The Physicists: A Review

July 8, 2015
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The Physicists is a brilliant dark comedy with multiple layers of meaning, written by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. Set during the cold war era in the 1960s, the entire action takes place in a sanatorium with just three inmates. One of them is a scientist pretending to be Isaac Newton; the second behaves as though he is Einstein. The third inmate believes he is Mobius, the famous mathematician. As the play unfolds, we learn that none of the three are actually insane; the only insane person is Mathilde von Zahnd, the famous psychiatrist who runs the place.
When the play begins, “Einstein” has just killed one of the nurses. Previously, “Newton” has killed another nurse. Later in the play, “Mobius” kills the third nurse. In the second half of the play, the audience discovers the reasons behind these occurrences. “Mobius” is in reality a brilliant scientist who had made startling discoveries that he fears will be misused by humanity. So, he fakes insanity so that his knowledge remains secret. However, the superpowers find out what is happening and send their spies as fake inmates “Einstein” and “Newton”. They kill the nurses for fear of discovery. “Mobius” also kills a nurse who falls in love with him, again, for fear of discovery.
However, in a final twist to the story, Mathilde reveals that she has been spying on Mobius, secretly copying all his documents. She uses the discovery for personal gain, setting up businesses that support her work. She also has delusions that she hears the voice of King Solomon and wants to use the discoveries to become the most powerful woman on earth.
The story ends with a sense of despair, as the three inmates are confined to the sanatorium and Mathilde is free to wreak havoc on humanity.
At one level, this is simply the story of the atomic bomb and the damage it caused at the end of World War 2. The scientists involved had deep reservations about the work they had done and its potential for ending civilization as we know it. At another level, it is the story of the clash between science and ethics.
At yet another level, the sanatorium symbolizes the world that we live in. We are all inmates of this asylum, but only the people at the top are the ones who are actually crazy. Unfortunately, they control the levers of power, so the world is headed towards inevitable destruction, unless something changes dramatically.
We saw the play at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, a comfortable seven-hour drive from Ottawa. The theatre is designed to accommodate a large number of people, with the stage in the centre of the auditorium. No one is very far from the actors, making it a unique, personalized experience in a very intimate setting.
It was well worth the drive and we would gladly go again to Stratford to see another play in this amazing theatre.

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