"Proof" by David Auburn

I decided to read this play due to its synopsis. It seemed interesting to me but although it is a good, well written play, the synopsis was a little more interesting than what actually transpires.  Set in Chicago at the beginning of winter, the play opens with a conversation between Robert - a mathematical genius in his 50s and his just 25 year old daughter Catherine. It is her birthday and Robert, being so immersed in his work, had forgotten. Together they celebrate with a bottle of champagne as Robert questions her about her school, her life, and tosses off equations with her, signifying to the audience that Catherine had always been his unofficial pupil. Meanwhile, one of Robert’s student’s - Hal - is upstairs working on some problems and when he comes down to leave, the scene abruptly shifts to the present and this is when the reader realizes that the scene between Catherine and her father was a flashback (how this was achieved on stage would be interesting to see). It turns out that Robert had passed away and Catherine had been sitting alone remembering him while Hal had been upstairs rifling through Robert’s 103 notebooks to see if he could tease out some secret meaning to what he had been working on. Hal - also a mathematician - had always looked up to Robert as his intellectual hero, telling the audience via his conversations with Catherine how advanced her father was in his field. Catherine, meanwhile, is unsure of everything - especially herself - as she wonders whether or not her father’s fate is also in store for her. 


It’s obvious from the beginning of the play that Hal has a thing for Catherine, as he desperately tries to coax her into going to see his band play that night but she decides not to go, instead getting drunk on a bottle of champagne and having a dispute with Hal when she discovers he tried to take one of her father’s notebooks from the house. Hal swears he was only going to give it back to her as a birthday present, since in it, there was a passage written by her father that revealed one of his more lucid moments, a moment he thought would please Catherine. But the act shakes her trust in him, which will figure in later into the story.  Meanwhile, Catherine’s sister Claire comes to town to attend their father’s funeral as well to take care of other things such as selling the house and taking Catherine back to New York with her, promising to look after her and offer a better life. Catherine is suspicious of her sister’s motives, believing that Claire thinks her insane and is paranoid that she is going to have her committed. Their relationship is contentious as they are seemingly opposite sides of the coin. Where Catherine clearly takes after her father - independent, irreverent, strong willed, intellectually gifted - Claire is more a Yuppie type, working in finance and living very well in New York City. 


Over time, Hal and Catherine become emotionally and physically involved and Hal eventually earns Catherine’s trust. She gives him a key to a locked drawer at her father’s desk and asks him to look at what’s inside. Hal does so, discovering a notebook that reveals a highly advanced mathematical proof, one that is way beyond his understanding but knows there is something there. When Catherine reveals it was she who wrote the proof, Hal doesn’t believe her, causing a rift in their relationship. She couldn’t have possibly written it, he thinks, and truly believes that it must have come from her genius father. 


Another flashback scene reveals Robert in high spirits, feeling as if he had gotten his faculties back. Catherine comes home to discover her father sitting alone out on the porch (where the majority of the action takes place) and is alarmed to see him outside in the cold without any coat. But he’s so excited about his work, he can’t wait to share it with his daughter and he insists that she read back to her what he wrote. When she does, it is absolutely alarming, revealing how ill her father actually was.  By the end of the play, Catherine is ready to move to New York with her sister and Hal returns with the notebook to tell Catherine that “it all checks out” and that what was accomplished was nothing short of amazing, something her father couldn’t have done due to the contemporary advances in mathematical theory that he couldn’t have known about. In essence, Hal then believes that Catherine did indeed write the proof. The ending is somewhat anti-climatic, focusing more on the rebuilding of trust between both Hal and Catherine. 


My criticisms of the story lie in the fact that 1: While Hal is looking over Robert’s notebooks, there is no indication that he finds anything odd about it, nothing at all that reveals his mental illness as did Catherine’s reading aloud of her father’s work, which undoubtably did. 2: Not much is revealed as to what was truly wrong with Robert. Early onset Alzheimers? Why was he mentally ill? What exactly was wrong with him? 3: It seemed to me that something was missing from the story - something important that had been cut out - something that would reveal more of Catherine’s anxiety over her own mental state. This angle could have been played up more, in my opinion, but instead the story focused more on issues of trust and a sort of ambiguous exploration of the fine line between madness and genius.  Overall, a good story, one that will engage the reader but it seemed that there was a lot missing here that could have fleshed it out a bit more. Recommended. 

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