The play Proof, as everyone associated with mathematics must know by now, has been an enormous success on Broadway. Now it has begun a national tour at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. To mark the occasion the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) at Berkeley arranged to have the playwright, David Auburn, interviewed by Robert Osserman on stage at the theatre two days after the play opened its month-long San Francisco run, on November 29. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a $2 million advance ticket sale. Not bad for a play about mathematics and mental illness!
MSRI has arranged events of this kind before, an interview with George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory, and the actor Michael Winters, on the occasion of a Bay Area production of Brecht's Galileo, and an interview with Tom Stoppard about his play Arcadia. Previous settings for these interviews have been the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. The Curran is quite another matter, a large and elegant house, built in the 1920's, and home traditionally to traveling companies of Broadway musicals. Never before has there been so much mathematical talk heard in the lobby and in the auditorium.
Auburn is not a well-known name in the theatre like Brecht or Stoppard, at least not until Proof, which was his second full-length play. From an initial off-Broadway run at the Manhattan Theatre Club it moved up Broadway to the Walter Kerr Theatre and now to a national tour, after picking up the Joseph Kesselring Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award, and the Tony Award for Best Play of 2001. The New York run continues.
One of Osserman's opening questions concerned Auburn's background. He attended the University of Chicago where he studied political philosophy and where his formal mathematical education ended with calculus. But he had an interest in theatre and wrote sketches in the tradition of Second City and a one-act play while still in college. After graduating he went to New York and worked for a chemical company writing copy for labels for a carpet shampoo! And then he attended Juilliard, acting and writing until he decided to give up acting.
Proof is a play about a young woman who had taken care of her mathematician-father for several years prior to his death that came after a long bout with mental illness. Auburn was asked whether he had planned from the beginning to write about a mathematician. He did not. He started out by being interested in the question of whether mental illness, as well as talent, can be inherited — the mathematical connections came later.
As part of the interview Osserman and Auburn read two provocative and very amusing passages from the play (Osserman played Catherine, the young woman, and Auburn played Hal, a young protégé of Catherine's father). The passages touched on various misconceptions (or are they?) about mathematicians — (1) that it is a young man's profession (and here we emphasize the word "man"), (2) that there is something that predisposes mathematicians to mental instability, and (3) that only brilliant results count in mathematics and that less exalted research and teaching (high school teaching is referred to as a sign of failure) are lesser activities, to be eschewed by those in the lofty realms of the highest level of mathematical research.
Catherine in the play has been trained (up to a certain point) as a mathematician, so a question is raised and tackled in the play — can a woman really do highly original work? The lack of a woman on the list of Fields Medalists and the appearance only a few years ago of the first woman to place among the top five in the Putnam Competition — both of these were cited in the discussion. Clearly, in this area at least, perceptions have changed in the last decade or two. Then the question arose: whether the mathematical life is really all over at the age of 40 (as is implied by the tradition in awarding Fields Medals). Osserman pointed out that though great original breakthroughs might be seen more often in the young, mathematicians continue to carry on productive lives into their 50s, 60s and 70s. The idea that what really matters in mathematics is the highest level research probably still dominates the thinking in many circles.
Auburn touched on all of these questions. He described mathematics as a remarkable subculture. But how did he find out so much about the culture without having seriously studied mathematics? It became clear that he has read a lot and has considerable familiarity with the biographies of Erdos, Nash, Ramanujan, and others. He was asked why the principal character is a woman and he responded that a man would not be expected to stay home to take care of an ailing father.
There are a few claims made in the play that one might question — the level of drug use among mathematicians, for example, obviously something suggested by one of the Erdos biographies. Occasionally there are bits of mathematics. At the mention of Sophie Germain, Hal recalls, after a slight hesitation, Germain primes and Catherine blurts out "92,305 x 216,998 + 1". Hal is startled that she seems to know this, but then Catherine claims that it is the largest one known — not so, though it may have been at the time of the action of the play, which is left ambiguous in the printed version. (According to the web page, http://www.utm.edu/research/primes/lists/top20/SophieGermain.html, the largest Germain prime is 109433307 x 266452 – 1.)
Osserman raised the question of whether Auburn was consciously aware of the parallel between Arcadia and Proof. In both plays there is a very clever young woman who has remarkable insights into mathematics and is "mentored," in a way, by a slightly older man who is well-trained in mathematics but much less original in his thinking. Auburn appeared unaware of the parallel but admitted to being an admirer of Stoppard and his plays. But when asked whether he was strongly influenced by Stoppard, he said that he was more influenced by the people who wrote sketches years ago, like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and by John Guare and David Mamet.
A much discussed aspect of Proof has been made even more interesting of late with the imminent appearance of the film, A Beautiful Mind, based, we understand, quite loosely on the biography of John Forbes Nash by Sylvia Nasar. What about this connection between insanity and mathematics? Is it really true that a special kind of person is drawn to mathematics? Auburn had said earlier that he was fascinated by the "romantic quality of mathematical work," the solitary worker in an attic somewhere (obviously an idea inspired by Andrew Wiles) working on a problem and coming up with something entirely original. He also said that mathematicians have rather edgy personalities and they make leaps of the mind that most people just cannot make. So he thinks there may be some kind of causal relationship between being a mathematician and suffering from a mental breakdown. Osserman cited four people whom he considers to be "romantic" figures in mathematics: Hypatia, Galois, Turing and van Heijenoort. Their stories are well-known to a mathematical audience — but others could be added to this short list: Abel and Ramanujan (if Hardy was a good judge) come to mind. But not one of these could be viewed as being insane — eccentric in one or two cases, maybe, but not insane.
Osserman cited a study that ranked various professions by the numbers of adherents to the field who have also suffered from mental illness. Poets ranked at the top of the list. People in the creative arts are two or three times as likely to suffer from psychosis as scientists (mathematicians were not cited separately), according to K. R. Jamison in Touched with Fire. Auburn said he had read of enough cases to justify writing his play about mathematicians. Besides, people are used to hearing about mad scientists. Who would want to read about a perfectly sane scientist? Osserman responded by saying they might want to read about mad poets.
Those who have seen the excerpts of Proof on the Tony Awards or the interview on the Charlie Rose Show with the Tony Award winning star, Mary-Louise Parker, from the New York cast, may not realize how funny this play is. The excerpts at the Curran were read to a very receptive audience. They picked up every joke.
So what will the author do next? He said he has decided not to follow Proof with another mathematical play. He's working on two projects, one on the Spanish Civil War and the other on twentieth-century spiritualism, including Houdini!
Meanwhile, until he produces another mathematical play, watch the MSRI website for the next event in this series, an interview with Michael Frayn, author of Copenhagen, the play about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg which won the Tony Award for Best Play the previous year. That play opens at the Curran in San Francisco in January.