God Is in the Numbers.
Hypatia has been spotted, alive and well, in New York City. In Mac Wellman's latest play, Hypatia, or The Divine Algebra, produced at Soho Rep last spring under the direction of Bob McGrath (using the cast from the Cambridge, Mass.-based ART Institute's workshop, directed by Jennifer Kiger), this Egyptian teacher, astronomer and mathematician is more than a central character--she is a high priestess. Wellman's telling of her death and her life and legacy is as devout as any Catholic Mass and as much of a litany.
It's been 1,585 years since Hypatia was attacked near her home in Alexandria, Egypt, flayed with oyster shells, dismembered and burned. Who the original culprits were--or why she was murdered--isn't as important to us, at this point, as the fact that her persona is still vivid and compelling. Why is that? The days have passed when her gender, coupled with the simplistic motive for her cruel death--she was a brilliant woman killed for her brilliance--would have been subject enough for a drama. At least one interpretation of her death has nothing to do with her gender: According to this view, she was sacrificed as a hero for her addition to pure knowledge and the passing on of that gift for the future.
In Wellman's play, she is the bringer of a numinous world that has its own discrete, complex and beautiful language--the language of signs and numbers--expressed in the play's shamanic verse. This language is spoken by a range of characters, from the Empress Basilissa to a friendly oscilloscope that is always onstage, its green lines pulsing as its machine-like voice contributes to the narrative. In spite of the cruelty of the death of its title character, Wellman's play has a hopeful message, one that could comfort most post-20th-century survivors. It is spoken by Hypatia as a benediction: "Imagine a line with an origin at the point zero, running through the integers one, two, and so on, all the way to infinity. Call this the real number line. No matter how close two numbers be, others are always between them. Fractions, integers, rational and irrational. The continuum is established."
The reappearance of Hypatia in the year 2000--and, more generally, the growing appeal of math and science as subjects for drama--reflects a real need for heroes, a yearning for something that can't be destroyed, that is immutable. The science of mathematics satisfies the human drive for a connection with something sacred and gives a modem audience a new language of metaphor and direct poetry that can awaken, comfort and illuminate the physical world and its connection to the numinous.
IN A WORLD WHERE ESTABLISHED religion and political theories have taken a beating and come out sullied by compromises, failures and hypocrisies, the realness of the real number line and the immutability of prime numbers have a strong appeal. And the seekers of such things can certainly seem heroic.
Our heroine Hypatia appears again as a namesake for Hypatia Vazsonyi, a mathematical prodigy in Rinne Groff's amazingly complex and layered The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, premiered last spring by Target Margin Theater, in a production directed by David Herskovits. Since his legendary Titus Andronicus, which splashed all over the Lower East Side with a cast of 26 (including playwright Groff), Herskovits has shown his facility with big plays with big canvasses. In The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, with a cast of 18 actors, each of whom plays one character only (no doubling), he helped tell several stories, including the romance of a famous turn-of-the-century mathematician, Moses Vazsonyi, and his love-starved wife.
Just as passionate as this human love story is the relationship that the play's mathematicians have with numbers--specifically, prime numbers, which Vazsonyi calls his "hysterical girls." Prime numbers cannot be divided evenly, except by the number one or themselves, so there is an obvious immutability about them. As for the word "hysterical," if it refers here, as it usually does, to wild, uncontrolled feeling, it also points toward the etymological root hystera, the Greek for uterus, a primary place for creation. Both concepts apply to Groff's play and Herskovits's production. The play and production are sui generis and filled with wild, uncontrolled feeling, expressed in constant activity and words that spill off the stage.
What is the incredible draw of prime numbers? Groff's Hypatia speaks at the end of the play about a very special prime number, one that is a palindrome, a prime number that reads the same backwards and forwards: "But 191 is prime, not because we think it so, nor observe it--it is an eternal breath afar from empiricism--but it is so. Mathematics is built that way. You cannot destroy that. You cannot destroy that."
IMMUTABILITY IS ALSO THE attraction of mathematics in David Auburn's Proof, which after its premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in a production directed by Daniel Sullivan, begins a Broadway run on October 10. The play focuses on a great mathematics professor's daughter who, just as those around her begin to have doubts about her sanity, unearths a saving validation in the form of a notebook containing what may be her father's greatest proof. The true authorship of this proof serves as an apotheosis for the character and gives her something permanent to hold on to.
The fact that the plot of this successful play centers on the ownership of a mathematical discovery, as opposed to a screenplay, symphony or business deal, says much about Auburn's recognition of the importance of mathematics in our culture. Haunting all this, of course, is the figure of Einstein, who bequeathed us not only a formula often bandied about like a motto or little prayer ("E=[MC.sup.2]"), but also the concept of "relativity" (although the casual interpretation of the term is not quite what Einstein meant). Most telling is the use of Albert's last name as a general term for "genius."
Paul Dirac, perhaps the greatest mathematician of our times, is purported to have said that "If God spoke, he would speak in mathematics." If mathematics is indeed the language of God, then physics is His music. Physics has, of course, been a rich subject for playwrights before. Because of his intelligent use of chaos theory in Arcadia (another Hypatia-haunted play), Tom Stoppard was acclaimed by physicists and was even invited to one of their conferences. More recently, Susanna Speier, author of Greenland Y2K, and director Melissa Klievan have been collaborating on a piece that fuses the subject of string theory (a candidate for the Theory of Everything) with the story of the birth of video games and the discovery in the Hadar desert in 1974 of Lucy, the 3.5-million-year-old Austrolopithecus afarensis. Brian Greene, author of the recent bestseller The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, is collaborating on this work-in-progress, called Project Lucy.
The past century saw the arguable deaths of two gods--the Judeo-Christian god of the Bible and that almighty blueprint for social justice, Marxism. In the aftermath of these deaths, science has yielded some amazing discoveries--particle physics, DNA, genome theory--and offered a vision of the physical world as awe-inspiring and terrifying as that of any biblical story. The moral and ethical questions of science are as profound as those explored in classical drama, and a modern audience may find it relatively easy to identify with the former--the success of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which explores the ethical dilemmas of nuclear scientists, suggests that this is the case.
So the world of mathematicians and scientists, packed with resonant images and inherently dramatic dilemmas, is clearly emerging as a new vital area for drama to explore. Hypatia says it best in Rinne Groff's play: "We crave deeper symbols, for we wrestle with Irrational Magnitudes." Hypatia is back speaking to us with great energy, leading us into the future, urging us to be alive and well, again.
Constance Congdon has written more than 20 plays, three of which center on science: No Mercy (the story of the test of the first atom bomb), One Day Earlier (the story of Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner and their work in nuclear physics) and The Automata Pieta (in which a Barbie doll and complexity theory collide).
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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