51 Proof

proofby David Auburn, 2001

I don’t typically read plays, so when this task came up for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I had to think a bit about what I would pick. Shakespeare seemed an obvious choice and I nearly decided to reread Macbeth, having read it only in 11th grade and wanting a refresher before seeing the Michael Fassbender film version. Then I remembered David Auburn’s Proof. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this play is known to me not for its accolades, but for the fact that it’s set where I spent my undergraduate years: the University of Chicago.

Catherine is dealing with the death of her father, Robert, a brilliant mathematician and U of C professor. She has spent the past several years caring for him in his erratic mental state, having forgone her own education at Northwestern. After his death she allows Hal, one of Robert’s PhD students, to come to their Hyde Park home and go through the 103 notebooks filled with his scribbles. Hal hopes to sort out the valuable from the worthless in the event that Robert left something important behind. Rounding out the cast is Catherine’s estranged sister, Claire, a currency analyst who flies in from New York hoping to get Catherine to leave Hyde Park and move in with her and her fiance.

I would say there are two central themes here: the tie between genius and madness, and the difficulty of proving one’s claims. Where Robert clearly suffered from mental illness, Catherine is just beginning to show symptoms of her own. Robert was clearly one of most revered minds in his field and Catherine, too, shows herself to be exceptional. After Robert’s funeral, Catherine gives Hal a key and directs him to a notebook in one of Robert’s desk drawers. Inside the notebook is a mathematical proof of great importance and Catherine insists that it was she, not her father, who wrote it. There is every reason to suspect she is lying and every reason to believe that she is descending into the madness that consumed her father. But is it the inability to prove herself that is driving her mad, or does she share her father’s genius?

I was surprised by how much I liked this play. There isn’t much actual math in it, but there doesn’t need to be – Robert could have easily been an artist, a musician, or a writer, but it’s fitting that, for the U of C, Auburn chose to make him a mathematician. While the title is a literal reference to the proof found in the notebook, it’s also a reference to the struggle we endure to prove our integrity, our intelligence, and our worth. Auburn does a fine job of posing the question of how we prove ourselves to others among so much disbelief.

[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a play]

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One thought on “51 Proof

  1. Pingback: Challenge Completed! | The Thousand Project

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