An Actress see The “Invention”

Here’s a blog post from Naiomi’s acting journal that  somehow manages to capture all the upsides and downsides to Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway play.  I hope the author will forgive me for quoting it almost in its entirety, with comments:

So yesterday my acting class went and saw “The Farnsworth Invention.” I loved it! It was an awesome show. So the play was about philo T Farnsworth (played by Jimmi Simpson) and the great race to produce a device that sends pictures from one place to another. And the play shows how incredibly bright Philo was. In 9th grade he drew his science teacher a picture of what a machine that could send moving pictures from one place to another would look like.


One of the things that makes the play challenging for anybody familiar with the actual story is that it starts out so seductively; As the blogger says, the opening seens are a heart-warming rendering of the actual facts. 

… as the play progresses you see how David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) takes advantage of Farnsworth. Sarnoff manages to create the first machine that could give a very clear picture of an object. But only by basically stealing information from Philo. (Farnsworth had created, years earlier, a machine that could produce a picture but it was of very poor quality and the amount of light needed to create a clear picture would be enough to blind a person).


And that’s where things start to get a bit scrambled.  Farnsworth’s "machine" proved the principal of electrical scanning.  As I have said many times, that was "a breakthrough of epic proportions," regardless of its light-sensitivity.  Sarnoff and RCA had to begin with what Farnsworth achieved, and could only build on that.  From that beginning, RCA produced some advancements that improved light sensitivity, but so did Farnsworth, and the play completely overlooks that point and to the contrary makes Farnsworth seem inept and confused. 

Over the years, RCA built its entire "we invented television" campaign on the improvements it made to Farnsworth’s breakthrough.  The play only perpetuates that myth.

…Many times during the play Farnsworth turned to alcohol to deal with his increasing stress and powerlessness.


It’s encouraging that the writer arrives at that conclusion.  Yes, Farnsworth turned to alcohol later — in the mid-1930s — as a coping mechanism, but the play portrays him as "under the influence" from almost the moment he gets funding to begin his work, which was simply not the case.


A memorable line that Sarnoff says towards the end of the play is, “I burned down his house, so he wouldn’t burn down mine.” When Sarnoff was 10 he saw his home burned by a Russian solider. He and his family had to flee the country. I guess Sarnoff was not going to let that happen again. He was not going to let Farnsworth burn down his house-his company.

<*sigh*>  So this becomes the theatrical Sarnoff’s justification for his actions.  The historical problem is that scenario is not consistent with the facts.  Sarnoff’s family left Russia more or less voluntarily; there is no evidence that their house was ever burned down in a Cossack raid.  So this story point is allegorical, at best. 


I loved how the play was organized in such a way that Sarnoff would tell Farnsworth’s story and Farnsworth would tell Sarnoff’s story and there would be moments when one would try and correct the other or times when Sarnoff and Farnsworth disagreed about an event that happened.

I agree, the two "unreliable narrators" is a very effective dramatic device.

I don’t know. The play just got to me. It just hurts me how a person can invest so many years of their lives in something only to have it fall apart. Only to find out that all those years were wasted. Yes without him we may not have had television but look at the price Farnsworth had to pay.


My contention has always been that the real loss in this story comes later, when Farnsworth’s entrepreneurial freedom has been compromised (actually, for a lot of reasons, David Sarnoff was just one of them) and he is unable to bring his Second Great Invention to fruition.  In the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth developed a nuclear fusion process — based, ironically enough, on discoveries he made while trying to improve the light sensitivity of his camera tubes.  Had that invention proven successful, we would have a clean, safe, and virtually inexhaustible source of energy and global warming would never have become the problem that it is today.  But that’s a subject for another essay.

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