Mathematics and Theater – a Tale of Two Plays

Dear readers,

I recently wrote about mathematics and poetry, another art form that I appreciate a lot and engaged in seriously in the past. Today I’ll discuss mathematics and a different art form, theater. While I never went beyond acting in high school plays myself, I would certainly consider myself an avid theater-goer as I attend plays at least once or twice a month. Despite that, I’ve only ever seen two plays in my entire life that had mathematics as their main theme (though science plays would lengthen this list quite a lot).

About two years ago I went to see a really great one-woman play at the Central Square Theater called “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze”. The actress, Gioia di Carli, had been a graduate student at MIT in the late 1980s, about 20 years before me. The play was both entertaining and thought-provoking. I saw it after I had already graduated, and some of it made me nostalgic. Mostly, though, I found myself thinking about how much MIT had changed in 20 years.

There were some universal themes in the play that I could relate to very well – the struggle of trying to solve a problem nobody had solved before you; the social interactions – or lack thereof – that you experience in graduate school; the communication issues you can have with your thesis advisor; and, most importantly, the burning desire to find something that motivates you enough to continue working on it for many years. In Gioia’s case, this turned out to be one of her hobbies, theater, rather than her graduate studies. But, along with many other audience members, I kept wondering if she might have been able to stay in mathematics if only she had had better mentors along the way. Nevertheless, mathematics’ loss was certainly theater’s gain, and the play kept my interest for the full 2 hours.

Interestingly, there were also some issues that I found very central to the play, but could not relate to easily on a personal level. Suffering from unwanted attention from your colleagues, having people place low expectations on your success, or being outright dismissed as not suited to do mathematics professionally, were not things I ever experienced, and I would love to hear about the experiences of other women in that respect. But I have definitely seen concerted efforts being directed at making the mathematics department, and MIT as a whole, a more welcoming place for everyone, regardless of their gender or background. I think that a play by someone who graduated in my cohort (which had 26 men and 11 women, compared to, apparently, only 2 women in Gioia’s cohort) would look very different, which is not necessarily to say it would not be as interesting.

The second mathematical play I’ve seen is David Auburn’s “Proof”, at the Merrimack Repertory Theater. My memories of it are quite vivid as I only saw it last night. It involves the family of a mathematician who just passed away – his younger daughter, who stayed home to take care of him in his last years, his older daughter, who left to live in another city with her fiance, and his “academic son”, a graduate student he advised.

Although this is a fictional story, it feels very real because of the intense emotions lived on stage by the actors. There are themes that people with no mathematical background can appreciate – jealousy, control, trust, self-doubt, attachment, betrayal, and more. I loved the flashbacks, the crisp dialogue and the sparse, but effective stage decorations. I was very surprised to learn from the playbill that the playwright, David Auburn, wrote the script in only three weeks!

The play starts with a conversation between father and daughter, only at the end of which do we find out that the father is, in fact, dead. The theme of mental illness in mathematicians (which I hope to address in a future post) is hinted at many times throughout the play. The former graduate student, who had been going through his advisor’s notebooks, then appears. A little bit later, the older sister arrives to attend the funeral. This is when all the conflicts between the characters surface.

Without spoiling the rest of either of the plays, I want to discuss some commonalities between them. Both use mathematics as the scaffolding for the story, but both are about more than just mathematics. They both illustrate the fragility of a mathematician’s ability to produce meaningful and interesting work, but also show the extreme satisfaction that this work can procure (even if one’s calling eventually turns out to be something else). Most importantly, unlike what movies usually do, they highlight the humanity of mathematicians instead of turning them into antisocial beings with mysterious talents.

In conclusion, I highly recommend you see both of these plays (“Proof” is in fact playing at the MRT until the end of this week, while “Truth Values” is touring different colleges in New England), and I would love to hear about any other mathematically-themed plays you know of; I feel we could use more of them!

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