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The Issue of Identity in “Proof” by David Auburn

Published in 2000, a winner of Pulitzer Prize and multiple awards, Proof by David Auburn is a profound masterly written play that examines the issues of identity, the borderlines of genius and madness, sanity and instability, a correlation between logical mathematical proof and the emotional proof of human relationships, love, faith, and trust. Concentrating on these issues, the play suggests that the ambiguous intangible nature of proofs can be applied to mathematical issues as well as people’s relations, stating that genius and insanity, love and faith are difficult to identify and prove.

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The core idea of the play is based on the assumption that contrary to the world of numbers everything is subjected to logic and every idea or theory, even earlier considered indefensible, can be proved, but in the human world, the matters are much more complicated since it is difficult to identify the real nature of any problem as the authenticity and authorship of the proof.

The play reveals the story of Catherine, the daughter of a brilliant mathematician of an outstanding genius, who took care of her mentally disturbed father until his death. Catherine witnesses their father’s madness and is frightened to inherit his insanity alongside his talent. The narration begins with Catherine’s delusion about her father who tells her to indulge in life and develop her potential in mathematics.

As it later turns out Robert, Catherine’s father passed away, and after the funeral things become more complicated as Catherine has to deal with her sister and obtrusive Hal, a former student of her father. The plot thickens when Hal finds the notebook with a proof of the mathematical theorem in Robert’s study, which suggests that the proof was written by Catherine’s father. However, it belongs to his daughter who struggles to prove her authorship throughout the whole play.

The difficulty of the situation lays in the fact that Catherine, afraid of following in her father’s footsteps, both professionally and mentally, tries to find her place in the world of complicated relations with people and identify her purpose in life. Since her childhood, Catherine has had to take the burden to take care of her mentally ill father which makes her prematurely devastated: “I feel old”, she says on her twenty-fifth birthday (Auburn 5).

This is one of the most important scenes as Catherine realizes her mental instability since she’s having delusions, which triggered her mistrust in herself. Concentrating only on the wellbeing of her father sacrificing herself, Catherine wasn’t able to devote her life to herself. Confined and reserved, Catherine develops relations with Hal who doesn’t justify her trust in him when she reveals that the proof was written by her.

However, Hal claims that “if there is anything up there, it would pretty high order that would take a professional to recognize it” rejecting Catherine’s talent (Auburn 37). Hal and Claire’s incredulity deeply insults Catherine. Mentally supported by her father who claimed that “when you throw days away, you never know what else you throw away with them – the work, the ideas”, Catherine battles with mistrust and approaching crisis (Auburn 5). The ultimate question raised in the play is based on the author’s suggestion that contrary to consistent mathematical proof, as far as people’s relations are concerned, they rely on faith and trust.

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What aggravates the situation is that Catherine is struggling between two identities: to stay loyal to her father or to become a great mathematician. Displaying some features of insanity, she can’t prove her authorship detaching more from Hal and her sister. However, Catherine finds the strength to point out to Hal that he’s “marking time doing lame research” (Auburn 41) supporting her identity as a mathematical genius. At the end of the play, Hal realizes that the proof could be written only by Catherine since new techniques in solving were used and, thus, accepting her genius. On the other hand, Catherine accepts the identity of a weak woman who admits to men’s strength since she manages to stand her point only after Hal approves of her proof.

All things considered, it should be noted that the play dwells on the issues of genius and insanity that fail to fit into real life, the problems of finding an identity, and verifying authenticity.

Work Cited

Auburn, David. Proof: A Play. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

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