Summary and Review of Proof by David Auburn

Grief, Mathematics, and Madness on Stage

Actor rehearsing lines

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Proof by David Auburn premiered on Broadway in October 2000. It received national attention, earning the Drama Desk Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Tony Award for Best Play.

The play is intriguing with fascinating dialogue and two characters who are well-developed and an academic, mathematical theme. It does, however, have a few downfalls.

Plot Overview of Proof

Catherine, the twenty-something daughter of an esteemed mathematician, has just laid her father to rest. He died after suffering from a prolonged mental illness. Robert, her father, had once been a gifted, ground-breaking professor. But as he lost his sanity, he lost his ability to coherently work with numbers.

The audience quickly learns:

  • Catherine is brilliant in her own right, but she fears that she might possess the same mental illness which ultimately incapacitated her father.
  • Her older sister wants to take her to New York where she can be cared for, in an institution if need be.
  • Hal (a devoted student of Robert's) searches through the professor's files hoping to discover something usable so that his mentor's final years won't have been a complete waste.

During the course of his research, Hal discovers a pad of paper filled with profound, cutting-edge calculations. He incorrectly assumes the work was Robert's. In truth, Catherine wrote the mathematic proof. No one believes her. So now she must provide proof that the proof belongs to her. (Note the double-entendre in the title.)

What Works in Proof?

Proof works very well during the father-daughter scenes. Of course, there are only a couple of these since the father character, after all, is dead. When Catherine does converse with her father, these flashbacks reveal her often conflicting desires.

We learn that Catherine's academic goals are thwarted by her responsibilities to her ailing father. Her creative urges are offset for her propensity for lethargy. And she worries that her so-far undiscovered genius might be a tell-tale symptom of the same affliction to which her father succumbed.

David Auburn's writing is at its most heartfelt when father and daughter express their love (and sometimes despair) for math. There is a poetry to their theorems. In fact, even when Robert's logic has failed him, his equations exchange rationality for a unique form of poetry:

Catherine (Reading from her father's journal.)
"Let X equal the quantities of all quantities of X.
Let X equal the cold.
It's cold in December.
The months of cold equal November through February."

Another strong point of the play is Catherine herself. She is a strong female character: incredibly bright, but by no means prone to flaunting her intellect. She is by far the most well-rounded of the characters (in fact, with the exception of Robert, the other characters seem bland and flat by comparison).

Proof has been embraced by colleges and high school drama departments. And with a leading character like Catherine, it is easy to understand why.

A Weak Central Conflict

One of the major conflicts of the play is Catherine's inability to convince Hal and her sister that she actually invented the proof in her father's notebook. For a while, the audience ​is unsure as well.

After all, Catherine's sanity is in question. Also, she has yet to graduate from college. And, to add one more layer of suspicion, the math is written in her father's handwriting.

But Catherine has a lot of other things on her plate. She's dealing with grief, sibling rivalry, romantic tension, and the slow sinking feeling of losing one's mind. She isn't terribly concerned about proving that the proof is hers. She is deeply annoyed that the people closest to her fail to believe her.

For the most part, she doesn't spend much time trying to prove her case. In fact, she even tosses the notepad down, saying that Hal can publish it under his name. Ultimately, because she doesn't really care about the proof, we the audience don't care too much about it either, thereby diminishing the conflict.

A Poorly Conceived Romantic Lead

One more downside: Hal. This character is sometimes nerdy, sometimes romantic, sometimes charming. But for the most part, he's a dweeb. He's the most skeptical about Catherine's academic abilities, yet it seems that if he wanted, he could talk to her for about five minutes and discover her mathematical skills. But he never bothers until the play's resolution.

Hal never states this, but it seems that his main contention against Catherine's authorship of the proof boils down to sexism. Throughout the play, he seems on the verge of shouting: "You couldn't have written this proof! You're just a girl! How could you be good at math?"

Sadly, there's a half-hearted love story tacked on. Or maybe it's a lust story. It's hard to say. During the second half of the play, Catherine's sister discovers that Hal and Catherine have been sleeping together. Their sexual relationship seems very casual, but it does kick the level of betrayal up a notch when Hal continues to doubt Catherine's genius.