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Proof (2000)
David Auburn
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

This Pulitzer Prize winning play (now also a film) focuses on a daughter who took care of her father after his mental disorder forced him to give up his successful career as a mathematician. After the father's death, his former student finds the proof of an important theorem among the mathematician's belongings and the plot revolves around the questions of the authorship of "the proof". In fact, the title can be seen as referring either to the mathematical proof itself, or more generally the question of whether the daughter can prove that it was actually written by her. More details can be found in Dave Bayer's very nice review of the play or Daniel Ulman's excellent review of the film, both of which appeared in the AMS Notices.

In a New York Times article, the author has the following interesting comments to make regarding mathematics and his reasons for including it in the play. (NB: These are quotes from an interview, not from the play itself.)

"The great thing about math is that its a kind of scientific activity that's still done in a solitary way. Most science is now with big teams on big projects. In math, someone could have done something major working alone in the attic."

"I think there is some connection between extremely prodigious mathematical ability and craziness. I don't think that math drives people crazy, but those with edgy or slightly irrational personalities are drawn to it."

Contributed by Christine Green

"I thought there were many themes within themes in the Pulitzer-prize winning, B'way play Proof: Sibling rivalry, trust, gender bias, ambiguity of proving non-scientific information (i.e. Kathryn's handwriting at a glance), caring for elderly parents from each caretaker's perspective. In short, this was a marvelously rich play about love, life and loss using the device of the mathematical theorem. David Auburn is very gifted."

Contributed by Anonymous

This literary work must be read as well as seen in order to appreciate its true mathematical content. Sure the only reference to the largest known prime number is isolated and outdated, but Proof is not written to be a text book. It's about chipping away at our exteriors to reveal the solution to life's problems. It's about being willing to address those solutions no matter how unconventional they may seem. And it's about putting trust into those solutions so that maybe we may all be able to `discover something elegant' in each other."

Contributed by Christine Pilgrim

"I saw this play performed at the Sagebrush Theatre in Kamloops British Columbia Canada. It is among the best I have ever seen. For me there are echoes in style of Shafer's Amadeus. The same subtle myriad levels within each scene...... wonderfully crafted..... and certainly gave opportunity for all four actors involved to shine. and what a cheap show to travel.... four actors and one set!!!!!!! First class. Thanks so much"

Contributed by Susan Neumann

I saw this play in New York in Oct. of 2001, and in Houston twice in Feb. of 2004. (The second time with my high school theatre students.) I like it so much that I'm directing it as our high school's UIL contest play. I hope to see much more of Auburn's work.

Contributed by Jeff Spargo

After reading this play, I attended a local production here in Greensboro, NC. I am by no means mathematically inclined; however, I still found this play to be very enjoyable. The theorems are explained simply so the audience can easily grasp the mathmetical concepts allowing them to concentrate on the many other themes permeating throughout the play. I highly recommend experiencing this play both in reading and attending the production. I look forward to seeing more of Auburn's work in the future. * I also recommend reading Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" along with "Proof".

Contributed by Steve Tillman

Math is central in the sense that it accurately portrays the way mathematicians work, react, think, etc., rather than because it shows much mathematics itself.

Contributed by Anonymous

Nicely done; portrays the psychological reality of mathematical research quite well.

Contributed by Anonymous

I saw a production at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC last year (fascinating set, by the way: the prosceium was surrounded by random numbers and glass boxes filled with scattered notebooks, library books, and even an overturned desk chair to represent Robert's obsessions and madness); and I've also taught the play to college students in my Intro to Literature course (they generally love it). Auburn is a master of understated humor and surprise. Not to mention his subtle and realistic portrayal of the characters' relationships.

It is interesting to me how obvious it is where Auburn got his mathematical inspirations. The father is obviously based on ``A Beautiful Mind'', the biography of John Nash. The proof Catherine writes (?) is obviously taken from the commentary of the experts on the episode of Nova called ``The Proof'' that focuses on Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. (Even the part about Sophie Germain may have come from this source.) And his misconception that most mathematicians use amphetamines was taken from ``The Man Who Loved Numbers'' or some other biography of Paul Erdos. Finally, the exchange about the number 1729 in the opening dialogue with her father. This is based on a famous anecdote about Ramanujan in which Littlewood visits him in the hospital and mentions that the number of the cab he took was 1729 and Ramanujan makes the remark about the interesting quality of this number that is repeated in the play. There is nothing wrong with any of this (that is, except for the idea that illegal drug use is common among mathematicians!), but I do not generally see the sources of information used by the authors of mathematical fiction quite so clearly in their writings!

Here are a few Tidbits of information about the film version of Proof:

  • Star Gwyneth Paltrow played the role of Catherine in a London stage version of the 2002 play directed by John Madden who also directed the film.
  • Paltrow is quoted as saying that there is a difference in her performance in the stage and film versions because her father was still alive when she was in the stage version but that the film was made approximately one year after his death, giving her a greater emotional attachment to the role of Catherine.
  • Time Magazine said in their September Movie Previews: Catherine's scenes with her unstable father, shrewish sister (Davis), and grad-student boyfriend Hal (Gyllenhaal) are more emotional than you'd expect from a film that's ostensibly about math. "Those who don't understand [math] think of it as dry, theoretical, concrete, having nothing to do with the imagination," says Madden. "But it's something quite difficult to explicate in a way that music is. Music somehow communicates emotionally, and I felt there was an aspect of [the math] that could translate and could be felt."

Contributed by Isaac Yonemoto

When I saw this on broadway (in its first run) I disliked this play. The cast was not very good and the acting felt artificial, partly because the dialogue does not lend itself to natural timing. At one point, it play stopped to *explain* a joke it had made (about a math grad student not knowing who Sophie Germain is -- except that she's such a cause celebre that you'd be hard pressed to find an undergraduate who doesn't know who she was). Although it does "bring to light" the (generally common knowledege) misogynistic tendencies of math departments, and the often conflicting issues behind attribution these are overweighed by its disservice to mathematicians by perpetuating negative stereotypes. The play is light on mathematics (which in and of itself is not a problem), but unfortunately there is also very little investment in the interpersonal relationships, largely constrained by the split nature of the setting. The play is quite melodramatic and is driven almost entirely by plot and in-your-face character attributes; and it generally lacks subtleties. Finally the "great mystery" which is alluded to at the end of the play seems to be, perplexingly, simultaneouly predictable, and yet since the character development is so weak, unbelievable. In summation, David Auburn (ironically a child of the "Socratic method" teaching style of the UofC) fails to grasp the concept of "show don't tell"; to the ruin of the play.

Unfortunately (from my point of view) the play seems to have ridden on a wave of accolades and now that it's being made into a movie, more are sure to come.

Contributed by Anonymous

I don't think that math was necessarily the central theme, as it was the vehicle to talk about intellect and genius. Scholars that are well versed in other disciplines than math deal with some of the same questions in their lives. Math is the best vehicle I can think of to show this theme, but others could be used. I loved the play after seeing in produced, reading it and now directing it. It is among my favorites because of the truth and reality of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Contributed by Anonymous

Very deep and meaningful, there is much more then what meets the eye. Pry into it, analyze its every word; none of those words were put there for no reason.

Interesting point, because there were some words added for the film version, and at the meeting Proof and Prejudice (Stanford Univ., Feb. 2006) we discussed the question of why. For instance, a scene was added in which Catherine softly cries "I stole it...I stole it from him" and a scene was added for the film in which her father seems to give her a significant clue as to how to prove the theorem (absently, while watching TV). Why were these added? I argued, and still believe, they were added since the authors (plural since the screenplay was co-written with Rebecca Miller) want there to be ambiguity about whether Catherine wrote the theorem. Nearly everyone I speak to about it (including two classes full of students in my Mathematics in Fiction course here at C of C as well as the other participants at the Stanford conference) feel that it is obvious that Catherine wrote the proof. That is certainly the impression that people are left with, but I think that this was not the author's intention. I think there was supposed to be at least a little doubt, and at some points quite a bit of doubt, and these scenes were added to try to restore some uncertainty. Apparently, however, it didn't work. People at the conference, at least, were just left wondering why these confusing lines were thrown in when it was obvious to them at every instant who had really written the proof.

Contributed by Joshua T., student at SUNY Binghamton

I am currently playing Hal in a classroom scene and I must admit that I am one of the people on the side of it obviously being Catherine.

Contributed by ASRES

First of all,thank you for creating this Website about Mathematical Fiction. I have seen "proof" in Awassa,Ethiopia,with a wide screen DVD. My emotions were unlike other films. I really was absorbed by the film and it deepens my love of mathematics. A striking phrase uttered by the father(the mathematician) about his daughter (when she was in a depressing moment): "even her illusions are mathematical".

Contributed by Sarah-Kate Magee

While it does not explain math content, Proof portrays mathematicians, how they think, and how they interact with others.

Contributed by Sheri McMahon

It's a long time since I saw the film (not the play nor have I read it) but for me the most powerful lines were--I think at the very end--the reading of the father's "proof" concerning numbers of books in the library and numbers of students--don't recall the details but the bits somehow brought out the almost liturgical quality mathematical writing (and speaking) has.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Proof
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  2. Continuums by Robert Carr
  3. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  4. Murder, She Conjectured by Alex Kasman
  5. The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem by Rinne Groff
  6. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  7. It's My Turn by Claudia Weill (director)
  8. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  9. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  10. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
Ratings for Proof:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.15/5 (55 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.24/5 (56 votes)

MotifGenius, Anti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Academia, Proving Theorems, Female Mathematicians, Romance,
MediumPlays, Films,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)