Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Mitch Reviews Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention

[Guest blogger Mitch reviews Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention. I make some comments at the bottom.]

Aaron Sorkin's new play The Farnsworth Invention is on Broadway now and in general it's a very brisk, entertaining historical drama. But in the most important ways, it seems, it is the textbook definition of a bad historical drama, in that much of the narrative is completely, utterly untrue. Sorkin is always a hotly debated figure on this blog, so I thought I’d pose the question: if the play is good, does it matter if Sorkin tweaked history to improve the dramatic flow of the story?

Spoilers follow.

When I worked for my old job, one of my tasks was carting scripts around from one Broadway executive’s office to another. Just to make it as surreal as possible, this task was carried out in the company limo. Most of this was painfully uninteresting and anyone who has spent time in a cab in midtown Manhattan at lunchtime can probably imagine how annoying it was. Every once and a while, though, something really neat found it’s way into my lap. One day I was in the limo and I found myself with the manuscript of Sorkin’s new play, The Farnsworth Invention—a historical drama that illustrates the complications Philo Farnsworth endured while inventing and securing the patent for television. Immediately I thought it was a great idea. Here is Broadway playwright cum television producer Sorkin returning to Broadway with a play about television. When Hank Azaria was cast, I knew that I would definitely go see it.

The play is rapid in the best sense of the word—there are over 60 characters in just as many locations. Farnsworth (played by very well by Jimmi Simpson) and RCA mogul David Sarnoff (played by Azaria) counter-narrate the action of the play through five decades. Occasionally Sorkin stumbles into cheesy scenes between two characters where one character starts to leave, but then stops and says “for whatever it’s worth…etc;” but mostly his reverence for the history and potential of television is inspiring. The climactic court case where RCA swiped the patent for television from Farnsworth and left him drunk and depressed left my fiancée and I captivated.

There’s only problem. Farnsworth DIDN’T lose the patent to RCA. While Sorkin’s play makes a brief mention to the fact that there were numerous appeals in the case, the rights were, in fact, eventually sold to RCA. The play is audaciously cut and dry about the matter—Sorkin didn’t trust the audience to grasp the complexity of years of both won and un-won legal battles that would, yes, eventually sink Farnswoth into drunken depression.

I guess I wondered if such a simplification is insulting to the memory of Farnsworth or merely economical storytelling. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wonder long. Pressed by members of Farnsworth’s family, the New York Post (of all places) printed this article.

Not to be undone, Sorkin sent a defensive email to the Farnsworth family member, which the family member posted here. There is also a great review of the play, which compares it to other revisionary historical dramas.

With respect to the members of Farnsworth’s family, I find myself strangely siding with Sorkin on this. Granted, he is quite defensive and in denial in that post, but even so—his ending is KIND OF a better ending for the stage version of Farnsworth. Remember, in real life Farnsworth the underdog won a lot of money and still became a lay-about alcoholic. Dramatically, it was better to me to see Farnsworth definitively defeated in one case, rather than worn down over a couple of decades.

The reaction of Farnsworth’s family reminded me eerily of the fan outcry at the ending to Star Trek: Enterprise, which was almost universally reviled as being untrue to the series. (Look it up on Wikipedia if you are interested: It’s called “These are the Voyages”) All of this led me to wonder about endings in general. In this case, can an ending still be true to the story if it isn’t actually true to the source material?

[I think folks around here will already guess I think it CAN, and also that to a certain extent IT MUST. Oscar Wilde famously complained that the problem with life is that it has not sense of dramatic structure, or proportion, or timing. Art, said Wilde, was our chance to teach life its proper place. That being said, it still may be the case that in Sorkin may have gone too far in simplifying the ending -- not because it is false, but because it suggests that the audience is too dumb to understand complexity. Changing the ending of such a recent piece of history, he should also have been prepared for the backlash -- it is not like he is making 300.]


Chad Nevett said...

I haven't seen the play or read the script, so I can't say for certain, but it seems like this simplification was necessary because of the medium. Representing long, drawn-out court proceedings at the end of a play is very difficult to do without rushing or coming across as cheesy whereas having one situation sum up the entire experience (without actually telling the audience that they're summing it up) seems much more workable. Now, if this was done as a film, I think the real ending could work better since films can get away with adding a screen or telling stating what happened after the film or using montages where plays cannot (at least from what I've read/seen).

But, then again, I could just be talking out of my ass, so...

hcduvall said...

I think the creative impulses might be the same in film, to sum up in a dramatic. Witness the The Aviator, one of the many Scorsese films that makes me sit there and think that he should either cut the thing in half or make a Ken Burns length mini-series.

As for fiction and truth, I’m borrowing the phrase from a Sandman comic, but the power of fiction is that it can tell true things without being true. But another facet is that fiction can play with real people. It’s one thing to write a romance now that says Mary Boleyn left the court to her sister for true love and family, it’s another to make a movie about Jonathan Nash and skip over the abandoned wife and kid who he once told, more or less “I like the new one, he’s smarter” (a Beautiful Mind), for sheer dramatics. Which is a longwinded way of saying these endings may be true the story, but if the story isn’t true to life, then why are you telling it this way? If the story is meant to be saying something else, why not use “pure” fiction? I believe when based on facts it is important to be true—if the ending needs modified facts, the ending isn’t wrong, it’s the story you’re telling that’s broken. It’s like building a stagecoach out of car parts or something. Somebody’s being simpleminded, but it’s not necessarily the driver. It’s a disservice.

I'm not so much arguing against dramatic license, I hope, as contrived simplicity and I realize that Geoff is too, taking it from the audience pt of view. The thing about Wilde’s statement and it’s ilk, though, and this might just be a peeve of mine, is that when melding facts and truth with entertainment and art, that life is complex is the first to fall to “true endings” and commercial drives…People get a lot of their fact from fiction. I let Sorkin off the hook for that astronaut moon urban legend he included in the play (The version I heard had Neil Armstrong, which Sorkin didn’t use, and when I mentioned that to my viewing companion when I saw the play, she figured Sorkin probably had it righter than me—and we were both wrong).

I’ll finish off with another wordy example of things, to say that I know these things are harmless but it’s so easy to lose sight of how easy mixing is (and elsewhen I’d argue unnecessary). So there’s this place in New York hidden away in behind a big curtain, in the middle of the lobby of a swank midtown hotel. The place has vinyl fake wood walls, great burgers, cramped booths, and long lines. And last time I was there a tourist sits down next to my group, he’s an airline pilot, and he says whenever he’s in New York from Israel he gets a burger before he flies out. And the man says how before they built this hotel this divey place with beer pitchers below room service with $20 burgers was here and the owner wouldn’t sell out, so they built around him. Thing of it is, and I didn’t correct him, that’s bull. The place has been open maybe six years. It’s a great harmless story, but it’s marketing. Get in the habit of letting facts go to suit fiction and you can sell anything.