~ Posted by Robert Butler, June 8th 2012

In a recent issue of Intelligent Life, the BBC producer John Lloyd, the man responsible for "Blackadder" and "QI", made the point that we got our geniuses in the wrong order.

I have this theory that if Jung had been born when Newton was born [1643], and Newton had been born when Jung was born [1875], we’d have a much better society, we’d be better at understanding ourselves and our motivations for things. We’d have had 400 years of psychiatry and psychology and only 100 years of technology.

I didn't realise this until last night, but Lloyd's theory is also the central argument in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Physicists". The new production at the Donmar is the first revival in Britain since Peter Brook directed the play in 1963. None of the critics I spoke to at the press night had seen it before.

It's worth the wait—and not just for Sophie Thompson's eye-popping performance as a ruthless hunchbacked female psychiatrist. "The Physicists" takes place in an asylum where the three inmates, all physicists, pretend to be mad. Two of the physicists pretend to be mad so they can learn what the third physicist, Möbius, has actually discovered. But Möbius pretends to be mad because he doesn't want the world to turn his latest discoveries to terrible ends. "Physics has run ahead of humanity," he says—making Lloyd's point—"And humanity needs the chance to catch up." 

Towards the end of the play, Möbius tries to persuade the others to remain with him in the asylum to pursue the sheer beauty of physics:

"We three, working together, it is limitless what we might discover." 

"Limitless?", ponders one of the other two.

"I can promise you the world, gentlemen, I just can't let you share it with the world."

"Is there really no other way?"

"We can stay in this madhouse or the world will become one."

"The Physicists" was written 16 years after the invention of the atom bomb, when nuclear war was a constant threat, and the modern world had become, in Dürrenmatt's eyes, "grotesque". But the idea that it was the physicists who had led us into this new and terrible world is far from unanimous. Many believe the world would have been a worse place without them.

In this week's Economist, there's an obituary of the literary critic Paul Fussell, who was wounded in action in Alsace in 1944. Fussell was about to rejoin American troops, this time in the Pacific, when the war ended. Twenty years later, his book "The Great War and Modern Memory” was influential in disabusing readers of romantic ideals about war, but—the obit says—he also "thanked God thunderously and often that the A-bomb had been dropped on Japan."

Robert Butler
is online editor of Intelligent Life