The independent news organization of Duke University

Theater Theory Is Proof Positive

Last year at the Walter Kerr Theater, a 75-page play packed houses, stunned critics and became the next link in an American theater trend. The play was David Auburn's Proof, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner chronicling Catherine, a brilliant recluse dealing with her father's death and her own mental instability. At the play's climax, Catherine reveals that she is the true author of a complex, exceptional mathematical proof. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, Proof continues the work of previous contemporary plays, bringing two unlikely forces together: theater and math.

Links between the arts and the sciences have always been in vogue. Mathematicians have been picking apart the formulas behind Beethoven and Mozart for decades, and studies consistently show children engaged in the arts perform better in school. Scientists even note brain cell stimulation owing to classical music. It's been proven that the arts and sciences mix well. Contemporary playwrights are taking this idea further, transforming their works into complex formulas combining humanity, history and all things mathematical.

One of the first hits to incorporate math is Arcadia, a Tom Stoppard play first published in 1991. Arcadia spans two centuries, alternating between 1809 and the present day. It revolves around Thomasina Coverly, a 13-year old girl living in the past and working on a proof of her own. The play fast-forwards 200 years and ends up in present-day England, with Thomasina's descendants pouring over her work and comparing it to their own calculations. Arcadia features, among other things, chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics and enough unrequited love to fill a season of soap operas. Arcadia was one of the few plays ever reviewed in Scientific American. The magazine praised its humanity and complex treatment of math and mathematicians. Duke Players performed its own production in the fall of 1998.

After scoring a hit with Arcadia, theater producers took chances on more shows that featured math. Satirist Michael Frayn was commissioned by London's National Theatre to create a new work. The result was Copenhagen, an ensemble piece that throws together Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist working for the Nazis; and Neils Bohr, the Danish Jew who developed the atom bomb. The show attempts to reconstruct the real conversation that took place between the two men in 1941 Copenhagen, while wrestling with the ethics behind scientific progress. It's a harrowing story that evokes real history with the hypothetical and manages to sneak quantum mechanics and particle theory into the mix.

After the success of Copenhagen, which garnered several Tonys for its efforts, more math and science hit the stage. First it was Experiment With an Air Pump, a play based on the 1768 painting of a science experiment. The play featured a script that toyed with time travel and medical ethics and ran off Broadway to mixed reviews. In 1998, a musical entitled A New Brain premiered at Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C. Written by William Finn, the production followed a young musician through his aneurysm and recovery, intertwining neuroscience with ballads and romance. Even Duke playwrights got into the act, with two shows in previous New Works Festivals dealing with drama in math and science (they were Mental Math by Alison Gluvna O01 and Mind Trap by Ali Safir O02). Hollywood also threw its hat into the ring, cranking out the 1998 hit Good Will Hunting, as well as the haunting thriller Pi, which dealt with a deranged mathematician discovering the true meaning of 3.14. Coincidentally, Pi's leading man Ben Shenkman is also starring in Proof, as is former Copenhagen star Patrick Tovatt.

As Proof changes casts this season and embarks on its first national tour, avid playgoers anxiously await the crop of new shows to hit stages this fall. Will a script involving math and science be among them? If past preview lineups are any indication, drama types can keep looking for doses of NS and QR this year, as playwrights and producers increasingly find the equation for success in the arts and the sciences.


Share and discuss “Theater Theory Is Proof Positive” on social media.