Thursday, April 10, 2008

Proof, by David Auburn

What's that? A play about math? Yes, a play about math. Or at least math as a conduit for lots of questions and doubts.
David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Proof, is about Catherine, a 25-year-old woman dealing with life in the wake of her father's death. Robert was a celebrity in the mathematics world having revolutionized several fields by the time he was 23. Catherine inherits Robert in a sense, as she spends the five years just prior to the action of the play caring for him. His mental illness (unnamed, but probably schizophrenia) keeps him from working on math and takes him away from his position as math professor at the University of Chicago.
It's clear early in the play that Catherine is no normal 25-year-old. Not only has she dropped out of school after a year or less as a math major at Northwestern, she devotes almost every aspect of her life to her father to keep him near the things that made him happy. It's also obvious from early in the play that Catherine's mathematical abilities are formidable and her education is largely passed down from her father.
Auburn draws some nice parallels between Catherine's life and that of Sophie Germain, a famous female mathematician. While the references in the text are brief, I'll be interested to do some additional research into Germain to see just how many references Auburn packs in. One certainly doesn't have to be good at math, or really know anything about math, to understand and enjoy Proof. Math is simply a vehicle to understand the characters better and to further the literal and figurative links to the idea of proof and proving.
You see, Catherine's sanity and ability come under fire when she claims to have written a proof that will change the course of mathematics. Of course, given her delicate mental state due to grief, her possible inheritance of mental disintegration, and her lack of formal education, no one believes that she could've written such an advanced document.
This play (and the film) appeal to me on a number of levels.
I can relate to the deep sense of passion that accompanies an academic pursuit like Catherine's. When one is entrenched in the academic lifestyle and working on research and writing like crazy, it's almost like a drug. It addicts, it liberates, it's a heady sense of freedom and obligation all rolled into one. In short, this play reminds me of my big dreams of writing something revolutionary. Really, it reminds me of the "zone" one enters when thoroughly involved in any pastime with the ability to hijack one's attention span--writing, painting, studying, etc.
Catherine, her father, her sister Claire, and her acquaintance, Hal, are all impeccably drawn. While the play is incredibly short when it comes to reading time, the stage direction and intense dialogue paint a full picture of the characters' lives and the world in which they operate.
I'm bowled over by this work every time I see the film, and now that I've read the play itself. While I don't read too many plays (should read more), this is one I feel I could read over and over again any time I need inspiration. I would recommend it to anyone.

8 comments:

  1. I have seen the film and loved it. The book is now going on the list . . . you bloggers kill me. . . when will I ever finish watching Lost Season 3.

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  2. I'm with Andi-I loved the movie w/ Gwenyth Paltrow (and I'm fairly certain she was in the play version too, right?)

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  3. I haven't heard of this at all but it sounds wonderful. Will see if I can find a copy of the film first.

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  4. Hmmm...numbers and I don't mix well, but I might give it a looksee. Off to BookMooch!

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  5. Oh...I saw this play a few summers ago, and thought it was FANTASTIC!! I never did see the movie, but I don't think it could beat the stage performance!!

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  6. LOL, Andi. I'm behind on the latest season of House, so don't feel bad. ;)

    Eva, I loved it, too! I know she was in the stage production, but I don't know who came first. I know Mary-Louise Parker played Catherine on one of its runs.

    Enjoy, Rhinoa! I hope you love it as much as I did.

    Heather, you know numbers and I don't get along either. You'll love it. :)

    Stephanie, I would love to see the production. If it ever comes near here I'm alll over it.

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  7. I've seen the play but not the film, it was incredibly interesting and I never thought I could love anything math related!

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  8. Amen to that, Dale. I shy away from math, but Proof is fantastic.

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