Die Physiker - Friedrich Dürrenmatt
This 1962 play is part of the wave of pessimism that followed the invention of the atomic bomb, one of the rare occasions in history that the total extinction of humanity has seemed like a real possibility. On the one hand, some thinkers stressed the essential warlike nature of humanity, as in Robert Ardrey's popular books about human origins as the metaphorical "children of Cain" or the famous opening sequence of 2001. On the other hand, writers like Dürrenmatt put the blame on scientific and technological progress, economic competitiveness, and general hubris, and wished for a return to simplicity or old-time religion (the last words in this play are given to King Solomon, saying, "when I no longer feared God, my wisdom destroyed my wealth").

Although a review like this is a poor place to expound my own views, let me just say that an atomic bomb is by no means necessary for the extinction of the human race, all that's needed is a stone axe, fire, or a large herd of goats. For the last few hundred thousand years, larger and larger areas of the planet have been turning to desert as humans cut and burn forests and graze their herds. Areas that once supported large populations no longer do; war or no war, we continue on a path that can eventually make our life impossible. Science is not a new destructive force; on the contrary, it's the one (small) chance of escape, because only now, finally, do we actually understand the large systemic causes and consequences of how we're living. We can't change unless we understand. Ignorance is only a blind rushing to destruction.

In The Physicists, Dürrenmatt doesn't see it that way. He simply can't imagine any scientific progress without technological use, nor any technology that's not destructive. He has his genius physicist generate a schema of all possible applications of the ultimate theory of everything and then destroy it because it would lead to disaster. However, Dürrenmatt suggests that it's already too late to do that; Newton should never have written down his laws of gravitation in the first place.

Dürrenmatt also somehow connects the evil in this play with the perversion of what he thinks of as "natural instincts" (i.e. domesticity, love, and children) in women -- the great manipulator is a childless, manless woman (although much is also made of her being descended from a family of warmongering profiteers) and she has other women pretend to be in love, with the intention of getting them killed.

Anyway, although I'm glad to have read something that gave me the opportunity for so much analysis, you can probably tell that I didn't like it very much; it's baldly preachy, and though intended to be humorous, the laughter is the kind that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.