The Farnsworth Invention is an ambitious
undertaking in which playwright Sorkin aspires to cast himself
alongside such theatrical landmarks as Robert Bolt's A Man
for All Seasons or Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. But
The Farnsworth Invention falls sadly short of its loftiest
ambitions for the simple reason that it is not faithful to its
underlying history. If Bolt and Shaffer had followed the examples
set here, then Sir Thomas More would have lived rather than
losing his head to an axe, or a royal court might have assigned
credit to Antonio Salieri for writing all of Mozart's symphonies
The problem with The Farnsworth Invention
is that it arrives at a conclusion that is contrary to the facts.
In its climactic scene, a
patent court judge says, "priority of invention is awarded
to Vladimir Zworykin" -- the engineer who developed television
for RCA. For an audience that by the end of the second act has
come to think it is viewing a reliable re-enactment of actual
events, this statement does irreperable, almost violent harm
to the truth: In the litigatation portrayed in this scene, the
final decision, delivered in 1935, actually read "priority
of invention is awarded to Philo T. Farnsworth" -- the
prodigal genius of the play's title. The great mystery here
is why Aaron Sorkin -- the man who wrote Jack Nicholson's final
speech in A Few Good Men -- "can't handle
The play's a initial adherence to the actual facts
is seductive: First, we are introduced to Philo T. Farnsworth,
a precocious teenager seemingly sent to this earth with special
gifts that are manifest in an invention that would truly change
the world. Farnsworth's story is interwoven with that of David
Sarnoff, the ruthless and singleminded -- some might say "visionary"
-- president of the Radio Corporation of America, who was determined
that his company alone would be responsible for adding "sight
In the first act, anybody familiar with the story
will be impressed by how well the play follows the course of actual
events. Sure, things are compressed and transposed, and composite
characters are introduced. But the essence of those events is
effectively conveyed: We meet the young genius and learn of his
novel idea; At the same time, we can see the titanic forces that
are marshalling on the horizon that would challenge and ultimately
impede the young prodigy's promise.
And all of this is conveyed with the kind of dense-but-snappy
dialog that Aaron Sorkin is renown for, along with a rich sprinkling
of surprising humor. Mr. Sorkin said once that he was in neither
the Farnsworth nor the Sarnoff camp: "I just hope the jokes
work," he said, and judging from the audience response they
do. The first act is lively, informative, and engaging enough
to lull the the audience into believing that what follows is a
reliable portrayal of actual events. But ultimately, this is entertainment
that betrays its history lesson, and Mr. Sorkin's assertion that
he is in neither "camp" is belied in the way the play
perpetuates RCA's own half-century-plus of revisionist "spin."
In the second act, the underlying issues become
more complex, and the play begins to come loose from its historical
moorings. By the time it reaches its dramatic "courtroom"
climax, the premise is ungrounded and the conclusion, sadly, crosses
a line from acceptable "dramatic license" to an outright
reversal of the historical record.
And if that's not bad enough, the final moments
leave the audience with the impression that Farnsworth was "sad
and desperate" -- as one viewer put it -- unless they take
the time to seek a better understanding of the source material.
To that end, we offer this website, with a scene-by-scene synopsis
of the play, comparing each scene against the historical record.
Aside from its historical revisions,, The Farnsworth
Invention is an impressive production. The performances of
the two principle actors -- relative newcomer Jimmi Simpson as
Philo T. Farsworth and stage-and-screen veteran Hank Azaria as
David Sarnoff -- are thoroughly convincing. They all deserve their
standing ovations. Simpson, in particular, is so engaging on stage
that this event surely marks the arrival of a new star on the
show-biz firmament. The staging is complex but artful, and director
Des McAnuff and his large cast of supporting players have much
to be proud of. And lord only knows what all is going on backstage
as actors and actresses change costumes and wigs and go on and
off stage in a variety of ensemble roles. Hey, it's a good time
at the theater.
We fully understand that history is not necessarily
drama, and that audiences come to the theater first and foremost
to be entertained. But where historical drama is concerned, a
theatrical (or cinematic) experience is most effective when the
action on stage is an accurate reflection of the actual facts.
If you have ever come away from a movie or play that was "based
on a true story," then you have probably asked yourself about
certain scenes, "I wonder if that really happened...?"
The Farnsworth Invention is such a production,
and the pages that follow will attempt to answer some of those
questions for you. START HERE.