Drama Review – Proof by David Auburn

Someone postulated that I should read this play. With this theorem in mind, I set out to prove it. After reasoning my way through the text, I came up with the following axiom: David Auburn’s play Proof is a work of genius that readers can appreciate on many levels. As I always strive to write professional reviews, allow me to show the work that went into my proof.

Given: David Auburn wrote Proof.

Prove: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Statement: Proof possessed many literary techniques that lesser playwrights could debase into banality. David Auburn crafted them with the proficiency of a conductor orchestrating a symphony.

Reason: Even in the opening pages, the dialog made me uncomfortable. The story began as Catherine’s father presented her with a bottle of champagne. How to write this delicately? This party wasn’t as upbeat or as festive as the one Harold Pinter described in The Birthday Party. (Yes, that’s saying something.) The tension in this conversation between Catherine and her father jarred me. Here’s an excerpt.

Robert: A girl who’s drinking from the bottle shouldn’t complain. Don’t guzzle it. It’s an elegant beverage. Sip.

Catherine: (Offering the bottle) Do you-

Robert: No. Go ahead.

Catherine: You sure?

Robert: Yeah. It’s your birthday.

Catherine: Happy Birthday to me.

Robert: What are you going to do on your birthday?

Catherine: Drink this. Have some.

Robert: No. I hope you’re not spending your birthday alone.

Catherine: I’m not alone.

Robert: I don’t count.

Catherine: Why not?

Robert: I’m your old man. Go out with some friends.

Catherine: Right.

Robert: Your friends aren’t taking you out?

Catherine: Because in order to for your friends to take you out you generally have to have friends.

Robert: (Dismissive) Oh-

Catherine: It’s funny how that works. (Page 7)

I almost had to close the book and walk away from it. The tension made me that uncomfortable.

Statement: Auburn’s proficient use of foreshadowing set a new standard for it.

Reason: I won’t give away spoilers. I will comment that on several occasions in the text, seemingly innocent lines or obscure observations became clever harbingers of things to come. In fact, a veiled one appeared in the lines I quoted above. I’d hope people reading Proof for the first time experience the same astonishment that I did. It made the story that much more engaging.

Statement: In the midst of a complex plot, the playwright still managed to connect with his audience on an emotional level.

Reason: This story had some parallels with the book and film A Beautiful Mind. Robert was a brilliant mathematician with schizophrenia. Unlike John Nash, Robert’s disorder rendered him incompetent and unable to practice his craft: for a time. Then his mental health improved. He expressed great optimism about his being “back in the game” in the following exchange with Catherine. She, being the dutiful daughter, had sacrificed her personal happiness to take care of him. This discussion took place after he insisted Catherine read a “major result” for which he’d just written a proof.

Catherine: Dad. Let’s go inside.

Robert: The gaps might make it hard to follow. We can talk it through.

Catherine: You’re cold. Let’s go in.

Robert: Maybe we could work on this together. This might be a great place to start. What about it? What do you think? Let’s talk it through.

Catherine: Not now. I’m cold too. It’s really freezing out here. Let’s go inside.

Robert: I’m telling you it’s stifling in there, goddamn it. The radiators. Look, read out the first couple of lines. That’s how we start: you read, and we go line by line, out loud, through the argument. See if there’s a better way, a shorter way. Let’s collaborate.

Catherine: No. Come on.

Robert: I’ve been waiting years for this. This is something I want to do. Come on, let’s do some work together.

Catherine: We can’t do it out here. It’s freezing cold. I’m taking you in.

Robert: Not until we talk about the proof.

Catherine: No.

Robert: Goddamnit, Catherine, open the goddamn book and read me the lines.

(Beat. Catherine opens the book. She reads slowly without inflection.)

Catherine: “Let X equal the quantities of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold and four of heat leaving four months of indeterminate temperature….” (Pages 73 – 74)

I’m not an emotional person. When I read Catherine’s recitation of the “proof” I could almost feel my heart breaking in my chest. Kudos to the playwright on crafting this scene so well.

Statement: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Reason: The story contained many plot twists. They revolved around the personalities of intricate characters. The playwright also managed to work in standard literary techniques and apply them brilliantly. In acknowledgement of these efforts, Proof received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001.

Q. E. D.



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