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Proof Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Proof by David Auburn.

Proof is a play written by David Auburn. It premiered in May 2000. It tells the story of Catherine, a woman whose father is a brilliant mathematician plagued by mental illness, and her struggle to deal with her suspicion that she has inherited the same disease.

The play begins with Catherine sitting alone in her yard. Her father, Robert, brings her a bottle of champagne wanting to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday, but she puts him off saying that she has not done anything of note in the field of mathematics. He comforts her and assures her that she will be able to do great things in mathematics if she quits wasting time.

She admits to him her worry that she will inherit his mental illness, something that has prevented him from living a full quality of life. He assures her that this is only a worry of hers, as well. But there is one bad sign—he is dead. He died a week ago.

At this, she wakes up and finds herself on her couch. He disappears as she dozes off again, only to be awakened when Hal leaves the house. Hal is one of Robert’s graduate students, and he has been combing through hundreds of notebooks looking for anything that could be published posthumously. Catherine assures him that it is all nonsense since they were written at the height of her father’s illness.

Hal attempts to flirt with her, which causes her to become suspicious. She demands to see his bag but finds nothing in it. When a notebook falls out of his pocket, she is infuriated and accuses him of stealing her father’s work. She calls the police. He tells her that he was going to return it to her, showing her something written about her during her father’s lucid moment. She begins to cry as she hears sirens.

The next day, her sister Claire arrives and is setting up for brunch. She asks if Catherine will be coming up for Claire’s wedding early. When Catherine demands to know why she is asking all these questions, Claire tells her that the police called asking questions. Catherine tries to explain what happened the night before, but she only comes off as paranoid.

Hal reappears and asks to continue working on her father’s notebooks. Catherine says, yes, and lets him in. Claire hints that Catherine should flirt with Hal, and Catherine storms away.

Claire holds a party at her house with their friends and Robert and Hal’s students, and Catherine is overwhelmed. She escapes to the porch where she finds Hal again. He offers her a beer. As they talk, Hal admits that he does not know if he can contribute to the field of mathematics. Catherine tries to reassure him, and Hal surprises her by kissing her.

He apologizes for trying to take the notebook, and she apologizes for calling the police. They kiss again. He asks if she remembers meeting him years before, and she says, yes. She does, and she recalls that she thought he was “not boring.”

The next day, Hal tells Catherine that he would like to spend the day with her. Claire comes in and tries to convince Catherine to move to New York. She admits that she is selling the house. They argue, each feeling abandoned by the other. Catherine tells Claire that she knows Claire has researched mental hospitals; she believes Claire wants to commit her. Hal comes outside with a notebook containing what he believes is a significant proof.

Act two, flashes back to Catherine telling Robert that she will be leaving for college in a few months. Robert is furious, and they argue. Hal interrupts to present his thesis, and Robert assures him that they will work out the finer points. He apologizes for forgetting Catherine’s birthday and promises to take her out to eat.

We flash forward to where the last act left off. Catherine declares that she wrote the proof but neither believes her. She accuses Hal of being past his prime, saying that she trusted him, and he storms off. She begins to tear up the notebook, but Claire gets it away from her.

We flash back again, and this time, Catherine is telling Robert to come inside. His mind is deteriorating further, and he is belligerent. He reads rambling paragraphs, and in his confusion, he begins to shiver from the cold. He asks her never to leave, and she promises that she will not.

In the final scene, we see Catherine mocking Claire as she prepares to move to New York. Hal comes in saying that the proof checks out and apologizes for not believing her. She tells him to take it because there is no way to say whether she wrote it, but Hal says that they can go over it together. Catherine admits that she does not want to be like her father, and Hal says that maybe she will not be like her father.

The play is a meditation on the way our worst fears about ourselves can cause us to turn on each other. Catherine is talented, but she is so afraid of being like her father that she does not take public credit for the proof. Claire is worried about losing her sister to mental illness, and as such, she makes plans for her without her knowledge. Hal is afraid that he is beyond doing anything mathematically brilliant, and spends his time looking through his late mentor’s work.

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.

the complete review - drama



David Auburn

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Author:David Auburn
Length:83 pages
Availability:Proof- US
Proof- UK
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  • Proof was awarded the 2001 Tony Award (beating out, among others, Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love (see our review))
  • Proof was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama
  • Proof was made into a movie in 2005, directed by John Madden and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins

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Our Assessment:

B : some decent theatrical touches, but a fairly simplistic plot

See our review for fuller assessment.

Chron. of Higher Ed.A-23/6/2000Daniel Rockmore
Daily NewsA24/5/2000David Kaufman
The GuardianB16/5/2002Michael Billington
The IndependentC16/5/2002Paul Taylor
The New RepublicB-13/11/2000Robert Brustein
New YorkA5/6/2000John Simon
The NY ObserverA19/6/2000John Heilpern
The NY PostA-25/10/2000Clive Barnes
The NY TimesA24/5/2000Bruce Weber
USA TodayA-25/10/2000Elysa Gardner
The Village Voice.6/6/2000Michael Feingold
Wall St. JournalB24/5/2000Amy Gamerman

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very positive -- except, notably, the British. Most impressed by his theatrical sense, though some find the plot (and the maths) a bit thin.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) wonderful drama that elegantly describes the world of mathematics, and suggests how ill-suited the mathematical notion of truth is for life. It's impossible to divine the future, and it's no easier to derive it. We're only as certain as our next best guess." - Daniel Rockmore, Chronicle of Higher Education

  • "(A)n exciting new drama (.....) This play by David Auburn combines elements of mystery and surprise with old-fashioned storytelling to provide a compelling evening of theater." - David Kaufman, Daily News

  • "Whatever its flaws, Auburn has created a great part, which Paltrow fills to overflowing. (...) But not even she can camouflage the weak point in Auburn's play: that we never know what the crucial theory is. For me, it is a defining moment in modern American drama when Claire at last asks Hal, "Can you tell me what the proof is ?" and the two of them walk off stage busily talking." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "The play wants to contrast the inductive, tightly logical proofs possible in mathematics with the indeterminacy of attempts to prove things in the real world where leaps of faith may be necessary. But it blows its chances on both levels." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "Proof is David Auburn's first major production; and if it is not exactly the brilliant debut that some have been claiming, it certainly represents the work of a writer with a fairly decent grasp on his not terribly fanciful material. (...) (W)hat makes this play problematic is not its author's ignorance regarding prime numbers. It is the thinness of his plot. He runs out of material so quickly that, by the middle of the second act, the play jerks to a halt and starts running in place." - Robert Brustein, The New Republic

  • "Here, those of us who want their dramatic characters to be real people need not feel excluded. (...) All four -- whether loving, hating, encouraging or impeding one another -- are intensely alive, complex, funny, human. (...) Out of this curious quartet, Auburn creates emotionally and intellectually enveloping music." - John Simon, New York

  • "But my relief that David Auburn's Proof is less about its ballyhooed higher mathematics than the fragility of life and love was matched by my delight in his fine and tender play. (...) Proof surprises us with its aliveness and intelligent modesty, and we have not met these characters before." - John Heilpern, The New York Observer

  • "The play is beautifully and closely plotted. OK, the story itself is not much more than a highbrow soap opera with painless references to mathematics. Yet Auburn, in his first Broadway outing, provides characters behaving credibly and natural dialogue without a single stagy phrase stumbling the flow and also ensures the tension is handsomely sustained." - Clive Barnes, The New York Post

  • "Without any baffling erudition -- if you know what a prime number is, there won't be a single line of dialogue you find perplexing -- the play presents mathematicians as both blessed and bedeviled by the gift for abstraction that ties them achingly to one another and separates them, also achingly, from concrete-minded folks like you and me. And perhaps most satisfying of all, it does so without a moment of meanness." - Bruce Weber, The New York Times

  • "What's perhaps most striking about Auburn's writing, though, is his sense of structure, which is at once imaginative and stringently coherent. Veering gracefully from past to present and from reflection to confrontation, the playwright traces the development of his characters and plot with a scientist's preciseness and a poet's lyricism." - Elysa Gardner, USA Today

  • "Nearly every scene is based on a piece of information cunningly withheld until the last moment; and unlike playwrights who take such strategic games in ponderous earnest, Auburn perceives their essential playfulness, as do his characters, who toy with each other much as he toys with them and with us. It's impossible to resent manipulation that's carried on in such a generous spirit; by its uninsistent acceptance of its own shallowness, it opens out into a vision of reality." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

  • "Mr. Auburn's brainiacs hail from the Hollywood school of genius. That's where highly photogenic people learn how to make Einsteinian breakthroughs without the benefit of a fancy degree while watching the late-late show on TV. Call it the Good Will Hunting principle of brain power, in which a hero's brilliance can be measured in direct proportion to his or her kissability and sulky disregard for higher education. (...) Proof is lively indeed, the jokes about prime numbers notwithstanding. It's also rather shallow, the jokes about prime numbers notwithstanding." - Amy Gamerman, Wall Street Journal

Please note and bear in mind that reviews of dramas generally refer to specific performances rather than to the written work itself. (Note also that complete review's reviews refer specifically to the written text.)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Genius and madness. How close the two are ! -- at least in the imaginations of poets and playwrights, screenwriters, and the occasional novelist.
       Young David Auburn succumbed -- one hopes merely because of his immaturity -- to the romantic and popular notion: three of the four characters in his play, Proof, are or were, to varying degrees, gifted mathematicians. One was certified, another close to certifiable: apparently the expected percentage.
       Mental disease is a tough (though apparently extremely tempting) nut to tackle. Despite the difficulties characters who are deranged, disturbed, or flat out insane are, like substance abusers and the terminally ill, still far too common in books and on the stage. And here they are again.
       Here it is dear old Dad, one-time genius mathematician Robert who, after completing his best work when he was in his early twenties ("He revolutionized the field twice before he was twenty-two") fell apart. "I went bughouse", as he puts it -- except that they didn't lock the guy up. Devoted daughter Catherine, also mathematically inclined, attended to him, while older sister Claire would have been just as happy to see the old man institutionalized.
       Dad dies, and Claire comes back to Chicago for the funeral. And it is also Catherine's twenty-fifth birthday. Meantime one of Robert's former students, Harold "Hal" Dobbs, has begun going through the hundred-odd notebooks the one-time genius left behind, hoping that a bit of the old brilliance surfaces somewhere in the pages that seem to be filled merely with a madman's scribblings .....
       A notebook surfaces which contains what is, indeed, an impressive proof. Auburn isn't to concerned with specifics: it is a proof of "a mathematical theorem about prime numbers, something mathematicians have been trying to prove since ... since there were mathematicians, basically." And it really isn't that important. Turns out, however, that there is a question of whose proof it is -- because Catherine claims it's hers.
       Hal knows it is a work of genius, so it can't be Catherine's (all she had done was take "some classes at Northwestern for a few months", after all). Claire thinks the handwriting is obviously her father's. And while she thinks her sister is like Dad in some ways -- "you have some of his talent and some of his tendency toward ... instability" -- she also can't believe Catherine could have come up with whatever it is that this proof is. And she just wants to sell the house and take erratic Catherine back to New York to get her some decent medical treatment.
       Catherine herself knows she isn't in quite a right state of mind. Her great fear is of winding up like her father. But she is also gifted. "Even your depression is mathematical", Dad notes, and Hal has some sense of her abilities as well.
       There are further complications: romantic and sexual entanglements, a variety of motives behind each characters actions. The puzzle of who came up with the proof isn't the most intriguing of issues, nor is how easily Hal and Claire can (or could) write off Catherine as a nutcase (or how easily she could write herself off). Still, Auburn sets up the play quite well. There are two dramatically effective scenes -- the opening one, and the last (not quite unexpected) line of the first act -- and few lulls.
       It is a reasonably entertaining play. Certainly actors can revel in the parts: the slightly overwritten and simplistic characters and actions should make this a popular stage-play (though the characters are a bit too cartoonish on the page).
       Note, however, that we really wouldn't mind a moratorium on plays (and novels and films) dealing with what way too many people believe is the thin line between genius and madness. In fact, we'd pay for one. The nutty professor, in all his variations, has been written to death, and Auburn does nothing to revive this very tired genre. Enough already.

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Proof: Reviews: Proof - the movie: Other plays by David Auburn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Tom Stoppard's brilliant Arcadia
  • See also the Index of Drama under review
  • See Index of books dealing with Mathematics

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About the Author:

       American playwright David Auburn was born in 1969. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Kesselring Prize.

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© 2001-2012 the complete review

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