Study Guide Excerpt: Proof, a play by David Auburn


David Auburn (b. November 30, 1969) is an American playwright. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, and was raised in Ohio until 1982 when his family moved to Arkansas. After graduating from high school in 1987, he attended the University of Chicago, where he studied political philosophy. Auburn did not know he wanted to be a writer, but joined the Off-Off Campus, an improvisational and sketch comedy group, and started writing some of their sketches. After graduating in 1991, he won a writing fellowship with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in Los Angeles. Following that he moved to New York City in 1992 where he worked as a copywriter for a chemical company during the day, and wrote plays in his spare time - some were performed in local theaters. In 1994, Auburn was accepted into the Juilliard School's playwriting program, studying under the noted dramatists Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang. His work at Juilliard led to his first major play, Skyscraper. The play ran off-Broadway in September - October 1997 and concerned a group attempting to save a historic skyscraper from being demolished. In 1998, several of Auburn’s one-act plays were published by the Dramatists’ Play Service under the title, Fifth Planet and Other Plays. 

Proof, Auburn’s most successful play, was developed at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and had its world premiere off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in May 2000. The production was a great success and moved to Broadway that Autumn. In 2001, Proof won the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the Joseph Kesselring Prize, the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Best Play award, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Tony Award for Best Play. It enjoyed a three-year Broadway run, as well as a national tour. By 2002 it was the most-produced play in the United States. Auburn has also written a screenplay based on the play and the film, starring Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis, was released in Autumn 2005. 

Proof is set in Chicago in the present day and centres around the character of Catherine. Catherine is the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Robert, a recently deceased mathematical genius. After dropping out of college, Catherine spent several years caring for her mentally ill father. Catherine is brilliant in her own right, but she fears that she might possess the same mental illness that ultimately incapacitated her father. As she prepares for his funeral, her estranged sister Claire arrives from New York. Claire, unlike, Catherine, is efficient, practical and successful. She has supported Catherine and Robert financially, but never emotionally. Despite the two of them never being particularly close, Claire wants to take Catherine back to New York where she can keep an eye on her and submit her for psychiatric treatment. Catherine has also formed a connection with Hal, one of her father’s former students, who is cataloging the one-hundred-and-three notebooks that Robert left in his study. Hal is certain he will find something of value, but Catherine warns him otherwise. However, when Hal discovers, in one of the notebooks, a groundbreaking proof of a mathematical theorem that mathematicians had thought impossible, he is shocked when Catherine claims that it was her, and not her father, who wrote it. Neither Hal nor Claire believe Catherine could have written the proof, given her limited schooling, and conspire to take the proof away:“You only have a few months of math from Northwestern!” Hal tells her. Catherine sinks further into depression. Claire views her outlandish claim and symptoms of depression as evidence of severe psychosis similar to their father's and intends to drag Catherine to New York whether her sister likes it or not. The title of the play refers both to the mathematical proof and to the play's central question: Can Catherine prove the proof's authorship?

In Proof, Auburn has found a way to explore the notion of “proof” in several different senses – in the idea of a mathematical proof with its particular iron-clad inevitability, the notion of establishing the authorship of an intellectual work, and the daily proof that people seek to reassure themselves of the stability of reality and of their personal relationships. While the play is about mathematics, under the surface, it concerns the tensions between the love of people close to us and the things that undo them. Even when we cannot show love fully, in many ways, our family makes choices in our best interest whether we accept it or not. It is an intelligent play but is accessible to all as, at its heart, it is a detective story as well as a play about relationships. 

Act One, Scene 1 Analysis

Act One, Scene 1, serves as an introduction to Catherine, the play’s protagonist. Through her conversations on the porch with her father Robert and Hal, the audience learns that Catherine has sacrificed her mathematical brilliance, and the opportunity of university, in order to care for her father. Both her father and Hal also remind her that her father had achieved his best work by the time he was Catherine’s age. This scene phases in the idea of Catherine’s depression and isolation. According to Robert, she wastes her days sleeping and refuses to find a job or make friends: “Kid, I've seen you. You sleep till noon, you eat junk, you don't work, the dishes pile up in the sink. If you go out, it's to buy magazines. You come back with a stack of magazines this high - I don't know how you read that crap. And those are the good days. Some days you don't get up, you don't get out of bed” (8). Catherine’s dialogue with Robert in this scene reflects her own view that she is giving in to depression, but not that she is necessarily suffering from the mental instability which afflicted her father.

Act One, Scene 2 Analysis

Act One, Scene 2, introduces the audience to Catherine’s twenty-nine-year-old sister Claire from New York. Claire serves as the antagonist, the ‘foil’, to Catherine’s character. On her arrival she instantly starts firing questions and making demands of her sister - telling her what dress to wear, what shampoo to use, to host a party, and to move to New York - putting Catherine on the defensive. Catherine is also wary as she knows her sister believes that she, Catherine, is suffering from the same mental illness as their father. Claire seems to believe that Catherine's refusal to commit Robert to a mental institution is a symptom of Catherine's own insanity.  

Act One, Scene 3 Analysis

In Act One, Scene 3, Auburn tackles the issues faced by women in the mathematical field. By talking about Sophie Germain, Catherine has opened her heart to Hal, and revealed clues to her true mathematical genius. However, both Hal and Claire still do not consider that Catherine has inherited her father’s mathematical ability, yet both are able to believe that she has inherited his mental instability. Would this have been the case if Catherine had been a son? Catherine has been told that mathematics is a young man’s game. Although she is willing to challenge the gender bias, Catherine is depressed as she does believe that she is now too old to work in the field.

Act One, Scene 4 Analysis

In the final scene of Act One, Catherine reveals that she is a mathematical genius in her own right. This also means that her age is no longer an issue as this groundbreaking proof is her own work. However, neither Hal nor Claire believe that the work is hers. By telling Hal about Sophie Germain in the last scene, and giving him the key to the drawer containing the proof, Catherine had given her soul and put her trust in Hal. His dismissal of her claim of ownership could affect the future of their relationship.