Friedrich Durenmatt’s play The Physicists is an unusual sort of absurdist play. It has a setup common among Theatre of the Absurd: A fascist organization uses euphemistic language to disguise their brutality, and pseudo logic to promote fear and further their power-grubbing agenda. What makes Durenmatt’s play special is the choices he affords his main character in light of the fascist agenda.
Ionesco’s Rhinocerus ends with the Berenger as apparently the sole human who has not caught rhino-itus. He’s the only person left who hasn’t submitted to the fear-induced mob mentality, and we are left to presume that whatever life he has left will be spent in misery. Stoppard’sRosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead similarly revolves around two characters running up against human limitations to affect their own narrative. As in the original Hamlet, they are bit players, left to crack jokes from the sidelines, to act their parts as gears to the larger narrative.
In The Physicists, Durenmatt’s main character, Möbius, is a physicist (surprise) who has uncovered certain principles that would be highly useful to a certain fascist governments' agendas to dominate the world (cue: evil laugh). In an attempt to hide these secrets and to prevent much pain and suffering, he poses as insane and is put into a sanatorium. The fascists do not give up so easily, and in an ingenious plot, send two of their own physicists to said sanatorium (to gain admission, they proclaim to believe they are Einstein and Newton) with a mission of extracting secrets from Möbius’s frail mind. Ridiculousness ensues, until Möbius’s family visits and in order to preserve his deception, Möbius is forced to deceive them as well.
Here’s the unique part: rather than begrudgingly putting on a show of insanity and then despairing of his own powerlessness, Möbius embraces that which he still has power over. He uses his “false” identity (his “insanity” is that he believes King Solomon visits him) to sing a song filtered through his Solomon alter-ego with veiled references to his sadness over losing his family. Unlike other absurdist plays, The Physicists’ main character is empowered by the fallibility of identity. He alone possesses the truth behind his song. It is a private victory, but still larger than any other absurdist play would allow.
This empowerment can only exist in a play as full of play and artifice as The Physicists is. The plot is that of a bad murder mystery (I skipped that part in the interest of space). The double-agent spy/physicists, the ridiculous play with names -- these are all things that characters in most absurdist plays fight against. In The Physicists, they are the perpetrators of the identity games, and in their perpetration, exemplify the freedom that postmodernity (or whatever label you want to attach to the way we experience life today) begets. Without an integrating principle in which to calcify our sense of identity, we are free to play, and what better way to illustrate this freedom than through parody? The question is, why isn’t there more artifice, more parody, more theatrics in modern fiction? Or is there?