Proof Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 35-page guide for “Proof” by David Auburn includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 2 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Lost Time and Gender and Academia.
David Auburn’s play, Proof, premiered in 1999 in New Jersey before moving to New York for an Off-Broadway run and a successful transfer to Broadway in 2000. The original Broadway cast starred Mary Louise Parker as Catherine, and subsequently attracted several other famous women to play the role. Proof received extensive critical acclaim, winning a Drama Desk Award for Best New Play in 2000 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 2001. A 2005 film adaptation featured Gwyneth Paltrow (who played Catherine in the original West End production in 2002), Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Proof, which takes place on the back porch of a Chicago home, is a play about math, familial relationships, and the mixed blessing and curses of heredity. The play’s scenes take place in both the present day and flashbacks.
When the play opens, Catherine is 25 and her father has just died. Robert was a highly celebrated academic and mathematician, and Catherine has spent the last several years caring for him, as he suffered from a debilitating and degenerative mental illness. The unnamed disease destroyed Robert’s ability to produce cohesive work and gave him the need to write compulsively, filling hundreds of notebooks with nonsense.
Hal, one of Robert’s former graduate students, takes on the task of studying Robert’s notebooks in the hopes of finding a hidden mathematical breakthrough. Catherine and Hal become close, and Catherine gives him a notebook in which she has written a groundbreaking proof. Catherine’s sister, Claire, who is in town for the funeral, fears that Catherine has inherited their father’s mental illness, and both Claire and Hal initially disbelieve that Catherine wrote the proof.
Catherine gave up her education to become her father’s caretaker and has had less than a year of undergraduate study. As the daughter of a math genius, however, she has inherited mathematical abilities that Hal, with his doctorate in math, can only dream about. Catherine’s gift may be a double-edged sword; for Robert, the early brilliance of his career made his mental decline more devastating, and Catherine worries that she will follow in his footsteps: plummeting after a quick meteoric rise.
In contrast, Claire, who did not inherit their father’s genius, is content and stable in her average life. She encourages Catherine to give up the house in Chicago and move with her to New York, a plan that Catherine resents.
The play explores the frailties of the human body, the competitive world of academia, and how we each person has a short window to contribute greatness. Proof comments on the fleeting nature of time, and how easily even a monolith can be forgotten or destroyed.