In the third of a series of conversations with this year's Pulitzer Prize winners, Terence Smith talks with David Auburn about his winning play, "Proof."
TERENCE SMITH: The prize for drama went to David Auburn for his play "Proof". It's a family drama that unfolds against the backdrop of mathematical theory. The play is a hit at the Walter Kerr theater on Broadway. It's the second full-length play Auburn has written and his first Broadway production. Auburn, who is 31, was born in Chicago and lives in Williamstown. Massachusetts.
TERENCE SMITH: David, welcome and congratulations.
DAVID AUBURN: Thanks very much.
TERENCE SMITH: It must be quite a thrill. Tell me how you heard about the prize and how you felt about it.
DAVID AUBURN: I was minding my own business at home talking to my wife about what we were going to have for dinner and call waiting deep beeped so I beeped over and they said congratulations you've won the Pulitzer Prize. So I beeped back --
TERENCE SMITH: How did you feel. I'm sorry, go ahead?
DAVID AUBURN: I went back to my wife and told her we won. And we decided to go out to dinner.
TERENCE SMITH: I would think so. This was only your second full length play. That is, frankly, amazing.
DAVID AUBURN: Right. My first play was done in '97 off Broadway. The people from the theater that eventually produced "Proof" saw that and encouraged me to submit to them. So that first play did lead pretty much directly to this one.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell as you little about "Proof," what it deals with.
DAVID AUBURN: It's the story of a young woman, Katherine, who has spent years caring for her father who is a brilliant mathematician, and her father began having various kinds of mental illness problems. She gave up her life to care for him. When the play begins the father died. She is sitting alone on the 25th birthday and wondering is this going to happen to me. How much of my father's mental illness have I inherited and have I inherited any of his talent as well? So the play is about a weekend in other life where she is trying to sort that out and she is trying to deal with her sister, who's flown in from New York and she has some plan's for Katherine's life. There is also a character who is a grad student who is a protégé of the father's who is upstairs in the house looking through the dad's papers hoping to find something he left behind. He also kind of has designs on Katherine.
TERENCE SMITH: And, in fact, we have a clip here in which Hal is talking to Katherine and is trying to persuade her to join him to go hear a band. Let's play the clip and we'll hear it.
HAL: Some friends of mine are in this band - they're playing at a bar up on Diversity, probably go on around 2, 2:30, I said I would be there.
HAL: They're all in the math department. They're really great. They have this good song it's called "I." Lower case I. They just stand there and don't play anything for three minutes.
KATHERINE: Imaginary number.
HAL: Math joke. You see why they are way down the bill (laughter).
KATHERINE: A long drive to see some nerds in a band.
HAL: God, I thought when people say that it's not that long a drive.
KATHERINE: So they are nerds.
HAL: They are raging geeks but they are geeks that, you know, can dress themselves (laughter) -- hold down a job at major universities. Some of them have switched from glasses to contacts. Play sports. They play in a band. In that sense they make you question the whole set of terms, geek, nerd, dweeb, Dilbert, paste eater.
KATHERINE: You're in this band, aren't you?
HAL: Okay. Yes, I play the drums.
TERENCE SMITH: David, why did you -- this is a four person play. Three of them are mathematicians, why? Why mathematicians?
HAL: Well, I didn't start with the idea about writing about math but I had this idea that the sisters who would start finding over something they found left behind after their dad's death. Since I also had this idea about someone who was worried that they would inheriting their parent's mental illness, I kind of went looking for the thing that the sisters would find, and it seemed to me that a scientific document or a mathematical document could be really interesting. I thought - you know -- its authorship could be called into question in some interesting ways and the historical fact that a number of famous mathematicians have suffered from mental illness kind of gave me the bridge to the other idea about someone worried about their own mental state. So it just seemed to fit the story that I wanted to tell.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you feel any special burden to explain or make accessible the world of the mathematician to the audience?
DAVID AUBURN: The real trick of writing the play was figuring out how much math to put in it. This ended up being constrained by the story. Since there is a mystery as to who wrote the mathematical proof, I sort of had to withdraw information when I could so that I didn't give away the solution to the mystery but I did try to get in as much kind of lore about the mathematical profession as I could. In that I was helped a lot by reading popular books and spending time with mathematicians. We even had some come in to meet and talk with the cast and talk to them, so that was really the fun part of doing the play, getting as much of the kind of world of mathematics into the play as possible and putting it up on stage.
TERENCE SMITH: As you suggested earlier the essential tension is between the daughter and her late father and her fear, if that is the right word, is it, that along with his possible, his insanity she may have inherited his brilliance?
DAVID AUBURN: Sure, I think in a way the play is dealing in a heightened way with emotions that a lot of people feel about their families - that I think everyone in some ways both worries and hopes to be like their family, to inherit traits they admire and also to avoid being in some ways -- following in patterns that may be they don't like as much. So, "Proof" kind of deals with that question in a slightly exaggerated or heightened way. But I think if there is a reason why the play is connected with audiences, that might be the reason.
TERENCE SMITH: David Auburn how did you get in the business of writing plays?
DAVID AUBURN: I started in college. I didn't know I wanted to be a writer but I got into a student troupe that did comedy reviews. We did sketch reviews in the style of Second City kind of thing. and I started writing sketches, and I found out I liked doing it and I could do it. And the sketches kind of gradually got longer and longer. And pretty soon I had written a play. I kept going from there. I moved to New York and started trying to writing plays and getting them put on in tiny theaters and eventually I got into the Julliard play writing program which was a great kind of incubator - when you're starting out -- it enabled me to write some write plays and have them read by wonderful actors at Julliard. And, you know, just gradually developed enough material and met enough people that by the time I had written a full-length play, I could -- someone could help me put it on.
TERENCE SMITH: Did this play come easily or was it a long labor?
DAVID AUBURN: It was a little bit of both. The first draft came very fast and the whole plot and structure of the play was there from the beginning. I knew what was going to happen in the story and what was going to happen in every scene. So that came quickly then going back through it and really figuring out the relationship between the characters and sort of putting some meat on the bones of the play that I -- the first draft that I had written that took a long time. I probably -- it was probably about nine months or something like that before I had a draft that's substantially like the draft that is in performance now.
TERENCE SMITH: What is next for you? Is it another play? A screenplay, what is next?
DAVID AUBURN: Well, right now I'm doing a screen play adaptation of a novel for a movie company, which is interesting work, but it's not my story. And I hope in months I'll write a new play. With any luck that will happen.
TERENCE SMITH: So we'll get to see a little more of David Auburn on the stage.
DAVID AUBURN: That's my hope.
TERENCE SMITH: That's great. Thank you very much, David Auburn and congratulations again.
DAVID AUBURN: Thanks a lot.