David Auburn’s Concept of “Proof”





David Auburn’s Concept of “Proof”

The title of the play evokes a sense of wonderment and the question everyone has when reading the play is what needs to be proven. Proof obviously brings in the question of solving and authenticating a mathematical phenomenon. David Auburn in the Play has presented Catherine, a girl who has dropped out of school to take care of her sick father. Her father, Robert, was once a mathematical genius who, as we are told, lost his sanity. However, in his insane state of mind, Harold Dobbs, a former student of Robert, discovers that before Robert’s death, he had one last mathematical solution to offer the world. Catherine comes out to say that the mathematical concept is hers, and she has to prove that it truly is hers. She finally succeeds and the concept is published under her name. She goes to great lengths to ensure that the world knows that she is also a mathematician. While this might be seen as the major item of proof, it is evident that there is a lot more that this play intends to prove.

The first encounter of proof we encounter can be revealed in the conversation between Catherine and her father Robert. In that conversation, Robert is trying to convince her daughter not to waste her life by reading magazines and sleeping all day. He believes that she has mathematical talents that she could make us of if only she could believe in her abilities. However, Catherine is concerned that she has not achieved what her father did at her age. She is also concerned that she is insane just like her father was. In their conversation, Robert tries to convince Catherine that she is one a mathematical genius and two that she is not in sane by offering proof. He proves that she is not in mad by getting her to think about her sanity. He tells her that mad people do not question their madness. The fact that she is then she is not mad but sane. She proves her mathematical prowess by establishing her logical demonstration of a hypothesis about prime numbers. Having gone through the intellectual process essential to create this proof, she has proven herself worthy of being a formidable mathematical genius that her father would be proud.

Our first encounter with Harold, accords us the opportunity to understand his role in the play. From the first scene, Harold believes that the fact that his former teacher Robert is dead does not mean his work is also dead. In the period that Robert was sick, he wrote on very many notebooks. Hal, as Harold would prefer to be called, believes that somewhere within those notes lays the legacy of the mathematical genius. He believes in this fact despite the fact that Catherine would want to discourage from it. In this regard, we are able to see an element of proof in Harold’s convictions. Harold is trying to prove that underneath the façade of insanity Robert was working on something mathematical.

Claire, sister to Catherine, is also trying to find evidence of the fact that her sister is sick. She wants to take Catherine from Chicago to New York. She says, “…the doctors in New York are the best…” and that Catherine would love it if she moved away. Claire believes that her sister shares the talents of her father and at the same time, she shares his instability. When Claire goes to Chicago to bury her father, she keeps asking if Catherine is ok. As if hoping to find out later that she is not. She feels guilty that she was not there when her father was ill and that the right care was not offered to her father. Therefore, she would want her sister Catherine to have what her father did not. However, Catherine is adamant that she is ok even though she has had doubts about her health as was established from the beginning of the book.

The next element of proof is the fact that Catharine is trying to prove that she wrote a mathematical proof but no one wants to believe that he is capable of such an achievement. She gives Hal the Key to where the proof was. The proof was in Roberts working desk and the writing similar to what was contained in the other notebooks. Hal believes that the work belongs to a mathematical genius and that Catherine does not have the capability to come up with something like that. Consequently, Catherine has to prove to Hal and Claire that she indeed was the one who came up with the brilliant mathematical discovery. Catherine also has to prove that her father was in no condition to work out such a brilliant mathematical problem. In this sense, there is a collision of proof, where Harold is keen on showing the world the brilliance of a man thought to be mad and the Catherine’s mission to prove that she was as brilliant as her father was or even better. It seems that Catherine feels that the proof will validate her sanity, hoping to overcome her sister’s constant whispering in her ear that she will be insane.

David Auburn at some point has portrayed proof to be actually nothing. In an instance of flashback in scene five, we see Catherine coming back from school to find out how her father is fairing. She finds him out in the cold convinced that he has come up with some form of proof. Catherine realizes that his father has relapsed to his sickness when she reads his proof. The proof Robert was so exited about was nothing but the writings and creations of madness. Robert tells her that the reason he had children was that they could be able to accomplish what they never did and even become better. He says, “It’s part of the reason we have children. We hope they’ll survive us, accomplish what we can’t”. This motivation and encouragement that Catherine needs to start formulating her mathematical findings.

The reason for Catherine to start working on her proof was the fact that her father encouraged her. This encouragement is what in the end enables Catherine to overcome her fear of becoming insane. It also allays her fears of having wasted her prime academic years when she was taking care of her father. After intense arguments about the author of the notebook, Hal finally agrees that the work belongs to Catherine. Catherine is recognized and the consensus is that the work is brilliant. This enables her to put her worries concerning the loss of her bets years behind. She is able to stop thinking that she might become ill like a father. The proof in this case was not only for determining the authorship of the book, but it also served as proof for Catherine that she was fine.

From the play, what David Auburn is getting at is that he is trying to say that there is a thin line between madness and genius. This is seen in both the character of Robert and her daughter Catherine. While Harold is an apt mathematician, he has not reached the level of genius and brilliance that was seen in the Robert and Catherine. Therefore, he does no grapple with what Catherine and her father have to. Robert while sane is brilliant, when he is sick, he gives the impression of being brilliant such that Harold does not want to admit that his legacy would just die unceremoniously. Robert believes that he is sane and tries to prove this every day by filling up his notebooks. Catherine works up a mathematical concept to make her believe in her sanity. In this regard, the element of proof in this play is not just about the ownership of a mathematical concept, but rather of a more personal nature. The question of proof is about authenticating cognitive sanity as is expected by the world. Davis Auburn also suggests that once the line is crossed, there is extreme cognitive ability and on the other hand extreme cognitive inability.

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