The Physicists tests the limits of sanity

A philosophic, political comedy with a not-so-healthy dose of absurdism.

By Gabriel Kalcheim

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Physicists, now being presented in an extremely successful production by University Theater, is that it manages to straddle the lines of the philosophic, political comedy of Bernard Shaw and the 1960s absurdism of Samuel Beckett, and yet not quite devolve into either. For The Physicists, written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1961, is also a well-made play; its themes are many and varied. According to fourth-year director Katie Goldberg, “The Physicists is about an intellectual’s responsibility to knowledge, specifically framed in the struggle between physics and war as set against the backdrop of the atomic bomb.” Durrenmatt certainly could have left this play, very successfully, as a one act, philosophical comedy about how human beings invent their own identities according to how they think they are viewed by society. And it is a testament to Durrenmatt’s genius that this theme is by no means lost in the ensuing discourse on the scientist’s place in the atomic age, in which perhaps the most salient argument is that proffered by Mobius, one of three physicists consigned to a sanatorium in this play, when he says in Act Two, “Today it is the responsibility of a genius to remain unrecognized.”

The play is set in the sanatorium of Doktor von Zahnd (fourth-year Markie Grey) in one particular ward in which are kept three formerly practicing physicists who are apparently so mad that one of them thinks he is Isaac Newton (second-year Zev Hurwich), another that he is Albert Einstein (third-year Jose Medina), and another, Mobius, the real protagonist, that King Solomon appears to him on a regular basis. When the play opens, “Einstein” has just strangled one of the ward’s nurses. The police inspector (first-year William Craft) is called in to investigate, but is denied the chance to interview, much less take into custody the murderer—or rather “the assailant,” as nurse Monika (second-year Ariel Von Hippel) calls him. For Einstein is just then occupied with playing Kriesler on the violin in order to “calm himself down.” This is the second time that such a killing has taken place at the sanatorium: Only two months before, Newton had strangled another nurse to death and had been left unmolested by the police. Things get turned upside-down when Newton explains to the police inspector that he is actually only pretending to be Isaac Newton, that he is actually Albert Einstein, but that if he were to drop the act, “all hell would break loose.” Better to keep things in order and go on pretending to be who others think he really is.

Durrenmatt’s message is that these sorts of expectations about identity, whether merely perceived or really enforced by society itself, make world a virtual prison. Is not the world, then, the real madhouse, and a madhouse, in fact, the only place where we can find freedom, where we can “think our own thoughts” and do what we like? Goldberg gives us just the sort of keen direction this play requires and has chosen a work that is extremely well suited to the talents of this troupe of actors. The mad physicists require just the sort of broad presentation that second-year Zev Hurwich and third-year José Medina are able to execute rather well, and particularly notable is first-year Ivan Pyzow as Mobius. As someone who has frequented the theater, both in New York and Chicago, I can say that you will not find a more talented young actor on any stage, conveying such pathos and such a feel for his character.

According to Goldberg, “Durrenmatt said in an interview that ‘the world is a madhouse,’….” physicists themselves are totally rational beings—the part that’s nebulous is whether or not rationality is, in fact, insanity in disguise.” In the end, however, skepticism triumphs more than anything and the audience is left not quite knowing what to believe. Is modern science even possible in such a state of things?