An interview with Kevin O’Rourke for a production of The Physicists at the Williams Summer Theatre Lab. Those lucky kids got to act in a show with Roger Rees and the insanely brilliant Mark Blum. -DL
Drew Lichtenberg: What first drew you to this script?
Kevin O’Rourke: The idea of the responsibilities caused by human intelligence, and also its relationship to madness. Dürrenmatt was writing in an era in which scientific breakthroughs were leading directly to military/industrial ones; the ethical responsibility of knowledge, how it was used, whether it was safe, were important real-life questions as well as dramatic ones. In the play, Möbius talks about how the physicists, those in “the realm of knowledge,” have reached the “the farthest frontiers of perception.” Humanity has not caught up with the reach of science, and the only ethical thing to do is to keep their destructive knowledge a secret: “Our knowledge has become a frightening burden. Our researches are perilous, our discoveries are lethal. For us physicists there is nothing left but to surrender to reality.”
DL: How do you think these themes translate in a contemporary, post-Cold War sense?
K O’R: Well, nowadays, as in the play scientists are forced to “surrender” to an ignorant “reality” – Dürrenmatt’s partially writing about the dumbing down of America. It’s too hard to deal with all of these vistas opened up by intelligence, and it’s too hard to act in moral or ethical accordance with potentially exciting discoveries, so many people simply give up. Lots of people say it’s too hard to pay attention to what’s going on in Darfur, or they are cognizant of global warming and choose to ignore it, and this play is
directly in line with these very contemporary attitudes.
DL: You mention madness. How does that function in the play?
K O’R: Well, the play is set in a madhouse, and a large portion of the plot is devoted to figuring out how mad the physicists are. I think Dürrenmatt is trying to place these big ideas (the human capacity for destruction, the ethical responsibilities of living a life of scientific discovery and pure reason) within a context where the absurdity and the madness become metaphors. When you don’t understand someone you think they’re mad, but maybe they’re functioning on a level beyond you, maybe they’re an unrecognized genius, or maybe they’re just performing the whole time. On a deeper level, the play is interrogating surface realities such as madness and identity. Which world is more mad – the physicists living inside the madhouse or the people dropping atomic bombs in the outside world? There’s also a very real humor to the play. It’s a sharp, noirish, Pynchonesque comedy, and we’ve tried to focus on finding the levels of humor and philosophy which seem to be always present, side-by-side, within the text. Hopefully, people will laugh, and also think.
1905-1917 – Albert Einstein develops the theory of relativity; he will spend the rest of his life in the unsuccessful pursuit of a Unified Field Theory.
July 16, 1945 – At a site codenamed Trinity in the New Mexico desert, the American army detonates the first plutonium bomb.
August 6 and 9, 1945 – American forces drop the atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
1956 – Dürrenmatt writes a review of Robert Jungk’s Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, a profile of the development of the atomic bomb, which he calls, “a chronicle of the fall of the world of pure reason.”
Oct. 4, 1957 – The Soviet Union launches Sputnik into outer space; the Eisenhower Administration forms NASA in response.
April 12, 1961 – Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space.
February 20, 1962 – American John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the earth; on the same day, Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists is given its world premiere in Zurich.