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 an intriguing story about family, truth, gender, and mental health, set in the context of academic mathematics. The dialogue is quick-witted, and it has two main characters who are compelling and well-developed. The play does, however, have a few salient flaws.

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 work coherently with numbers.

The audience is quickly introduced to the main characters of the play and their roles in the storyline. The lead character, 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, Claire, 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. Unfortunately, there are only a few of these flashbacks. When Catherine does converse with her father, these scenes reveal her often conflicting desires.

We learn that Catherine's academic goals were thwarted by her responsibilities to her ailing father. Her creative urges were offset by 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 for—and sometimes despair over—mathematics. 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 strength of the play is the character Catherine. 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 proof is written in her father's handwriting.

But Catherine has a lot of other preoccupations. She's dealing with grief, sibling rivalry, romantic tension, and the slow sinking feeling that she is losing her mind. She isn't terribly concerned about proving that the proof is hers. But she is deeply upset 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 impact of the conflict on the drama.

A Poorly Conceived Romantic Lead

There is another weakness in this play, the character Hal. This character is sometimes nerdy, sometimes romantic, sometimes charming. But for the most part, he's an unpleasant man. He's the most skeptical about Catherine's academic abilities, yet through most of the play, he never chooses to talk to her, even briefly, about math so as to determine her mathematical skills. He never bothers until the play's resolution. Hal never states this overtly, but the play suggests that his main reason for doubting Catherine's authorship of the proof is a sexist bias.

Lackluster Romantic Storyline

Most egregious in this drama is the half-hearted love story that seems tacked on and extraneous to the dramatic center. And perhaps it is more accurate to call it a lust story. 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. It's main function to the plot is that it increases the hurt of Hal's betrayal in the eyes of the audience as he continues to doubt Catherine's genius.

The play "Proof" is a fascinating yet flawed exploration of grief, family loyalties, and the relationship between mental health and truth.