Proof: An Admirable Approximation of Mathematical Culture

January 2, 2002


David Auburn (right), in conversation with Bob Osserman at an MSRI event held to coincide with the San Francisco opening of Auburn's play Proof.

Sara Robinson

After seeing the nationally touring production of Proof in San Francisco, I couldn't figure out what all the critics were raving about. The play was entertaining, but for the winner of both a Pulitzer and a Tony award, I expected more depth. Then I read the script, and realized that the problems were with the production---particularly the interpretation of Catherine, the protagonist, by actress Chelsea Altman. David Auburn is no Tom Stoppard, but his play is a gem. I only wish I had seen the original Broadway production in New York.

Proof is about the tension between the intensely creative but emotionally limited world of mathematics and the world of ordinary human relationships. This clash plays out through 25-year-old Catherine's relationships with her father, Robert (Robert Foxworth), a brilliant but mentally unstable mathematician, Robert's former student Hal, and her sister, Claire, a determinedly ordinary young woman. Catherine appears to have inherited some of her father's talent for mathematics, and perhaps, as Claire believes and Catherine fears, some of his mental instability.

The play begins just after Robert's death from a heart attack. Catherine has sacrificed her own development and education to take sole responsibility for the care of her father through an incapacitating mental illness. The action takes place in flashbacks to Catherine's interactions with her father, as well as in scenes in the present with Claire (played brilliantly by Tasha Lawrence) and Hal (Stephen Kunken), a worshipful disciple of Robert's who is romantically interested in Catherine.

The title of the play refers both to the proof of an important theorem in number theory, found in Robert's desk, and to the "proof" of its authorship. Auburn suggests that the second "proof" is only a leap of faith. Of Catherine's honesty and, more important, her sanity, there can be no proof.

David Auburn spoke about the role of mathematics in his play in an opening-night "conversation" hosted by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. Modeling the event on an earlier program about Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, MSRI special projects director Bob Osserman questioned David Auburn about several elements of the play, particularly the implied connection between mathematical talent and insanity. Auburn, a young and witty graduate of the University of Chicago, the setting for the play, replied that the stereotype of the insane mathematician provided the dramatic elements he needed.

In Catherine, a brilliant, young woman unsure of her own sanity but mature and stable enough to take care of her crazy father, Auburn created an interesting and challenging role. Unfortunately, Chelsea Altman's Catherine is one-dimensional. Her Catherine is perpetually angry; all her lines are delivered as emotional outbursts, spoken in a whiny, sarcastic tone. It was only after reading her lines that I could appreciate their content.

The other three actors, thankfully, are far better. I particularly liked Lawrence's portrayal of Claire, the intellectually ordinary, socially able character, who doesn't share the emotional and intellectual intensity of the other three. Yet she, too, has sacrificed, paying all the bills for her father and Catherine and providing their only link to normalcy. Auburn gives her a priceless line that says it all:

"You [expletive deleted] mathematicians, you don't think," she cries to Hal. "You don't know what you're doing. You stagger around creating these catastrophes and it's people like me who end up flying in to clean them up!"

The premise of Proof requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of mathematicians. Not being a mathematician, Auburn has created a plot centered around a world he doesn't know. The result is elements of plot and dialog that are a little off.

For instance, Hal describes a math conference where the older mathematicians all take amphetamines to ensure that they can compete with the younger crowd. Tossed off as the norm, this is, perhaps, an impression Auburn gained from his readings about Paul Erdös. Elsewhere, descriptions of the proof found in the drawer are in terms unlikely to have been uttered by a mathematician---Catherine, for example, describes the proof as "lumpy."

Most problematic, the central question of the authorship of the proof just isn't plausible: The most important evidence, a deep understanding of the proof, is not pursued.

But aside from details such as these, which might trouble only a mathematician, the play does a remarkable job of approximating some of the elements of mathematical culture. Auburn understands that mathematical research is highly creative and imaginative, and that mathematicians are, in many ways, akin more to poets and artists than to engineers.

The dialog captures poignant aspects of the mathematical ego, both the pride and the insecurity. Robert and Catherine both fear mediocrity and struggle to grasp an elusive genius. In the conversation with Osserman, Auburn said that the idea for the play had grown out of an imagined conversation between a girl and her father. He chose to set the play within the world of mathematics, he said, because it's a field where people tend to do their best work when young.

He also captures cultural details, such as mathematicians' tendency to have incongruous outside hobbies (Hal plays drums in an all-mathematician rock band), and Auburn even manages a slightly awkward rendition of mathspeak---the use of mathematical metaphors and attention to precision in ordinary conversation.

Robert remarks to Catherine, for instance, that Hal is in the "infinite" program: "As he approaches completion of his dissertation, time approaches infinity." Catherine, irritated with Claire, argues that it's not possible to make hair healthier since it's dead tissue.

The play is by no means a perfect portrait of the world of mathematics, but it's not a bad approximation and it's worth seeing. I suggest that you read it first, however, so you can hear the nuances of the dialog through Altman's temperamental acting.

Proof's national tour will visit Sacramento, Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles, following its opening in San Francisco. In New York, Proof continues at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with a new cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine.

Sara Robinson is a freelance writer and part-time journalist-in-residence at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley.


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