The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Proof revolves around a young woman, Catherine, and her reaction to her father’s recent death, her sense of self, her connection with her sister, and a new relationship with one of her father’s former students. On the night before her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine prepares for her father’s funeral and her newly arrived sister, who has her own plans for Catherine. Catherine also deals with Hal, a scholar who is searching through her father’s numerous notebooks for new ideas and possible sparks of inspiration for new mathematical discoveries.

As the play opens, Catherine sits on the back porch and talks to Robert about her unknown plans for the future. Shortly, the audience realizes that Robert is a figment of Catherine’s imagination, a phantom or ghost. Hal enters and Robert disappears. Hal’s motives seem somewhat suspect to Catherine, who believes him to be completely self-serving. However, he convinces Catherine of his admiration for her late father, and she permits his continued search for her father’s brilliance through his 103 notebooks upstairs. As their relationship develops throughout the play, Catherine simultaneously deals with her estranged sister, Claire. Learning that Claire finds Catherine to be mentally fragile and plans to move her to New York, Catherine resentfully struggles to ascertain whether she has inherited any aspects of her father’s known insanity.

The work ends with the discovery of a proof that would be considered brilliant in the math world. The problem with its discovery is the murky identity of the author of the work. Catherine, claiming it hers, incites Hal’s doubt and Claire’s cynicism. Yet, once researched, Hal discovers not only that Catherine has inherited Robert’s genius, but also that she has indeed made a serious revolutionary discovery. At the same time, Catherine confirms her suspicions that she not only has inherited her father’s brilliance but also part of his mental illness. The play ends with Catherine agreeing to move with her sister to New York so that she will be close to family who will care for her. Yet, simultaneously, she is emotionally and psychologically satisfied in knowing that her work is indeed worthy and significant in a male-dominated field.

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Auburn uses a variety of techniques to achieve his explorations of his themes. He begins the work in medias res, that is, after a crisis, the death of Catherine’s father, but before the funeral and Catherine’s subsequent proof of brilliance and move to New York. This technique invites the audience to search for the meaning in Catherine’s behavior.

Auburn applies the device of stream-of-consciousness in order to convey the story of Catherine and her emotional, physical, and psychological development. By using stream-of-consciousness, Auburn forces the reader to flash back to moments in Catherine’s past. The first act begins on the night before Catherine’s twenty-fifth birthday and her father’s funeral and ends on the day after the funeral and reception. However, at the beginning of act 2, Auburn reverts to a moment four years earlier, just before Catherine began pursuing a college career at Northwestern University and a few short months before her father’s final descent into insanity. As the audience witnesses this scene, when Catherine leaves home and parts from Robert, they also recall Hal’s presentation, four years later, of a heartfelt note of pride her father once wrote in a journal about Catherine. Auburn allows the reader to see the interaction between father and daughter that led up to the writing of that entry.

In act 2, scene 2, Auburn brings the play to the present, the day after the funeral, when Hal and...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Sophie Germain
Sophie Germain, the French mathematician so admired by Catherine in Proof, was born into a middle-class...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The exposition of a play is the introductory material, which creates the tone, introduces the characters, perhaps...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Women have made valuable contributions to mathematics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Research the work of two female...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Proof was adapted to film and set to release in the United States some time in 2005. The screenplay is written by David Auburn and...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Auburn’s Fifth Planet and Other Plays (2001) contains several one-act plays that Auburn wrote before Proof. The plays are...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Auburn, David, Proof, Faber and Faber, 2001.

Barbour, David, ‘‘Proof Positive’’ in Entertainment Design, Vol. 43, November 2000, p. 19.

Brustein, Robert, Review of Proof, in the New Republic, November 13, 2000, pp. 28–29.

Clark, John, ‘‘So Smart It Hurts,’’ in Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2001.

Foster, John Evan, Review of Proof, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 53, No. 3, October 2001, Performance Review Sec., pp. 503–04.

Gussow, Mel, ‘‘With Math, a Playwright Explores a Family in Stress,’’ in the New York Times, May 29, 2000, Sec. E, Col. 2, p. 1.

Hoffler, Robert, Review of Proof, in Variety, Vol. 380, No. 11, October 30, 2000, p. 34.

Melton, Robert W., Review of Proof, in Library Journal, April 1, 2001, p. 100.

Nasar, Sylvia, A Beautiful Mind, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Poincaré, Henri, ‘‘Mathematical Creation,’’ in The Creative Process: A Symposium, edited by Brewster Ghiselin, New American Library, 1960, p. 40.

Rockmore, Daniel, ‘‘Uncertainty Is Certain in Mathematics and Life,’’ in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2000, Opinion & Arts Sec., p. 89.

Weber, Bruce, Review of Proof, in New York Times, May 24, 2000, p. B3.

———, Review of Proof, in New York Times, October 27, 2001. ———, ‘‘Science Finding a Home Onstage,’’ in New York Times, June 2, 2000, p. B1.

Further Reading
Billington, Michael, Review of Proof, in Guardian, May 16, 2002. This review of the British production of Proof at London’s Donmar Warehouse censures the playwright for not explaining what the crucial mathematical theory is. Billington calls this the weak point of the play.

Feingold, Michael, Review of Proof, in Village Voice, June 6, 2000. A review that is generous in its praise. Feingold points out that Auburn has no interest in explaining the finer points of mathematics; it is simply a given that for three of the four characters, mathematics is something they love, and the play is more of a love story than anything else—love of mathematics, love of father and daughter, and the growing love of Hal and Catherine.

Heilpern, John, Review of Proof, in New York Observer, June 19, 2000, p. 5. A laudatory review that praises the play’s evocation of love between father and daughter, the fragility of life, and the discovery of love. The only flaw Heilpern sees is that the mystery of who wrote the proof is too easily resolved.

Parker, Christian, ‘‘A Conversation with David Auburn,’’ in Dramatist Magazine, December 10, 2001. In this interview, Auburn talks about how he became interested in writing plays and how his career developed.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “On Theater—Or, in the Heart or in the Head.” The New Republic 224 (November 13, 2000): 28.

Congdon, Constance. “God Is in the Numbers.” American Theater 17 (September, 2000): 72.

Flynn, Michael. “Science on Center Stage.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 57 (July/August, 2001): 9-10.

Gussow, Mel. “With Math, a Playwright Explores a Family in Stress.” New York Times, May 29, 2000, p. E9.

Rockmore, Daniel. “Uncertainly Certain in Mathematics and Life.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46 (June 23, 2000): B9.