“The wise store up knowledge but the mouth of a fool invites ruin” (King Salomon)
There is a particular insanity innate to closed institutions such as psychiatric clinics, prisons, or research centers. It is fair to say that at least the aesthetic borders wear off by and by. From what I remember of my father’s career as a psychiatrist, it was virtually impossible to tell who was insane, who was the doctor, and who was just visiting.
Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, has chosen such a situation as the premise for his play “The Physicists”.
Setting the Stage
In the play, three physicists spend their days in the alleged security of the mundane madhouse, “Les Cerisiers,” consigned to the care of the distinguished psychiatrist, Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd. One of them believes that he is Albert Einstein, another that he is Isaac Newton, while the third is visited by King Salomon.
“Les Cerisiers” is situated in a sleepy, remote community surrounded by an idyllic, painfully calmative landscape.
If we were to trust the author, these surroundings “play no part in what follows”. However, the depicted landscape distinctively evokes the not uncommon pastoral scenery of organizations such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, in Switzerland. After having painted this setting, Dürrenmatt takes us on an ever-accelerating ride to insanity.
Three murders set the play in motion and Inspector Richard Voss begins his confused and frustrated attempts at investigation.
Behind this hubbub lunacy, a subtler horror plays out. Early in the play, Newton tells Richard, “Any fool nowadays can switch on the light or touch off the atomic bomb …..But if you don’t understand anything about electricity, why don’t you refuse to turn on the light? It is you who are the criminal, Richard.”
By way of pointing at the only sane character, the only person from outside the madhouse, the author seems to point at all of us. Knowledge is dangerous and this danger doesn’t stay within the safe walls of the madhouse. “Only in the madhouse we can think our own thoughts. Outside they would be dynamite.”
A Child of Its Time Translates to Our Time
The play was written in 1961, in a post-war Europe that was shaped by the Cold War and the nuclear menace that prevailed after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The play is tied to this particular European, or more specifically, German perspective. As such, it could prove challenging to make it accessible to a modern Canadian audience.
The play’s themes resound in the modern world. With the ever-increasing accessibility of knowledge, thanks to technological breakthroughs in communication, it is important to ask how we should proceed. Dürrenmatt addresses this question, albeit through a pessimistic lens. He may have been ahead of his time; the simplicity of his play, much like the simplicity of switches and mouse clicks, conceals the same explosive energy as Albert Einstein’s simple equation, E=mc².
The similarities between the idyllic environs of “Les Cerisiers” and the scenery that surrounds CERN are not likely to have been intentional because the author only visited CERN years after he had written the play. However, those of us who continue to switch on the light without understanding anything about electricity can only hope that the resemblances between “Les Cerisiers” and CERN remain coincidental.
By Angelika Betzold
Photos: Don Dixon and David Hou