The Right Equation

A lifelong interest in theater and a casual interest in math add up to a playwright's dream for 'Proof' author David Auburn

February 25, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You might think that someone who writes a play about a math genius would need a solid grounding in math. But one and one does not always equal two.

The proof of this is, well, the play Proof. Last spring, the drama scooped up the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and just about every other American playwriting award. But playwright David Auburn's formal relationship with math ended after a required freshman course in calculus at the University of Chicago, in which he got B's and C's.

Not that he set out to be a mathematician or, for that matter, that he considers math to be the chief subject of Proof, which opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow.

"I always thought of it as a family drama with an academic backdrop," he says. The play focuses on the grown daughter of a math professor who worries that she may have inherited not only her father's genius, but also his mental illness.

Four years ago, when Auburn began writing Proof, math wasn't even part of the equation. Instead, he was inspired by two ideas: a pair of sisters arguing about something that turns up after a parent's death, and inherited insanity.

"They just both seemed like dramatic situations to me," Auburn, 32, explains in a phone interview from his home in New York. "I didn't know if they belonged in a different play or the same play, but I was casting for ways to put them together. When I started reading about mathematicians, I thought I had a bridge between the two ideas."

A longtime fan of popular math and science, he began by reading G.H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, written in 1940. He was influenced to a lesser degree by the life of John Forbes Nash Jr. A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, had not yet been published, but Auburn says, "When I realized I had a story possibly about mental illness and mathematics, he's one of the names you read about, so I knew a little bit about him."

The playwright believes the sudden proliferation of books and movies about math and science is merely a coincidence. (Besides Proof and the Oscar-nominated movie A Beautiful Mind, Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning Copenhagen, about physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, opens at Washington's Kennedy Center this week.)

Auburn acknowledges, however, that mathematicians and scientists "are compelling people, and they have very rich, complicated lives, and it's a profession that is highly competitive, demanding, produces a lot of drama. So it's just a natural subject."

He doesn't feel there's "any real connection" between genius and madness. "I think that the fact that there have been some people who were both brilliantly able and mentally ill is just a kind of an interesting overlap of human experience," he says. "There are probably some very edgy personalities who are drawn to math as a way to find some order, and I think there are other people who are capable of intuitive or counter-intuitive leaps in their work, and they're able to do that because their minds are working in unusual ways."

The many mathematicians Auburn has met thanks to Proof appear to concur. Not only did the playwright send the script to mathematicians when he was working on it, but mathematicians were also brought in to meet with both the Broadway and touring casts. (The production coming to Baltimore stars Robert Foxworth and Chelsea Altman.) "They've insisted mathematicians are no crazier than anyone else and probably less than playwrights," he says. "By and large they like the way the profession is depicted in the play."

Auburn also participated in math symposia in New York and California that were held in connection with the play. The New York event, co-sponsored by the math department at New York University and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, flew in mathematicians from around the country. Though it turned out to be "a wonderful evening," the playwright admits, "I was nervous walking into this. One of the actors in the play was with me, and he said he felt like George Clooney at a medical convention."

If the world of mathematics is slightly foreign to Auburn, the world of academia is not. The grandson of the former president of the University of Akron, the son of an English literature professor-turned-dean and the husband of a history professor (Frances Rosenfeld), the Chicago-born playwright grew up on campuses in Ohio and Arkansas. "I feel comfortable writing about academics. I've known a lot of them," he says. But when it came to going into academia himself, he adds, "I never felt any real scholarly pull. I wanted to be a playwright."

His interest in theater was sparked in childhood. His father's specialty is the 18th-century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the first play Auburn can remember seeing (at age 6 or 8) was Sheridan's School for Scandal at Ohio State University.

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