MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Blue Door (2006)
Tanya Barfield
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A successful African-American mathematics professor who has tried to ignore racism and its implications for his life is visited by the memories of three dead relatives during a sleepless night in this powerful and critically acclaimed play by Tanya Barfield.

The Blue Door is a moving and wonderfully written exploration of the conflicting emotions and pressures on African-Americans. I love the metaphorical "blue door", the way the play uses only two actors to portray a variety of characters and the way Barfield "breaks the fourth wall". The simple description of conversation at a departmental party disturbingly captures some of the discomfort that a minority faculty member must endure. And, although I am still haunted by the horrific imagery, I like the way that the story of the death of the professor's grandfather brings clarity and ties together the various threads of the plot.

I do not want to say too much more about any of that since I would not want to spoil the experience for anyone who still has a chance to see or read the play for themselves. But, since this is a Website about math in fiction, let me say some more about the math in particular.

It is often the case in mathematical fiction that math is presented as a way for certain escapist characters to hide from reality. That is certainly true here as well. For instance, when Lewis, the professor, is finding the tales of the apparitions particularly disturbing, the stage directions say "(Trying to distract himself from Simon's presence.)"and he says to himself "Think about math." But, here in addition to the usual connotation that people interested in math are somehow less in touch with their humanity (a stereotype I strongly object to, BTW), the play also explores the extent to which it indicates he is out of touch with his "Blackness".

There is clearly supposed to be some resonance between Lewis's attempts to avoid thinking about his connection to the oppression and suffering of his ancestors and his research on the mathematics of time. The book he writes is called "Mathematical Structures and the Repudiation of Time" and he explicitly questions the concept of causality and whether time is quantized. There are also two vague allusions to the absolute time in Newtonian mechanics and the cyclical relativistic spacetime model developed by Kurt Gödel. These are both sensible references to work by real mathematicians connected to our concept of time. However, I wish more had been done with this idea.

Some of Lewis's other mathematical remarks seem less sensible to me. I'm not sure what to make of the statement "For example, it is impossible to count the complete decimal expansion of the number pi backwards. Wittgenstein." And if "An infinite sequence of numbers exist before zero" means merely that there are infinitely many negative numbers, then it is both an odd way to say it and not something I can imagine a mathematician thinking is particularly deep or interesting.

Just as these lines leave me thinking that Barfield doesn't really know what she's saying when it comes to math, there are also some indications that she has limited experience with academia. For instance, Lewis's wife throws a huge party (with waitstaff in tuxedos, which leads to a problem) when his book is published. IMHO this would be a very strange thing to do. Faculty are expected to publish frequently. (Hence the famous phrase "Publish or perish".) To keep his job, Lewis would have had to have published many articles if not books over the 20 years before his book appeared. Just having a book (especially one that receives so many negative reviews, as his apparently does) is not cause for a huge catered party. Barfield seems to confuse the roles of department chair and dean. And, most disturbingly, the play portrays sabbatical as being something of a vacation and something of a punishment, when it is neither.

In addition to being adult Lewis's profession and method of escape, math enters the story in other interesting ways. One of his ancestors is trained in mathematics and reading when he is a young slave (by a man who abuses him sexually). Since educating slaves was illegal, this gives him a rare skill. It also turns out to be a useful one when, as an emancipated man, he uses his knowledge of math to recognize that he is being cheated by his former owner who now pays his workers and charges them rent. Also, when Lewis is a young boy, he uses his interest and knowledge in mathematics to offer business advice to his father, a janitor.

Race is an important issue not often addressed in works of mathematical fiction. Let me mention The Old Arithmetician and Against the Odds as being two other examples that do and are in that sense similar. However, although Against the Odds is also about a successful African-American mathematician, it is difficult for me to think of it as really being similar to The Blue Door at all. It focuses more on the racism inherent in the modern educational system, a topic not really addressed in this play. But, it also is a rather straightforward story, almost a work of propaganda, and not nearly the work of art that Barfield's play is. Race is also a major issue in Apartheid, Superstrings and Mordecai Thubana. And, it is an unmentioned subtext in Distress where the world's most famous mathematical physicist just happens to be an African woman. Again, I feel strange listing these works of fiction together and calling them "similar", but it may be of interest to someone that they all feature black mathematicians, an unfortunate rarity in both reality and fiction.

I really enjoyed reading this play and hope someday to have a chance to see it performed. It seems to have been Tanya Barfield's first professional production, but she has gone on to have much success as the author of other plays.

Contributed by Chris S

Math is not just a subject of this play, but a central metaphor that informs the play's structure. BLUE DOOR is Tanya Barfield's powerful play focusing on one night of insomnia in the life of a distinguished mathematician. Lewis has fled his troubled family history and racial identity by immersing himself in math, preferring its clarity, precision, and cool abstraction to his own emotionally heated and conflict-riddled origins. But in pursuing mathematical theories to their logical ends, he comes upon notions of time travel, and, in this one dark night, conjures the spirits of his ancestors, the very people from whose lives he has tried to separate himself. Ultimately he finds that he must embrace his history in order to become whole. A beautiful and deeply affecting work.

Contributed by Bob Harbort

I was surprised at the depth of the metaphorical relationship between the sketchily presented "philosophy of mathematics" and the personal/psychological theme of the play. This one is deep.

There's not a lot of math as such in the play (it would never succeed with a general audience if it had much more) but the hints of deep resonance between the professor's psyche and his thoughts about quantization of time and its implications for causality were very well done.

I am an academic -- BS Physics, MS Computer Science, licensed electrical engineer in Georgia, and a PhD from the Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory. This play resonated with me personally in part because when I was working on my PhD I took an individual study "class" with a philosophy prof and it took us over a month to fill in the form stating what I was going to do. We couldn't agree on a definition of causality that both of us were willing to accept, even provisionally. Though I'm now immersed in teaching undergraduate CS, I continue to have a research interest in the murky area of subjective knowledge and its relationship to knowledge independent of an agent and the whole question of meaning generation.

Contributed by Dan

Saw the World Premier production at South Coast Repertory a few years back. I subscribe season after season because they are masters at new play development. http://www.scr.org/press/05-06season/bluedoorpress.aspx This show wasn't math ladened, but he was a math teacher and I got the metaphor. Stoppard's Hapgood was tougher for me, so I suspect there was quite a bit of math involved--that strange math only a physicist could love.

(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 The Blue Door
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  2. Continuums by Robert Carr
  3. Against the Odds by Martin Gardner
  4. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  5. An Old Arithmetician by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
  6. The Ore Miner's Wife by Karl Iagnemma
  7. Distress by Greg Egan
  8. Mrs. Einstein by Anna McGrail
  9. Apartheid, Superstrings and Mordecai Thubana by Michael Bishop
  10. Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson
Ratings for The Blue Door:
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:
2.67/5 (6 votes)
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Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (6 votes)
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Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifAcademia,
Topic
MediumPlays,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)