[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?
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.]