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Anti-Frank Capra: The Farnsworth Invention

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageAaron Sorkin’s new play The Farnsworth Invention puts the apology back into apologia. It’s also the best writing I’ve seen from him and the best play I’ve seen in years.

Before I go on, let me qualify those last two statements. The only Sorkin works I’m familiar with are A Few Good Men (I read the play and saw the movie) and The American President. The one episode of The West Wing I’ve seen was the largely improvised presidential debate between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits. I’ve never seen any of Sports Night or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

I also haven’t seen a straight play of this stature in about 10 years. Los Angeles isn’t a great theater town, and besides a couple touring Broadway musicals, I hadn’t seen any big-time professional theater since a summer abroad in London back in 1998.

Lastly, this was my first Broadway play – and am I ever glad it was.

Going into this play, I was vaguely aware that the inventor of the television was a guy named Philo T. Farnsworth and that Farnsworth had only received due credit for his invention recently (I seem to remember a tribute to him during an Emmy Awards ceremony). The delay in recognizing Farnsworth was because someone had beat him to the invention, but it wasn’t like Elisha Gray, who simply lost a patent race to Alexander Graham Bell – someone had really fucked over Farnsworth.

Sorkin tackles this story in his new play, which pits two competing narratives – and narrators – at each other. One narrator, unsurprisingly, is Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson, Zodiac, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a hayseed savant from Idaho who transmitted the first TV image but never made a cent from his invention. The second narrator – and the guy who fucked over Farnsworth – is NBC founder and radio-telecommunications pioneer David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria, who’s been in a bunch of stuff you’ve probably seen, but in case you can’t remember, he was the butler in The Birdcage). Side note: I had the good fortune to see this play with my girlfriend, who happens to be a distant relative of David Sarnoff.

This play’s success hinges on a key narrative choice Sorkin makes, but before I explain what it is, let me praise Sorkin for going back to his chief inspiration, Frank Capra, and writing a play worthy of the label Capra-esque. If this play had been made as a movie back in the 50s, I could totally have seen Cary Grant play Sarnoff and Jimmy Stewart play Farnsworth – but let’s take a look at this production’s two leads:

I first saw this play’s Farnsworth, Jimmi Simpson, on FX’s gleefully deranged sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he plays the leader of a proudly inbred and incestuous trio of siblings, so needless to say, I was surprised when his performance in The Farnsworth Invention made me flash on Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. This role challenged Simpson to produce a performance that combines aw-shucks charm with Asperger-syndrome quirks, all while still producing a credibly sympathetic hero. He does all that and more. A favorite moment: When he drunkenly stumbles over something and gestures at the ground, mumbling, “Whoaaa, lot of gravity right here.”

Azaria got tasked to play a role that could easily descend into Lex-Luthor-style scenery-chewing, but instead he plays it – well, he plays it like he’s the hero. Remember when I said this play put the apology back into apologia? Get a load of this: Sorkin gives this play to Sarnoff. It’s Sarnoff’s story, Sarnoff’s defense, Sarnoff’s play. Yes, both Sarnoff and Farnsworth narrate and comment on each others’ lives and argue over how certain events went down, but Sarnoff opens the play, closes and play and is the only narrator with the ability to make up scenes, a device that Sorkin uses to great effect to give Sarnoff the power to deliver a play-length defense of his actions – and apologize to Farnsworth.

That’s the great narrative choice Sorkin makes.

But it gets even better. When I called this play Capra-esque, I wasn’t being entirely honest, because Sorkin’s choice to build his story around a defense of Sarnoff transforms his play into a fascinating and moving exercise in anti-Capra pragmatism and penitence. It’s like watching a retread of the events in It’s A Wonderful Life where Mr. Potter explains himself, and even though you don’t leave the theater thinking George Bailey is an asshole, you realize that Mr. Potter had a life and a family and his own hopes and dreams.

So how does Sorkin do it? By reigning in his Aaron-Sorkin-ness and delivering a lively, generous play that’s filled with big ideas and big words.

But whoa, whoa, whoa – what the hell is “Aaron-Sorkin-ness”?

Based on my aforementioned encyclopedic knowledge of Sorkin’s work, I’ve found that Sorkin, like any writer, has a bag of tricks he goes to. His most common tricks include:

• Big, histrionic speeches. You know the ones. Everything from the gooshy leftist rabble-rousing of The American President to “You can’t handle the truth!”

• The Aaron Sorkin “Fuck you!” Go back and watch A Few Good Men and The American President. Do you see how Sorkin short-circuits two perfectly good scenes with an intemperate “fuck you”?

• The Aaron Sorkin Five-Minute Delay. This is a tougher trick to spot, because it lurks in the deep background of Sorkin’s work. Here’s what it is: You know how when you get into a fight and you say something stupid (or nothing at all) at a crucial moment, only to think of the perfect comeback five minutes after you walk away? Sorkin’s characters come factory-equipped with that five-minute delay. I mean, really – Daniel Kaffee gets a decorated Lieutenant-Colonel to confess to murder on the witness stand and still has the wherewithal to come up with a stinger like, “Don’t call me son. I’m a lawyer and an officer in the United States Navy. And you’re under arrest, you son of a bitch.” Oh, please.

That said, Sorkin can’t help but indulge in some of his trademark cutesy repartee, but gone are the histrionic speeches. May they rest in peace. In their place, Sorkin had no choice but to write vast swaths of exposition, which Azaria and Simpson handle with grace and enthusiasm.

In fact, let’s talk about the enthusiasm in this play. In his author’s note, Sorkin explains that in his research, he found no consensus on the exact events depicted in then play. He further recommends that those interested should hit their local library and read about Farnsworth and Sarnoff.

ImageWell said, sir. Like I said, Sorkin writes about big ideas (science, invention, betrayal, passion) with big words, and even though he concedes that he probably didn’t get the whole story onstage, he didn’t write this play to teach us everything about the struggle between Farnsworth and Sarnoff but to spark our interest to learn more about it. Now listen, I admit this is a fine line. When an artist depicts a historical event, they run the risk of fooling ignorant or apathetic audience members into taking their work at face value, but I’m going to hazard to guess that the crowd who would attend a Broadway play would be far more likely to answer Sorkin’s call to learn.

In any event, Sorkin’s writing brims with geeky enthusiasm for the story. When Sarnoff introduces a young Farnsworth to the audience, the nine-year-old Farnsworth is about to ask his basic science teacher a mind-blowingly complicated question about the nature of light. As Farnsworth asks the astonishing question, Sarnoff interrupts the narrative twice to remind us that the kid is nine and that he’s about to ask his question in the middle of Bumblefuck, Idaho. Throughout the play, Sarnoff pauses the action to comment on Farnsworth’s genius.

And that’s not all. Sorkin guides us through the births of RCA and NBC – both of which Sarnoff had a major hand in – and by showing us Sarnoff’s passion for technology, innovation and entertainment, Sorkin slowly and quietly makes us sympathize with a hard-edged, square-jawed, cigar-chomping, pinstripe-suit wearing ball-buster who destroyed the life of one of the 20th century’s great inventors.

Over on the Farnsworth side of the action, we get to see him fight for his “eureka” moments, all of which are rousing, but I’d like to single out one great scene:

Sorkin assigns Farnsworth to walk us through the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression. Farnsworth interrupts the flow of the play to explain this event, tacitly suggesting that the tanking economy spurred Sarnoff to double his efforts to lay claim to the invention of TV. Sarnoff tries to stop this scene, of course, but Farnsworth persists in explaining the arcane inner-workings of Wall Street – and it’s fucking magical.

In case you can’t see the pattern here, let me explain: Sorkin gives his two narrators vested interest in teaching the audience about the events and ideas depicted in the play, and by doing so, Sorkin alchemizes exposition into high drama.

Sorkin’s use of the competing narrators also makes this story into a truly satisfying play, meaning that as opposed to his stage script for A Few Good Men, Sorkin really wrote this one for live performance, not the camera – even though he came close to just writing another screenplay.

Keeping in mind that I’ve never seen A Few Good Men in performance, let me explain: The stage script for A Few Good Men features dozens of characters and settings and further asks that a production company build a multi-tiered set with stairs between each level. I’m sure it works fine onstage, but in the same way that Bernard Shaw’s dense stage directions revealed his failed ambition to write novels, Sorkin’s elaborate narratives (and sets) betray his natural skill for screenwriting.

The Farnsworth Invention also unfolds on a two-floor set with stairs between each level. In addition, a company of 22 actors portray at least 30 different people in dozens of settings that include classrooms, labs, boardrooms, an opera house, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and various interiors at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. This play is very close to being a screenplay, and hell, I’m sure it’ll make a great movie, though I wonder how Sorkin (or another screenwriter) would handle the overtly theatrical device of the competing narrators?

If this ever gets made into a movie, perhaps the filmmakers could take a few cues from the underrated TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, which chronicled a similar struggle for technological supremacy between Microsoft chieftain Bill Gates and Apple high-priest Steve Jobs. The characters in Pirates of Silicon Valley often address the camera, and various key events remain clouded in ambiguity. Here’s a clip:

But even though both Farnsworth and Sarnoff get to control the narrative of The Farnsworth Invention at different points, Sorkin made Sarnoff the center of this play, and as such, only Sarnoff has the ability to invent scenes, a combo of goodness that puts The Farnsworth Invention into the same thematic territory as another Capra-esque classic: Field of Dreams.

Sarnoff invents two scenes, both near the end of the play. The first scene takes place after the final court ruling that gave Sarnoff, et al, the primary patent for the invention of TV. During this scene, Sarnoff pledges to Farnsworth that he’ll be a “worthy custodian” of his invention. The scene ends with them shaking hands. Naturally, this all starts to smell of bullshit, and Sarnoff calls himself on his own shenanigans.

Later at the end of the play, Sarnoff tells us about how Farnsworth died drunk and penniless. Sarnoff then delivers the one, true big speech in the play, but unlike so much of the garbage Sorkin has written before, this one soars. Sarnoff tells us how he likes to imagine Farnsworth hard at work on a formula for cold fusion while watching the Apollo 11 rocket lift off – and he finally explains himself.

“I burned down your house before you could burn down mine,” Sarnoff says.

Field of Dreams is about a lot of stuff, but its most resonant theme to me is the virtue found in righting an old wrong. Field of Dreams author W.P. Kinsella takes up the cause of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the rest of the so-called Chicago “Black” Sox, who threw the 1919 World Series, and he gives them one more chance to play. Along the way, Kinsella gives an old ballplayer one more chance to shine on the diamond, and he lets a father reconnect with his son.

The David Sarnoff of The Farnsworth Invention spends two hours lionizing Philo Farnsworth, taking care to demonstrate to the audience that this corn-pone Idaho hick was a genius on the order of Newton and Tesla. Sarnoff also seeks resolution with the Farnsworth of his memory and grants Farnsworth a shining moment of triumph right before curtain call.

But as compelling as these characters are, they aren’t real. Sorkin made all these choices and conjured all these images, and by giving Sarnoff a chance to right his old wrong against Farnsworth, Sorkin tries to right the old wrong that history had done to Sarnoff.

Maybe Pottersville wouldn’t have been such a bad place to live after all.

 

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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