This post has minor spoilers for Arcadia, Proof, and A Disappearing Number.
Mathematics has the unfortunate stigma of being difficult and boring. And yet, there have been a surprising number of narrative works that involve themes of mathematics. Recently, three plays – Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, David Auburn’s Proof, and Simon McBurney’s A Disappearing Number – all endeavored to create compelling stories centered on math. Though all unique, each of these plays treats mathematics with reverence, ensuring that the field comes across as more accessible and relevant than most people view it.
The opening of A Disappearing Number plays on the stereotype of math’s difficulty, as professor Ruth explains a complicated set of equations to the audience. In fact, McBurney has hinted that his past disdain for the subject inspired this scene. What A Disappearing Number, Arcadia, and Proof all do is put a human stamp on math, demonstrating that it has its place in the real world.
Arcadia and A Disappearing Number tackle this challenge overtly. Both sprawling tales of the past and the present and the cyclical nature of life, they weave stories of mathematical geniuses in the past along with mathematicians in the present. While the past Arcadia subplot involves a fictional teenage genius who works on iteration and chaos theory, A Disappearing Number involves the actual famed Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who came to England to work with Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy. The story chronicles Ramanujan’s genius as he adapts to the very different world of early twentieth century Britain.
The genius of these two plays is how they intertwine these stories of the past with stories of the present, as both have the mathematicians of the present attempting to retrace the steps of those in the past. Arcadia especially explores the pitfalls of jumping to conclusions about the past with little evidence.
Before I get too ahead of myself, Arcadia, Proof, and A Disappearing Number aren’t all about math – and that, I feel, is why they are ultimately so successful. Arcadia involves themes about determinism, Enlightenment reason versus Romanticism, English gardens, literature, history, and the institution of academia. And yet, it is all very funny. The balances Stoppard creates among all these themes as well as between comedy and drama truly are something to behold.
While A Disappearing Number and Proof may not address such a diverse group of lofty ideas, they are equally challenging, though on a smaller level. A Disappearing Number confronts culture shock and involves themes about the Indian Diaspora, love, and spirituality. Proof operates on a smaller scale. Its main character, Catherine, is the daughter of a recently deceased, genius yet mentally unstable mathematician; through the course of the play, she comes to grips with the fact that she may have inherited both the genius and the instability of her father’s mind. Catherine and the other principle mathematician of the play, Hal, are both very human in character; in fact, Hal plays in a rock band, breaking any stereotypes of mathematicians the audience may have.
Besides making mathematics more accessible, a final common thread among the plays is the idea that true genius can come from anywhere. Characters in the plays all throw the ideas of Ramanujan from A Disppearing Number, teenage Thomasina from Arcadia, and Catherine from Proof into question. The three characters hardly have any formal mathematical training, yet the mathematical work they do is groundbreaking for the field. In A Disappearing Number, Hardy doubts Ramanujan because he is a Brahmin from India with little formal instruction. In Arcadia, Valentine (in the narrative from the present) doubts Thomasina’s findings because, according to him, she was just a teenager who could not have possibly understood what she was doing. In Proof, Hal doubts Catherine due to her instability and her not having completed her undergraduate mathematics education. And yet, each of these characters understood the importance of their work and, more importantly, did the work truly on his or her own. The plays argue that genius is born, not made.
And finally, for all their grand themes about life, math, and genius, all three plays are nevertheless ripping good drama. Of the three, Proof is the most conventional; it only involves four characters and one direct plot. Arcadia and A Disappearing Number are more inventive. With its large cast of characters, Arcadia at one point has characters from the two time periods on stage at the same time, almost interacting with each other. A Disappearing Number is visually and musically stunning, involving rhythmic sounds complete with choreographed motions from the characters. Though similar in theme, these three plays each have their own take on mathematics, and, more importantly, they draw the audience in with their arresting stories and, at times, creative narrative techniques. They are certainly not to be missed, even if you have no interest in mathematics.
Arcadia, Proof, and A Disappearing Number are three of my favorite plays, and I hope that this post has served as a good introduction for you if you aren’t familiar with them. I hope in the future to delve more deeply into their themes. If you’ve read or seen any one of them, what do you think of it (or them)?