Mathematics and Theatre – two ways of knowing that owe a lot of their popularity and currency to the way the Ancient Greeks dealt with them. And interestingly two ways of knowing that still exist despite the passage of time. In their own way each sought to explain and point to “truth”. Mathematics attempts the objective logical path and theatre seems to many to choose the subjective emotional way.
Simon Singh at the Strange Behaviour symposium discusses how after more than 2000 years the ideas of the ancient Greeks are largely dismissed – “What the Greeks said about medicine we laugh at. What the Greeks said about the four elements we laugh at; what they said about mathematics is still true today.” And yet somehow it is also the Aristotelian approach to theatre still has currency. The “elements of drama” as articulated by Aristotle “plot, character, thought, music, spectacle, and diction” are still deemed the least controversial basis of drama.
“Modern mathematics is nearly characterized by the use of rigorous proofs. This practice, the result of literally thousands of years of refinement, has brought to mathematics a clarity and reliability unmatched by any other science. But it also makes mathematics slow and difficult; it is arguably the most disciplined of human intellectual activities.”
It might be argued by many that the practice of theatre as we know it is the antithesis of such a discipline as mathematics. And yet there seems to be a growing enthusiasm in recent years to bring mathematics and theatre together – both on the stage and in film. I am reminded of A Beautiful Mind, Fermat’s Last Tango, and recent works by Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn (Copenhagen) and others. Even in reality television show “Survivor”, mathematics has been referred to by way of Nash’s Non-cooperative Game Theory, which also scores a brief mention in Auburn’s play.
David Auburn, in “Proof”, attempts to align the two ways of knowing and the title conflates both the subject of the play and its purpose. The play in itself seeks to be “proof” of its own premise. That in turn raises the spectre of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which postulates that “no logical representation exists that can prove its own constancy”. Seemingly, then Auburn is attempting the impossible, or illogical, to be the proof and to explain the proof. Gödel has shown us that this type of “meta” position is illusory at best, and perhaps that is the strength of theatrical storytelling, to allude to the metaphors that might make us aware of that order of knowing that is currently beyond our perceptual position. So, how can a play like Proof encourage us to explore other ways of examining the human condition?
How then will the subject and form of the play inform a study framed within Drama and Theatre?
There is also the question of how “truthful” does the mathematics need to be? It is questioned by mathematicians that it is some how a cop-out to “cheat” on the mathematical aspects of the play. According to the Sophie Germain web page the largest Germain prime is 2540041185 · 2114729-1 (discovered in 2003) not 92,305 x 216,998 + 1 as stated by Catherine in the play although this may be Auburn’s attempt to date the action of the play.
I tend to think that Auburn has attempted to use the logical structure of mathematical proof to overlay the dramatic structures within the first act of his play. This is quite evident in the opening act where each scene has a rather simplistic logical sequence embedded in the exchanges of dialogue. In improvised drama in many classrooms this type of intellectual rigour is deemed as secondary, if not irrelevant, compared to the “creative experience”. To my mind this is a weakness in the application of drama, if drama is to “prove” itself then it needs to be able to accommodate other ways of thinking and other ways of knowing without diminishing them.
Perhaps Auburn seeks to draw some similarities between practitioners of the two “disciplines”? Both mathematics and theatre have their notable eccentrics - both are accredited with higher than average incidence of mental illness, another theme of Proof. Alternatively, there are some who suggest “It cleverly intersects the intangibles of relationships with the utter certainties of arithmetic.” Perhaps the capacity to live with ambiguity is the contrasting aspect that Auburn wants to tackle; perhaps we are asked to examine our lives and realise that human existence is not as obviously rule-bound as mathematics would have us believe. Although current developments in Consciousness Studies suggest that the seeming mayhem and unpredictability of human life is illusory and that it is our generally unwillingness to look at our biochemistry and neurology that obscures the “fact” that our lives may be just as predictable as any mathematical fomula.
Perhaps “absurdity” as we know it in the theatre is really about the ways we delude ourselves about the meaning of our lives.
When Catherine claims authorship of the notebook is this a commentary on the frailty and fear of the human condition, or is it a condemnation of some natural egoism? Is the proof demanded somehow a denial of the need for trust? Is trust, or faith, central to our existence; in which case, does Proof look to much older and contentious issues that manifest themselves in such episodes as the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, or in the daily grind every time we ask to be believed?
Split the class into pairs. Designate A & B. A is to think of two statements about their life – one is a statement of fact (something that has actually occurred and can be verified), the other is a statement of pure fabrication. The true statement may be something that seems highly unlikely, or completely mundane. The fabricated statement can also be something that seems entirely possible, or something completely impossible.
The pair are to improvise a discussion around that begins – “You’ll never believe this, but one day….”. A is to be as convincing as possible in the delivery of both facts, and use whatever evidence springs to mind to support the statement. B is to be sceptical of both statements and is to press for “proof”, to look for holes in the story, to try to undo and identify the fabrication.
There are interesting experiences to be had when A is required to convince B of the veracity of the statements. Actors should identify the processes they engage in to generate evidence. How do they go about the process of convincing someone else about the truth of a statement? (Is this the same as mathematical proof?)
Students can be asked to consider situations in real life where “proof” is important. Law courts, relationships, employment, education, etc all spring to mind. In what ways is the burden of proof actually a burden?
Students should devise a scene that relies on “proof” to generate dramatic tension. What is the nature of “truth” in this scene? Are “truth” and “proof” the same thing?
Can students relate this to the “proof” that Catherine seeks in the play? What “proof” does she want Hal to provide? How important is the “mathematical proof” that seems to be at the core of the play? What are the generalisations that we make from interpreting the play? How do we reconcile the need for proof with subjective human experience, is the proof of my senses all I need to establish the truth of my life? In which case, how does Robert’s writing on the cold night challenge the argument for subjectivity?