Friday, December 7, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention

It’s a tribute to Aaron Sorkin’s talent that he could write a play filled with lots of talk of science and technology about a subject I am not the least bit interested in -- television -- and have me completely involved. He does this by telling the stories of two brilliant, driven men and the conflict that divides them.

Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson, in photo), a boy genius from Idaho, invented television as a high school student in 1927. David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) was a Russian immigrant who fled the Cossacks as a child and ended up as the head of RCA and founder of NBC. The legal fight between Farnsworth and RCA became known as one of the great, tragic examples of legal and industrial force combining to crush a rightful patent owner. The play, under the direction of Des McAnuff, is a fast-paced presentation of a race to produce an invention that would change the world forever, as these two men battle one another to be first.

Azaria and Simpson are excellent, as are all the cast members. Sarnoff and Farnsworth narrate parts of each other’s stories before they are enacted, which adds to the sense of competition. In these parallel lives we see young Farnsworth present his high school science teacher with the whole year’s worth of homework on the first day of school. He only wants to work on his invention, television, a name he coined using the Greek “tele,”meaning from a distance, with vision. He knows he can make it happen; he just needs time and financial support. 

Sarnoff’s story is more dramatic, including his escape from a shtetl and resettlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he obliterates his accent by the time he’s 14. Through smarts and chutzpah, he works his way up through the communications world, starting as a clerk in a telegraph office where he is the only one to present the names of the Titanic’s survivors after muscling all the other companies out of the way. It’s natural for him to head from there into radio, where it’s interesting to see how passionately he opposes using the airwaves to promote products; he wants music and news. “It’s gonna change everything,” he says. “It’s gonna end ignorance and misunderstanding.” That gets a laugh. If only he had been able to achieve that goal we wouldn’t have to suffer through all those commercials now to listen to our news and music!

My sympathy, and I’m sure most people’s, went to Farnsworth as we see him get screwed out of his patent by Sarnoff. But then, “Farnsworth” is too good a play to be that black and white or sentimental. As my friend Trixy Treat e-mailed me this morning: “I woke up thinking about the play and still am, so that is a good sign of how much I enjoyed it.  What I woke up chewing over was the thought that the forces that go into successful invention and possibly creation are not always good ones.  As the story is laid out, it is unlikely that television would have arrived when it did if it had not been for the addition of Sarnoff's total drive for power and success.  I shall be wrestling with this one all through the day!”

How many plays can you say that about? All too many are forgettable even before the next morning. I never saw Sorkin’s other play, “A Few Good Men,” but I saw the movie and found it a lot more involving that I thought I would considering it’s a show about a military court trial. I’ve never seen his television shows, but I know many people loved “The West Wing.” Television for me exists only so I can do my Pilates, yoga, power body sculpting, dance and cardio workouts now that I’ve dropped my gym membership. I couldn’t watch it even if I wanted to because I don’t have cable and where I live in Manhattan you can’t get reception of even the main networks without cable. That’s why I said it would be unusual for me to be interested in a play about television. But I was -- from start to finish.

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