David Auburn

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Proof Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Auburn's Proof. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of David Auburn

David Auburn was born in Chicago to Mark and Sandy Auburn. He grew up in Ohio and Arkansas before moving back to Chicago for college. From 1987 to 1991, Auburn attended the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with a B.A. in English Literature. After graduation, Auburn moved to Los Angeles to work for Amblin Entertainment for a year before relocating to New York City where he studied in the Julliard School’s playwriting program. In 1997, Auburn’s first full-length play, Skyscraper, was produced Off Broadway. He then moved to London to be with his future wife, Frances Rosenfeld. While in London, Auburn started writing Proof, which he brought back with him to New York City in 1998. The play was picked up by the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it premiered in the year 2000. Proof won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Since writing Proof, Auburn has written several plays and screenplays. He currently lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughters.
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Historical Context of Proof

Proof explores the sexism that women face in the field of mathematics. Historically, women have been underrepresented in math and the sciences. For hundreds of years, math was seen as an inappropriate topic for women to study, which Proof alludes to when main character Catherine tells Hal about Sophie Germain, a real-life French mathematician who wasn’t allowed to study at universities because she was a woman. Even Germain’s parents tried to discourage her from studying math. Sophie Germain was only able to secure a mentorship by using a male pseudonym, which she did when writing to mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. She made many contributions to the field of mathematics, such as her discovery of specific kind of prime numbers, numbers that are now known as Germain Primes. While women are now allowed to study math and science, many negative stereotypes regarding women’s mathematical intelligence stubbornly remain. These stereotypes and cultural attitudes contribute to the gender-gap in math and science, which still persists today. For example, in 1995 (shortly before Auburn wrote Proof), under 23% of U.S. doctoral math students were female. By 2014, that number only slightly shifted, with just under 29% of doctoral math students being female.

Other Books Related to Proof

Proof’s use of math to explore literary themes makes it comparable to other math- and science-related plays, such as Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia and Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. In both Arcadia and Copenhagen, the playwrights use scientific concepts to explore (among several themes) the topic of uncertainty, which is a topic also discussed in Proof. Auburn’s Proof is a drama about a dysfunctional family, a topic explored in another famous Pulitzer Prize-winning play: August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts. In August: Osage County, characters also deal with a family member’s death, which leads to the unraveling of different family relationships. The Silver Linings Playbook—a book by Matthew Quick that was later adapted to film—is another work that explores family dysfunctionality, as well as the effects of mental illnesses. In addition to Proof, some of David Auburn’s well-known works include Skyscraper, a play about characters trying to save a historic building from demolition, and The Columnist, a drama about real-life journalist Joseph Alsop.
Key Facts about Proof
  • Full Title: Proof
  • When Written: 1997-1998
  • Where Written: London, United Kingdom & New York City, New York
  • When Published: 2000
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: Chicago, Illinois
  • Climax: When Hal tells Catherine that he believes that she wrote the proof
  • Antagonist: Catherine’s sister Claire, Hal (at some points), sexism, and mental illness

Extra Credit for Proof

Cinematic success. Following Proof’s critical success in theatres, David Auburn adapted the play into a film by the same name, which was released in 2005. Gwyneth Paltrow, who starred as Catherine, was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe Award for her performance.

Progressing Primes. In the play Proof, Catherine tells Hal that the largest Germain prime known is 92,305 x 2^16,998 +1. This comment dates the play to the late-1990s, as larger Germain primes have since been discovered. As of 2020, the largest known Germain Prime is 2,618,163,402,417 × 2^1,290,000 – 1, a number that yields 388,342 digits!