Stephen Abbott is Professor of Mathematics at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, USA. In 2010 he spent some time as a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH and worked on the early stages of the book.
Q: Stephen, what is The Proof Stage about?
It’s about the interactions between mathematics and theatre, starting at the beginning of the last century with the explosive debut of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and continuing up to the present. Other playwrights who have engaged with mathematics include Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Felix Durrenmatt, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, and Simon McBurney. Following the mathematical thread that inspired these groundbreaking artists leads to a fascinating story about the impact of mathematics on the history of modern drama.
Q: What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?
Many years ago, a colleague in our theatre department asked if I would come to talk to her cast about a new play she was directing. The play was Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. I was a well-behaved mathematician at the time with no academic background in theatre, but I was open to the adventure. One pass through the script and I was hooked. I went to my colleague’s rehearsal and told them that mathematics was doing something in their play that I had never seen it do, and that perhaps theatre was too. This was the beginning of a long journey that included co-teaching courses on science theatre, reading and attending plays, and eventually directing some productions of my own.
Q: Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?
Although mathematics has a reputation for being a bastion of certainty, this story is centered around the theme of uncertainty. As a practicing mathematician and barroom philosopher, I agree that mathematics is the best candidate we have for a form of absolute truth. In fact, it is precisely its austere reputation that makes the fractures in the history of mathematics such potent inspiration for the artists persistent enough to discover them. Polish playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz used the non-Euclidean revolution in geometry as a model for his experimental theatre of ‘pure form’. Samuel Beckett found common cause with the self-referencing paradoxes of modern logic. Felix Durrenmatt was captivated by the non-orientability of the Mobius strip. For Michael Frayn it was quantum uncertainty; for Simon McBurney it was Cantor’s revolutionary exploration of the infinite. Tom Stoppard spent several decades searching for a play about mathematics, finally succeeding with Arcadia when he encountered modern chaos theory and the threat it represented to Newtonian determinism. Mathematics, more than any other discipline, is adept at identifying its own shortcomings, and this introspective acuity has proved useful to playwrights engaged in their own brand of introspection.
Q: In your view, wherein lies the book’s main contribution to our understanding of theatre and mathematics?
In terms of its scholarly contribution, The Proof Stage is the first book in the expanding field of science theatre to focus exclusively on mathematics. That said, this book is by no means addressed exclusively to this academic community. I have tried to write a self-contained story with no prerequisites—accessible to someone who has never opened a copy of Euclid’s Elements or seen a Beckett play. I hope it will prove useful to scholars, but my target audience is a general reader with an inquisitive mind who is maybe even a little bit sceptical that mathematics and theatre have much of anything to offer each other. Central to the book’s narrative is that this interdisciplinary interaction is very much a two-way street. My first revelation was discovering the substantial role mathematics has played in shaping the agendas of some of the most important playwrights of the last century. My second was the unexpected portrait of mathematics that emerged out of its portrayal on the stage. After several decades of studying and teaching mathematics, the subject I knew best was suddenly full of mystery.
Q: What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book?
The transcendent truths of mathematics possess an aura of permanence and inevitability. Theatre, meanwhile, is ephemeral by nature, its reliance on live actors and an audience anchoring its focus squarely on the human present. The stark contrast between these two art forms turns out to be the source of their collaborative energy. Mathematics may be the most pure and abstract form of knowledge, but on stage all knowledge becomes self-knowledge. The great upheavals in the history of mathematics that appear as limitations or imperfections—the discovery of irrational numbers, alternate geometries, paradoxes of the infinite, incompleteness and chaotic dynamics—are transformed by gifted playwrights into clarifying insights about the human journey.