Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention

A couple of days after seeing "The Farnsworth Invention" at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, I took the NBC Studios tour, which begins with a short film about the network and its origins. There's a quote from David Sarnoff, the founder of the National Broadcasting Company, talking about television's potential. “It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in the troubled world."

In Aaron Sorkin's play, Sarnoff, portrayed by Hank Azaria, is less the visionary idealist waxing poetically about the new medium, and more the hardheaded, ruthless businessman trying to turn the new medium into a profit source. It's a stark contrast with Philo T. Farnsworth, played by Jimmi Simpson as a technological wizard who doesn't have a clue about the cuththroat realities of the business world.

While I enjoyed both performances, I knew Hank Azaria from movies and television. I was unfamiliar with Jimmi Simpson, and he's quite a revelation. I thought he was terrific - a mixture of boyish charm, scientific know-how and real-world naievete.

The race between the two men to invent television - and claim credit for the invention - is at the heart of the play. Each acts as narrator for the other's life story.

So we learn how the young Sarnoff and his family faced persecution in Russia, and became part of the wave of Jewish immigration to New York City in the early 20th century. Farnsworth, born in Utah, grew up in a farm family in Idaho. From an early age, they fell into the roles that they would assume as adults - Sarnoff as a businessman, Farnsworth as an inventor.

While David C. Woolard's costume design isn't very flashy or showy, it helps to accentuate the differences between the two men, as does Mark Adam Rampmeyer's hair and wig designs. Sarnoff is all slicked back hair and finely tailored suits. Meanwhile, Simpson's coiffure looks a little unruly and uncombed, and his clothes always appear slightly unkempt, like he got dressed in a hurry. He's a man for whom personal appearance is clearly an afterthought, while Sarnoff never forgets the importance of a good presentation.

Azaria and Simpson are fascinating to watch as Sarnoff and Farnsworth. Their dress, their manner of speaking, their body language, offer a study in contrasts. Sarnoff is brusque and blunt and and forceful and knows his way around the boardroom. Farnsworth has a certain gee-whiz boyish quality as he rushes around on stage. He may be a scientific genius but he doesn't know very much about how to impress potential investors.

Of course, I have no idea how close these two portraits hew to reality. I've never been a big fan of Aaron Sorkin's television work. I find it melodramatic and and corny and some of his characters stereotypical.

And with Sarnoff especially, he veers dangerously close to a stereotype. He seems to want to blame Sarnoff for selling out the hope that television could be a force for good in a changing world, that if only he'd shown more backbone, we'd have better-quality programming, less fluff. In Sorkin's view, Farnsworth is clearly an angel, a babe in the woods taken advantage of by ruthless corporate interests.

In addition, I felt a little cheated to learn that a key scene in the play is a total fabrication. It's impossible to know how much of the story really happened the way Sorkin presents it, and how much of it is embellished for dramatic purposes.

Also, since much of the story revolves around science and the intricacies of patent law, there's quite a bit of exposition, more telling the story than showing it. And I found some of the technical jargon a bit hard to follow.

Still, despite those quibbles, "The Farnsworth Invention" is a fascinating portrait of two men who ushered in a technology that changed the way we look at each other and at the world, bringing us to places that we'd never seen before, giving us experiences we've never had before.

It's interesting how these two men of very meager backgrounds symbolize two very different American experiences in the early part of the 20th century - East Coast and West Coast, urban and rural, immigrant and native born. Television, by creating a common American culture coast to coast, would play a great role in reducing those differences for future generations.


Mike said...

Simpson was fantastic. It's about time he got a role worthy of his skills.

Esther said...

I totally agree. I was a little concerned beforehand because I'd never heard of Jimmi Simpson, but he totally won me over as Farnsworth. Of course, he also has more to work with. In the play, his life has more ups and downs than Sarnoff's, who's basically on an upward trajectory from the moment he arrives in New York City as a boy.

driver49 said...

Which scene left you feeling cheated because it was "total fabrication" -- and how did you learn that it had been fabricated?

If you'd like to know precisely how the play twists the facts (and arrives at the wrong conclusions, based on false premises), try this unofficial site:


Esther said...

Thanks for the comment Paul. I don't want to give too much away, but it's obvious the scene is a fabrication because Sarnoff tells us.

I'm assuming you haven't seen the play, but maybe you've read about it. Is there one thing in particular that you think Sorkin gets wrong?

I will check out the site. I'm always interested in how closely movies, television shows and plays about real people and events adhere to the truth. I often enjoy doing further reading on the subject, and I'm sure I will on this topic, too.

driver49 said...

Oh, I've seen the play a time or two. I should have realized the scene you are referring to is the meeting between Farnsworth and Sarnoff, after which Sarnoff says "I just made that up." But that gets me wondering: do people think that scene is the only fabrication? Does declaring it as such within the play itself compel the audience to think that scene is the ONLY fabrication? If you've seen that website, then you know.... that is most assuredly not the case.

Esther said...

I looked at the web site briefly, and I see what you mean.

I'm not sure whether people think there are other things in the play that are fabricated or twisted around.

I try to go into things like this with some skepticism, realizing that it is drama. But yeah, I did leave the theater kind of wondering how much the portrayals of Sarnoff and Farnsworth adhere to reality.

I think Sorkin is trying to accentuate the differences between them so much, almost making it into a battle between good and evil, that he runs the risk of making them stereotypes.

Like I said, I've never been a big fan of his tv work, because I think he does tend to be melodramatic.

What did you think of Jimmi Simpson's performance? Did you think he kind of captured the essence of Farnsworth's personality?

driver49 said...

I have actually always been a fan of Sorkin's work (I guess I like melodrama?) and was pleased when I first learned this was a project he wanted to undertake. But since I've always thought the power in this story was in its "actual facts," I'm a disappointed in the outcome.

I do think Jimmi Simpson is terrific on stage. I don't think he captures the essence of Farnsworth because the part is really not written that way (portraying him instead as an 'alcholoic loser' as one blogger put it...). But given what he's got to work with I think Jimmi is outstanding and this should be a career-launcher for him.

But Philo T. Farnsworth should be remembered for being brilliant -- truly gifted -- determined, and capable in the extreme. He should not be remembered as a stumbling alcoholic who didn't have a clue past his initial inspiration.