspects. On the one hand, the opening scenes of Acts 1 and 2 show a number of parallels. The situation of the strangled nurse is the same, the leitmotif of smoking and drinking is taken up again and the same actions occur (photographing the facts). The reverse function of the second act becomes clear through the changed character drawing of the acting characters. The inspector, who at the beginning of the piece had no values ​​(the leitmotif of smoking), has now learned these values ​​by heart. However, he does not embody it and evades the responsibility that the state has for the patient Möbius by leaving his fate to Doctor Zahnd. Miss Doctor von Zahnd is also wrongly drawn. The philanthropist she described herself as in the first act is replaced by her real self. In this way, the act leads to the revelatory monologue of the Zahnd, which introduces the "worst possible turn". The paradox of the mad doctor and the ingenious patient is pointed out ironically and underlines the grotesque nature of the disaster that is about to occur. Here Dürrenmatt calls on his reader to critically reflect, especially on the first act, and prepare the “worst possible turn”. He draws various representatives, such as Ms. Rose (representative of the educated bourgeoisie), Missionary Rose (representative of the church), and the inspector (representative of the state), who shirk their responsibility. In the second act, the situation is reversed and the truths that lead to the disaster become clear.


Schauspielhaus Zürich , where The Physicists were premiered

The first performance of the physicists was the "theatrical success of the season". Hans Christian Blech (Möbius), Gustav Knuth (Newton) and Theo Lingen (Einstein) played the three physicists under the direction of Kurt Horwitz ; Therese Giehse portrayed Mathilde von Zahnd. The rush of the premiere audience was so great that the “world premiere” at the Schauspielhaus Zurich was given on three evenings, starting with the actual premiere on February 21, 1962 (some publications also mention the 20th February 1962). In the opinion of Rudolf Stickelberger, the former “ enfant terrible ” Friedrich Dürrenmatt had become socially acceptable and fashionable in Switzerland, and there was a strong need to give the playwright, who had already been distinguished abroad, recognition in his home country. "[S] a physicist wouldn't even have failed at the Zurich Schauspielhaus if they had deserved it."

Irma Voser judged the premiere: “If you look back on the evening, you get the impression that you have got to know an amazing work. [...] A sequence of scenes takes place in front of us, in which the demonic and the grotesque, cool argumentation and bizarre effects, superficial creatureliness and frightening speculations alternate and interlock in the most varied of steps. What Dürrenmatt gains from the markings, how he plays Einstein's violin, for example, and how he continually swaps positions: that is not only virtuoso, it is unique. " Ivan Nagel found that the plot overwhelmed the viewer:" What trivial in a moment or sounds tasteless [...], is repealed in the next with astonishing vehemence. [...] The evening closes as a confirmation of Dürrenmatt's extravagant power and originality. "

Despite the great success with the public, Dürrenmatt also received criticism. Joachim Kaiser saw triumph in a topic "where little can be achieved with sensible editorials, [...] the author's daring brilliance". But he doubted the long-term importance of the physicists : “Dürrenmatt's atomic piece has progressed further than any atomic piece before. That it was just a funny, bizarre piece of time, just an attempt, just a comedy for a few years, shouldn't be blamed on him. ” Friedrich Luft's criticism went even further , which was primarily directed against the tragic turn of the second act: “Dürrenmatt, otherwise diligently handing out blows to the cliché, has succumbed to the cliché. He devalues ​​his morality by suddenly moralizing directly. He does it now without the joke's disguise. And see, the fun leaves the stage. But it doesn't really get serious either. The playwright falls below his cunning level. [...] The great confused laughter that he wanted to initiate dies for himself. The grandiose thrown play of theater diminishes because Dürrenmatt does not find the courage for ultimate arrogance. […] What a shame!"

Unimpressed by such criticism, Die Physiker became after the German premiere in Munich on September 22, 1962 in the 1962/63 season with a total of 1598 performances, before Max Frisch's Andorra with 934 performances. Even decades after its creation, The Physicists, along with The Visit of the Old Lady and The Meteor, are among the most frequently performed pieces by Dürrenmatt. In the 1982/83 and 1983/84 seasons , Die Physiker was the most played piece at theaters in the Federal Republic of Germany .

The play also became a popular success in non-German-speaking countries. In London, the translation of The Physicists by James Kirkup premiered in a production by Peter Brook at the Aldwych Theater of the Royal Shakespeare Company on January 9, 1963 and was a great stage success. On New York's Broadway , the piece on 13 October 1964, first performed. Although American theater critics only recommended the “too complex” play to “the intellectual audience”, The Physicists also became the season's popular success in New York.

In 1973 Friedrich Dürrenmatt staged his play himself in a Swiss Tournee Theater production. The audience celebrated Dürrenmatt's production with ovations. Irma Voser, however, judged Dürrenmatt's directing: "The production earned a lot of applause, which particularly distinguished Charles Regnier , but it fell short of Dürrenmatt's score: a careful but moderate adaptation [...]".

In the reception of literature were Physicists often with Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo compared. Manfred Durzak saw Dürrenmatt's play as a “withdrawal from Brecht's Galilei ”: “The future perspective that comes into Brecht's Galilei because the objective further development of science is guaranteed gives way to complete hopelessness with Dürrenmatt.” Franz Norbert Mennemeier also drew this comparison, and he saw in Dürrenmatt's play “[the] end of an era. [...] What was the pride of the 19th century: the natural sciences, including the belief in progress, that gives thanks here in all forms. ”For Urs Jenny Dürrenmatt found in Die Physiker “ the type of drama that is adequate to the hopeless situation of physics, because it allows this hopelessness to be revealed in an exciting way: the situation comedy . "


radio play

In 1963, a radio play was implemented by Schweizer Radio DRS . Tilli Breidenbach , Hans-Christian Blech , Hanns Ernst Jäger and Bruno Hübner spoke under the direction of Alfons Hoffmann .

Television game

In 1962, the staging of the premiere was recorded in a television film for SRG . The cast of the premiere was directed by Kurt Horwitz ( Therese Giehse , Hans Christian Blech , Gustav Knuth and Theo Lingen ). In 1964 the Süddeutsche Rundfunk produced a television play adapted by Friedrich Dürrenmatt based on his theater model (see Die Physiker (film) ). Fritz Umgelter directed the film . Kurt Ehrhardt and Wolfgang Kieling played alongside Therese Giehse and Gustav Knuth .

The piece was filmed in a humorous way in the Neo Magazin Royale issue of June 22, 2017.


Andreas Pflüger composed an opera of the same name based on the stage play Die Physiker , which was premiered in 2000 at the Czech State Opera in Prague.


Benjamin Gottwald implemented Die Physiker as a comic. The adaptation was published by Verlag Büchergilde Gutenberg in 2018 .


Text output

  • F. Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Arche, Zurich 1962.
  • F. Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Diogenes Verlag, new version 1980, ISBN 3-257-23047-8 .

Audio book

Secondary literature

  • Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Theater Problems. 3. Edition. Publishing house Die Arche, Zurich 1955.
  • Heinz Ludwig Arnold : Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Materials. Klett, Stuttgart 1980, ISBN 3-12-356100-3 .
  • Manfred Eisenbeis: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Klett, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-12-923035-0 .
  • Oskar Keller: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Oldenbourg, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-486-88617-7 .
  • Gerhard P. Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Diesterweg, Frankfurt am Main 1997, ISBN 3-425-06079-1 .
  • Jan Knopf : Apocalyptic fools game. In: Dramas of the 20th Century. Volume 2. Reclam, Stuttgart 1996, ISBN 3-15-009461-5 , pp. 109-125.
  • Bernd Matzkowski: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. (= King's Explanations . Text Analysis and Interpretation, 368). C. Bange Verlag , Hollfeld 2011, ISBN 978-3-8044-1921-6 .
  • Hans Mayer : Brecht and Dürrenmatt or the withdrawal. In: Hans Mayer: Fresh and Dürrenmatt . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-518-22098-5 , pp. 17-40.
  • Franz-Josef Payrhuber : Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. (= Reclams Universal-Bibliothek. 15302; = reading key for students). Reclam, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-15-015302-6 .
  • Alexander Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Physicists. Explanations and documents. Reclam, Stuttgart 1991, ISBN 3-15-008189-0 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Eisenbeis: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. Pp. 92-93.
  2. ^ Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Pp. 26-27.
  3. In this review Dürrenmatt also went into Werner Heisenberg , from whose research he may have borrowed the term “ universal formula ”, cf. Volker Schüler: Dürrenmatt: "The judge and his executioner". "The Physicists". Beyer, Hollfeld 1976, ISBN 3-921202-15-9 , p. 90.
  4. Friedrich Dürrenmatt: "Brighter than a thousand suns". To a book by Robert Jungk. In: Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. Pp. 89-91.
  5. ^ Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Labyrinth: Substances I – III, Volume 1-3. Diogenes, Zurich 1994, ISBN 3-257-22668-3 , p. 202.
  6. Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Physicists. Pp. 71-73.
  7. See Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. Pp. 101-106.
  8. Quoted from: Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 101.
  9. ^ Heinz Ludwig Arnold (ed.): Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The classic on the stage. Conversations 1961–1970. Diogenes, Zurich 1996, ISBN 3-257-06111-0 , p. 206.
  10. Fritz J. Raddatz : I am the darkest comedy writer there is . In: The time . August 16, 1985.
  11. Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Physicists. P. 99.
  12. See Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. Pp. 106-107.
  13. ^ Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Dramaturgischer Rat. In: Collected Works. Volume 7, Diogenes, Zurich 1996, ISBN 3-257-22850-1 , p. 11.
  14. Heinz Ludwig Arnold : On the back of Oedipus . In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . May 10, 2003.
  15. Dürrenmatt: The Physicists. New version 1980, p. 86.
  16. Cf. on the cellar section: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. Pp. 30-31.
  17. Quotes: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. Diogenes Verlag, ISBN 978-3-257-23047-5 , p. 41.
  18. Diekhans, Johannes, Völkl, Michael: Die Physiker… understands , 2011, p. 82
  19. a b c Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 41.
  20. ^ Heinz Forster, Paul Riegel: Deutsche Literaturgeschichte. Volume 11: Postwar Period 1945–1968. DTV, Munich 1995, pp. 116-117.
  21. In the following, some works are listed that indicate the date of the premiere: February 21, 1962: Lutz Tantow: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Moralist und Komödiant. Heyne, Munich 1992, ISBN 3-453-05335-4 , p. 156; Christian Markus Jauslin: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: On the structure of his dramas. Juris-Verlag, 1964, p. 148; Alexander Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the physicists: The physicists. P. Reclam, 1991, ISBN 3-15-008189-0 , p. 1027; Georg Hensel: Schedule: Drama Guide from Antiquity to the Present . Propylaea, 1966, p. 1027; Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Michael Haller: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Beyond the borders. Pendo-Verlag, 1990, ISBN 3-85842-254-1 , p. 137 (February 20 is indicated on p. 159); Franz Norbert Mennemeier: Modern German Drama. W. Fink, 1973, ISBN 3-7705-1216-2 , p. 184. February 20, 1962: Gerhard Peter Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, die Physiker. M. Diesterweg, 1979, ISBN 3-425-06079-1 , p. 41; Franz Josef Görtz, Georg Hensel: Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Collected Works. Diogenes, 1988, ISBN 3-257-01808-8 , p. 813; Armin Arnold: To Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Ernst Klett, 1982, ISBN 3-12-397500-2 , p. 97; Günther Rühle: Theater in our time. Suhrkamp, ​​1976, p. 153; Urs Jenny: Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Friedrich Verlag, 1965, p. 10 and p. 120; Elisabeth Brock-Sulzer: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Stations of his work. Verlag der Arche, 1970, p. 324.
  22. ^ Rudolf Stickelberger: World sensation of the theater? Friedrich Dürrenmatt, his “physicists”, his eulogists and his audience In: Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 178.
  23. Irma Voser: … no viewer escapes deep dismay…. In: Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. P. 156.
  24. Ivan Nagel: Banality as a club. In: Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. P. 160.
  25. Joachim Kaiser: The world as a madhouse. In: Ritter: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The physicists. P. 165.
  26. ^ Friedrich Luft: Last Seriousness - presented as a joke. In: Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Physicists. Pp. 44-45.
  27. a b Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 42.
  28. Irma Voser: … a careful, but moderate adaptation…. In: Knapp: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Physicists. P. 51.
  29. Manfred Durzak: “The Physicists” - “Withdrawal” of Brecht's “Galilei”? In: Arnold: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 36.
  30. ^ Franz-Norbert Mennemeier: Optimistic and pessimistic criticism of time. In: Arnold: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 41.
  31. Urs Jenny: The Physicists. In: Arnold: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Die Physiker. P. 35.
  32. The physicists in the HörDat audio play database .
  33. ^ Curt Riess : The theater in Zurich . Langen Müller, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-7844-2192-X , p. 390.
  34. Die Physiker (1962) in the Internet Movie Database (English)
  35. Die Physiker (1964) in the Internet Movie Database (English)
  36. Last hour before the holidays: The Physicists. In: ZDFneo. June 22, 2017. Retrieved June 27, 2017 .
  37. The Physicists - Book Guild. Retrieved October 7, 2018 .