Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
David Auburn (AW-burn) began to achieve critical and popular success toward the end of the twentieth century. Though his writing career started in Chicago, he began to establish himself on the East Coast in 1994, while he was a member of the Juilliard playwriting program. The son of an English professor and college administrator, he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and Little Rock and Jonesboro, Arkansas. After high school, he attended the University of Chicago from 1987 to 1991. There he joined a student improvisation troupe, in which he experimented with short comedy sketches that would influence his writing style in the years to come. He also reviewed plays for the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, which gave him exposure to professional theater. After college, associates of Amblin Entertainment, the company of film producer Steven Spielberg, recognized his talent through a writing competition and offered him a screenwriting fellowship. After this experience in Los Angeles, he moved to New York City, where he joined another improvisation troupe called Atomic Pile before attending the Juilliard School from 1994 to 1996.
Some of the shorter scripts he wrote in the 1990’s were produced in New York City, upstate New York, and Aspen, Colorado. Also, the New England Review and the Dramatists’ Play Service published much of his early work. These pieces, except for Three Monologues, engage the audience with humor and fast-paced narratives. Often, Auburn’s narratives are driven by a character’s awkward timing or false assumptions about other people. Shown best in Damage Control and Miss You, verbal and physical skirmishes ensue when certain characters voice their values, interests, and emotional problems at the most inopportune times.
Time itself is the focus of at least two of Auburn’s plays, What Do You Believe About the Future? and Skyscraper. The latter, his first full-length play to be produced, takes place atop an old office building in Chicago that has been marked for demolition. The six characters in this play are drawn to the building out of a need to preserve it or to destroy it for personal, political, historical, or financial reasons. Though the play did give Auburn some recognition as a serious playwright, it did not run for very long Off-Broadway, and reviewers did not receive the play enthusiastically. However, Skyscraper was a personal success for Auburn, and his next play to appear Off-Broadway, Proof, became a public success that took his writing career to a new level.
Auburn wrote Proof in the fall of 1998, while living in London with his wife, Frances Rosenfeld, a historian who was doing doctoral research there. The play, which opened Off-Broadway on May 23, 2000, takes place at the Chicago home of Catherine and her father, Robert. It begins shortly after the death of Robert, a famous mathematics professor at the University of Chicago who has battled a mental illness for the last ten years. Among other emotions related to loss, there are hints that the twenty-five-year-old Catherine feels a sense of relief at her father’s death, as she sacrificed college, among other things, to take care of him. However, Hal, Robert’s former student, seems inadvertently to prevent Catherine from emerging from the shadow of her father. Claire, Catherine’s sister, comes to take her back to New York, which threatens Catherine’s chance to live her own life for the first time; and Catherine is terrified by the idea that she may have inherited her father’s mental illness, which further complicates her internal struggle for independence. As an artistic, critical, and financial success, Proof played on Broadway, in London, and in several major cities of the United States.
Two weeks before Proof opened on Broadway, Auburn won the Kesserling Prize for drama. Shortly after winning this award in 2000, he received a screenwriting deal with the film company Mirage Enterprises. Also in 2000, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2001, and Proof received a Tony Award for best play in 2001. Early in 2001, the movie rights to Proof were purchased, and Auburn was hired to write the film adaptation. Along with writing screenplays, Auburn worked as script consultant for the musical tic, tic, BOOM, based on the original script by the late Jonathan Larsen, writer of the award-winning musical Rent (pr. 1996).
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