
Re: [HM] Mathematics as Theater
Posted:
May 4, 2000 7:32 AM


Michele Emmer wrote (1 May 00): << I can suggest the play of Tom Stoppard "Arcadia" based on a girl, clever mathematician, 18th century. Lord Byron is also in the play, more or less. Of course there is a connection with the daughter of Byron Ada. >>
Is it worth distinguishing, for our present discussion, between plays setting out to provide a conscious serious historical interpretation (such as Whitemore's Breaking the Code and Brecht's Galileo) and those using history in a more deliberately playful or plundering kind of way? Stoppard's brilliant Arcadia, in which an early C19 English girl discovers chaos theory, plucks mathematical ideas and conceits in a synchronic way in order to create a stunningly imaginative piece of theatre, not to present or reinterpret history of mathematics in any recognisable way. Problems only arise if a text intended to be in the first category strays into the second without knowing that that is what it is doing. I was recently sent a draft film script "Evariste Galois a la Vie, a la Mort" which contained a scene between Galois and Cauchy, in which Galois explained to Cauchy that a group is a nonempty set with an operation which is closed, associative, . . . Speaking of Ada, a recent film which has attracted some attention is Lynn Hershman Leeson's 'Conceiving Ada' (USA 1997), starring Tilda Swinton as Ada Lovelace. This is also in the second category, a film with modern & scifi resonances rather than a historical study. 'Breaking the Code' is no less brilliantly theatrical than 'Arcadia', but more consciously sets out to be true to the life and work of a historical figure (based on Andrew Hodges' acclaimed biography of Turing).
Michael Lambrou wrote (2 May 00): << I have not seen a copy of this, but judging from a few lines mentioned in a talk I recently attended, I would think that many eyebrows would be raised if performed at school: The scene was on a Greek island were Niko (who did not speak English) lying in bed with Alan, kissed him and then said in Greek (which Alan could not understand) how clever Alan was...>>
It could be that that scene taken in isolation would not work in a school classroom in some countries, but generally students would only be studying it in the context of the play as a whole. The scene is dramatically crucial in exploring how Turing was forbidden (by the authorities whose pressure arguably contributed to his death) to tell anyone about his wartime work, and fulfilled his need to communicate about it by telling someone who couldn't understand what he was saying. (And is also, of course, a dramatic device to enable Turing's ideas to be explained to the audience.) The experience of myself and others is that the play works very well to read in class (of an age able to be interested in Turing's work and ideas in the first place), leading into good discussion and understanding of Turing's work and life and the interaction between the two in a way which no other teaching strategy has been able to elicit so efficiently. (In any case it is not clear why a scene in which men kiss should raise more eyebrows than the scenes of murder (Archimedes, Hypatia, Galois) and suicide (Caccioppoli, Turing) which are thought suitable for students.) Of course it is well recognised that historical plays say at least as much about their context of composition as about their ostensible subject: Brecht's Galileo is a comment on midC20 European politics as much as on C17 Italy, and Breaking the Code speaks to a late C20 awareness of the interaction of intellectual achievement and personal situation.
Ivo Schneider reported (2 May 00): <<There is also a novel "Archimedes in Alexandrien (Alexandria)" by the amateur mathematician Egmont Colerus which appeared in 1939. This is an outrageously trivial lovestory: Archimedes comes to Alexandria, falls in love with the most beautiful woman of his time, . . . Archimedes is not only spoilt by his beloved lady and a host of slaves but also creates all his mathematical works mostly when dreaming in her arms.>>
Another work in the same vein is Pietro Francisi's 1960 film 'The Siege of Syracuse', in which "Archimedes was engaged to the daughter of the king of Syracuse but had a fling with Diana, the product of which was young Marco. Years later, Archimedes comes to Rome, meets Diana and memories come flooding back." Another Archimedes novel is Andre Suares' 'Helene chez Archimede' (Paris 1933), an account of which by Dennis Simms appeared in BSHM Newsletter no 34 (Summer 1997), p.36. Maxwell's Demon is one of the characters, and the second (1955) edition had illustrations by Picasso. Perhaps what is of most interest to us is not any particular version of Archimedes, but the fact that his life and work are such fertile ground or springboard for so wide a range of interpretations.
From the educational point of view, it may be worth observing that constructing a play or dramatic experience in class may be even more valuable, for many purposes, than reading a play written by someone else. A good book in this context is Eileen Pennington and Geoff Faux's ". . . No royal road to geometry" (Dalston 1999), in which teachers of middle school children are encouraged to create dramatic scenarios around Euclidean geometry and ancient Alexandria. An important report of experiences with a higher age range is that of Maria Victoria Ponza on the way she helped her pupils in Cordoba (Argentina) develop greater confidence and enthusiasm for mathematics through working with them on devising and producing a play about the life and death of Galois. This work, and the text of the play, appear in her article 'A role for the history of mathematics in the teaching and learning of mathematics: an Argentinian experience', Mathematics in School vol 27, no 4 (1998), pp. 1013. Ponza further reports on her work, and there are other things to the same end, on pp.335342 of the forthcoming ICMI Study "History in mathematics education" (edited by John Fauvel and Jan van Maanen), 436 pages, to be published by Kluwer this summer.
John Fauvel

