Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mathematical reality

Was lucky enough yesterday to see an amazing play, one of the best in years, London's Complicite theater and Simon McBurney's "A Disappearing Number," part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Complicité is known for state of the art stagecraft, and it was a stunning show - great acting, amazing stage effects, multi-media, several plots (and time periods) moving simultaneously in the space of the stage. It was also a beautiful and profound story, or stories. What's it about? Mathematics, mathematicians, human beings: its two main plots follow early 20th century Indian genius Ramanajun and a woman who teaches college mathematics today, raising questions of love and belonging, loss and exile, partition, convergence and - the disappearing number - infinity.

One of its subjects is the beauty of mathematics, which it conveys in a manner which reminded me of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" (one of the very best plays I've ever seen) in the way it let the magic of the stage enact mathematical processes, lending each a new vibrancy and beauty. And beauty is truth here. Says an actor early in "A Disappearing Number":

ANINDA: (In an Indian accent.) I'm Aninda, that is Al and this is Ruth. (Pause. His accent changes.) Actually, that's a lie. I'm an actor playing Aninda, he's an actor playing Al and she's an actress playing Ruth. But the mathematics is real.
Complicite, A Disappearing Number (London: Oberon, 2008), 23

The play's other subject might be stated thus: is our reality any greater, in relation to mathematics, than that of actors on a stage? In the sense in which mathematics is reality, truth, beauty, are we real at all? Perhaps the way to true reality is to feel the force of the question.

It gets - dare I say it - pretty religious, the religion of the Upanishads. (If we do Religion & Theater again, maybe we can include this!)

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