The Physicists

The Physicists (German: Die Physiker) is a satiric drama written in 1961 by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Informed by the Second World War and the many recent advances in science and nuclear technology, the play deals with questions of scientific ethics and humanity's ability to handle its intellectual responsibilities. It is often recognized as his most impressive yet most easily understood work.[citation needed]

The play was first performed in Zürich in 1962 and published the same year by Verlags AG "Die Arche". It was translated into English by James Kirkup, and published in the US in 1964 by Grove Press, under its Evergreen imprint.[1]


The story is set in the drawing room of Les Cerisiers sanatorium, an idyllic home for the mentally ill, run by famed psychiatrist Mathilde von Zahnd. This drawing room connects to three rooms, each of which is inhabited by a mentally ill patient. These three men, all physicists by trade, are permitted use of the drawing room, where they are periodically monitored by the female nurses that are charged with their care. The first patient is Herbert Georg Beutler, and he believes that he is Sir Isaac Newton. The second patient is Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, who believes himself to be Albert Einstein. The third patient is Johann Wilhelm Möbius, and he believes that he is regularly visited by the biblical King Solomon. When the play begins, "Einstein" has just killed one of his nurses, and the police are examining the scene. It is revealed through their discussion that this is the second slaying of a nurse by one of these three patients in just three months, the first having been committed by "Newton".

The motive behind these two murders becomes clear in the play's second act, when it is revealed with startling abruptness that none of the three patients is mad. They are all only faking insanity. Möbius is actually an incredibly brilliant physicist whose discoveries include such fabled results as a solution to the problem of gravitation, a "Unitary Theory of Elementary Particles", and the "Principle of Universal Discovery". Fearing what humanity could do with these powerful discoveries, Möbius chose not to reveal his work. He instead feigned madness, that he might be committed to a sanatorium and thus protected along with his knowledge. Möbius, though, failed to avoid attention. "Einstein" and "Newton" are both spies, representatives of two different countries, and they have penetrated Les Cerisiers in order to secure Möbius' documents and, if possible, the man himself. Each spy murdered a nurse to protect his secrets and to strengthen his simulation of madness.

In the play's climactic scene, all three men reveal their secrets, and each spy attempts to convince Möbius to come with him. Möbius, however, persuades them that the secrets he has discovered are too terrible for man to know and assures them that their efforts are in vain because he recently burned all the papers that he developed during his time in the sanatorium. After much debate, the three men finally agree that they are content to protect humanity by living out the rest of their lives in captivity, while furthering and serving physics.

However, these noble plans are thwarted by the play's final plot twist. Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, head of Les Cerisiers, enters the drawing room and reveals to the three men that she has eavesdropped on their entire conversation. Furthermore, she has known about Möbius for years and has been secretly copying his documents and using his scientific discoveries to construct an international empire. She believes that King Solomon is speaking to her, and she believes that with his guidance and Möbius' discoveries, she can become the most powerful woman on earth.

The story ends with a sense of impending doom. Möbius, "Newton", and "Einstein" have been outmanoeuvred and trapped, and the play ends with each of the three men speaking directly and pitiably to the audience, emphasizing their plight and the plight of all humanity.


Štefka Drolc as Mathilde von Zahnd in a 1963 play by Ljubljana Slovene National Theatre Drama

A 1963 radio play adaptation by Schweizer Radio DRS.

It was adapted for Australian TV..

A 1964 television adaptation [de] was produced by Süddeutscher Rundfunk and directed by Fritz Umgelter.

In 1988, a TV movie The Physicists (Russian: Физики, romanizedPhisiki) was produced by the Lentelefilm studio in the USSR.[2]

BBC radio version 17/10/1963 (repeated 8/11/1963 & 5/3/1972) produced by William Glen-Doepel; and BBC World Service radio versions from c1981 & 7/7/1991.[3]

In January 2013, BBC Radio 3 broadcast an adaptation by Matt Thompson[4] with Samantha Bond as Doctor von Zahnd, Geoffrey Whitehead as the inspector, John Hodgkinson as Möbius, Thom Tuck as Newton, John Bett as Einstein, and Madeleine Worrall as both Nurse Monika and Mrs Rose.

1964 Australian TV versionEdit

The Physicists
Directed byChristopher Muir
StarringWyn Roberts
Country of originAustralia
Original languageEnglish
Running time75 minutes[5]
Production companyAustralian Broadcasting Commission
Original release3 June 1964 (Melbourne)[6]
8 July 1964 (Sydney)[7]

The play was adapted for Australian TV in 1964 by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Melbourne.[8][9] Australian drama was relatively rare at the time and it was common for local versions of overseas plays to be produced.[10]


At a mental asylum in Europe, police investigate the murder of two nurses who were assigned to three inmates, all physicists: Mobius, Beutler, and Ernesti. Mobius imagines himself as in contact with King Solomon. Beutel and Ernesti maintain they are Newton and Einstein.



The play had been first produced in London in January 1963 and made its Australian stage premiere in St Martins Theatre Sydney, October 1963.[6]

It was one of 20 TV plays produced by the ABC in 1964.[11] Chris Muir described the play as "full of the unexpected and rich in dramatic climaxes. It is also a play of black humour. Durremmnatt, while making us laugh at ourselves, makes us feel uncomfortable in the process by showing us our failings often through grotesque imagery."[6]


The critic for the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that the production:

Shifted the convincing effects in the play from the chaff of its thriller-comedy element. The light relief dialogue is there for the purpose of keeping a puzzled live audience amused, and on television this doubtful sprinkling of humour did not come through; similarly the two murders and police investigations range false in such unrealistic treatment. Christopher Muir... followed Duerrenmatt's directions closely, imposing on television the geometrical pattern of the asylum common ' room with its three cell doors and the curiously clockwork behaviour of the characters. As though seen under a magnifying glass, the gripping features of the play showed clear and sharp; the only real and understandable figure, fortunately one central to the play, was given a worthy portrayal by Wynn Roberts (although one of his big scenes was cut). This was Mobius, the genius impelled by both fear and courage. Tension is well supplied to the second half of the play by, the unexpected twists of the plot, and the cold, lucid arguments of the three physicists were excellently focused in this production.[12]


  1. ^ Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1964). The Physicists. Translated from German by James Kirkup. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 9780802150882.
  2. ^ Fiziki (1989) at IMDb
  3. ^ Alison and Nigel Deacon (2013-01-23). "Friedrich Durrenmatt". The Diversity Website.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  4. ^ "The Physicists". BBC Radio 3. 2016-09-04. Retrieved 2020-05-01.
  5. ^ "TV Guide". The Age. 3 June 1964. p. 14.
  6. ^ a b c "The Physicists Black Humour from ABV-2". The Age. 28 May 1964. p. 13.
  7. ^ "TV Guide". Sydney Morning Herald. 8 July 1964. p. 15.
  8. ^ The Physicists (1964) at IMDb
  9. ^ "Doctor. drama on 3". The Canberra Times. 38 (10894). 8 July 1964. p. 18. Retrieved 14 February 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  10. ^ Vagg, Stephen (February 18, 2019). "60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & '60s". Filmink.
  11. ^ "ABC Plans to Show Significant Works". The Age. 20 February 1964. p. 13.
  12. ^ "The Physicists". Sydney Morning Herald. 9 July 1964. p. 8.

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