Stephen Abbott


Mathematics as Art in Contemporary Theater 

I propose to write a book that explores the rich and evolving intersection of mathematics and contemporary theater. While there are notable plays written about science throughout the previous century, a qualitative shift in the relationship between science and theater occurred sometime in the past decade, following the success of Arcadia (Tom Stoppard, 1993) and Copenhagen (Michael Frayn, 1999). Although very different in structure and subject matter, these two plays manage to fully synthesize explicit scientific ideas into both the theme and mechanics of the performance, and the result is a new kind of theatrical experience that has captivated audiences and scholars.


In the decade since Arcadia and Copenhagen, theater has seen a proliferation of successful plays employing scientific characters and metaphors. An attempt at sustained critical analysis has followed in the wake of this phenomenon, and my desire is to build on this foundation, focusing my efforts more specifically on mathematics, an area within science theater that has received scant scholarly attention thus far.

How has theater engaged mathematics and what are the particular implications of this engagement on our understanding of the human experience? My work to this point has produced a series of distinct responses, but they are united under the general theme that mathematics is an aesthetic discipline, fully equipped with its own standards for beauty and driven by a search for truth not grounded in utility or application. This poetic quality of mathematics, so well hidden in our educational system, is the basis for a surprising collaboration with playwrights.


To be clear, this is not a case of theater simply mining science for interesting characters, or mathematics exploiting theater for valuable exposure. What happens in the best mathematical plays is that the metaphors work in both directions as does the sense of illumination. This cross-pollination is most easily experienced in plays with explicit mathematical content or characters (A Disappearing Number, Proof) but it can also be analyzed in relation to form. In fact, a defining trait of modern science plays is the successful way in which they exploit the merging of form and content. What is significant is that 20th century mathematics—and in particular mathematical logic—is also characterized in part by investigations into the consequences of merging form and content. These structural similarities extend the discussion far beyond the interesting but limited list of “math plays” and reveal a kinship between drama and mathematics that exceeds every expectation.

A course I have developed with a colleague in Middlebury’s Department of Theater has been a component of a major multi-institutional project called “The Forum for Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education,” and feedback from several recent conference presentations on my research is encouraging. This positive response stems from a recognition that theater has provided a medium where the theoretical benefits of an interdisciplinary approach can be fully realized, largely because both sides of the intellectual culture gap recognize that they have much to gain from the collaboration. The majority of the activity in science theater is happening in the UK, and it would be a sincere privilege to spend part of my 2010—2011 sabbatical year at CRASSH engaged in this ongoing work.


Stephen Abbott (Middlebury College) is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Michaelmas 2010.


Visiting Fellow


October 2010 - December 2010