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  • The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
  • Katie N. Johnson
The Physicists. By Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new adaptation by Jack Thorne. Directed by Josie Rourke. Donmar Warehouse, London. 7 June 2012.

What is the price of scientific discovery in the nuclear age? Has technology outstripped humanity’s moral aptitude? Under Josie Rourke’s stewardship as new artistic director, the Donmar Warehouse addressed questions like these in a season dedicated to examining war and destruction. Her production of The Physicists (Die Physiker)—Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1962 tragicomedy written in the wake of the atom bomb—could hardly be more relevant by asking us to consider the paradoxical tensions between scientific progress and those who seek to control it. It has become fashionable for playwrights like Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Hapgood) and Michael Frayn (Copenhagen) to scrutinize the role of science in general, and physics in particular. But Dürrenmatt earlier engaged these ideas within a unique dramaturgical style marked by grotesque and comedic paradoxes. Outlined in a pithy dramaturgical essay called “21 Points to The Physicists,” Dürrenmatt argued for the centrality (if not ubiquity) of the paradox in postwar times and showed how precisely the opposite set of circumstances (Dürrenmatt used the word “Ein-fall,” or “occasion”) can reveal unexpected insights. Moreover, Dürrenmatt believed in the transformative power of comedy, that the world had descended into the realm of the grotesque just as it had led humanity to nuclear destruction. Given these absurdities, only comedy can save us.

Rourke’s stylized production superbly captured Dürrenmatt’s paradoxical dramaturgy, walking the fine line between tragedy and comedy, the grotesque and the sublime. Because of The Physicists’s nonrealistic plot and dialogue, it has been rarely shown on English-speaking stages. (It was revived in 1963 by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, and in 1964 by Peter Brook in New York.) Rourke’s production, with a new English adaptation by Jack Thorne, followed the Donmar’s tradition of breathing new life into important and sometimes forgotten foreign plays. Thorne’s elegant version both captured and embellished the original German language, making the dialogue appear crisp, clever, and surprisingly contemporary. Some of Thorne’s changes took me by surprise (such as inserting lavish words like “ebullient”), but I began to recognize how his translation, like Rourke’s production, was seeking to iterate Dürrenmatt’s dark humor within the current zeitgeist, with playful, almost camp-like winks to the audience. A case in point was the delightful translation of Doktor-Steinemann-Steinemann-Stiftung (usually translated as a bequest or an endowment) as the “Steinemann Foundation for Disturbed Academics.”

The premise of the play is both absurd and intriguing: three scientists who believe that they are leading physicists (Newton, Einstein, and Möbius) are institutionalized in the same sanatorium run by the offbeat Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd. But this insanity is a cover for the physicists, who pretend to be insane (and thus impersonate those famous scientists) in order to conduct their science in peace. In Dürrenmatt’s world, nothing is what it appears to be and there are constant absurd twists, culminating in Dr. Zahnd’s revelation that she has been treating the physicists in order to steal their scientific discoveries for her global paramilitary organization. It is the doctor, we soon learn, who is delusional, not the scientists. This is the essence of the Dürrenmatt paradox: that reason hides among the insane, and that the insane are running the clinic.

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John Heffernan (Johann Wilhelm Möbius) in The Physicists. (Photo: Johan Persson.)

The stunning set design by Robert Jones likewise confounded the boundaries between genius and insanity. Given the intimacy of the small Donmar stage, the audience was nearly enveloped within the sanatorium—a space covered in eye-popping slick whiteness from top to bottom, with white chairs, floor, desk, and back wall. Rising the entire height of the stage and extending well into the fly space, the all-white back wall was composed of some dozen vertical and horizontal doors, each from a different historical period (the 1950s for Einstein, the late 1600s for Newton, and...


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