The Farnsworth Invention

  • Date:
    December 1, 2007
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    Who invented the television?

    Who actually invented television is a debate that has been going on for decades, and the answer you get will depend on whom you ask and what you mean by "television."

    Marconi's invention of the wireless at the turn of the last century sparked many inventors' imaginations, particularly the exciting idea that perhaps photographs with sound could also be transmitted. Among them were Edwin Belin, whose patent involved fiber optics and radar; George Carey, credited for sending components of pictures over a series of multiple circuits; and W. E. Sawyer who suggested that images could be sent rapidly by scanning parts of a picture in succession.

    But who holds the patent that made an inventor very, very rich? The inventor you learned about in high school is probably Vladimir Zworykin. He holds the money-making patent. But that doesn't mean he really was the one who invented television.

    This short history lesson is illustrative of just how complex this issue is, and it serves as prologue for "The Farnsworth Invention," a new play by the writer of "The West Wing," Aaron Sorkin, directed by Des McAnuff, who also directed the megahit, "Jersey Boys."

    It is no small feat to bring history to Broadway and do it successfully -- Tom Stoppard did it with "Coast of Utopia" and so did Michael Frayn with "Copenhagen" -- but Sorkin and McAnuff have managed to create a riveting story by centering it on the parallel lives of Philo T. Farnsworth, a 14-year-old boy genius who was obsessed with the possibilities of image transmission, and David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant credited with creating the television industry. Only towards the end does Zworykin become a major player.

    Sorkin, using his skill with rapid-fire dialogue, breathes life into the originators of the medium that made his own name a household word, and with a bit of luck, might actually bring Farnsworth the recognition he deserved but was denied.

    In a series of narrated vignettes, similar to a GE ride in Disneyland, we witness some of the great cultural events of the first half of the 20th century: music on radio, the opening of Radio City Music Hall, reports of the Titanic disaster, and the Stock Market crash, all interspersed with Farnsworth's struggle to be taken seriously and obtain the financial backing his invention needed -- but without a prototype.

    Up to this point, the play is interesting as you learn something about Westinghouse, RCA, General Electric, Bell Labs and AT&T, a bit like a fascinating college seminar by a charismatic business professor. But it becomes real drama when the patent wars begin, and the real conflict is revealed -- that of an industry giant against a small-town inventor.

    What Sorkin has created is a crafty, fictionalized encounter with these two geniuses who deliver his trademark crackling dialogue and weighty epigrams with great verbal dexterity. Having them both on the same stage discussing each one�s role in the major development of modern culture and society presents a whole new way of viewing television (pun intended), not to mention, theater.

    Hank Azaria as David Sarnoff shows audiences a tight, serious, likeable side of a man who otherwise might be a cold, heartless villain merely out to make millions. Jimmi Simpson definitively recreates the role he originated at California's La Jolla Playhouse as the na�ve, folksy Farnsworth who takes on American corporate giants, but to no avail.

    The David and Goliath theme in "Farnsworth" is pure and heroic, even if the outcomes are not. There is no "happily ever after" in this play, as it ends with more questions than when it began. Such as, "Who invented television?" But it is theater that both entertains and enlightens.

     

     

    What the press had to say.....

    "This two-hour play is a fast-moving sequence of reflex-stimulating information- and emotion-bites. It never pauses long enough to find depth in any of them." & "Mr. Sorkin resorts to the shorthand of biopic clich�s to convey his characters� states of mind. But, oh, how they cloy as they accumulate." & "Having made a great success in television, Mr. Sorkin knows its pitfalls and limitations inside out. But it�s hard to avoid the impression that, for all its high-reaching ambitions, �The Farnsworth Invention� often shares the glibness and reductionism of which mainstream television is regularly accused."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "Sorkin's framework - Sarnoff and Farnsworth co-narrate the story - automatically adds a layer of distance. And though the play is informative, it's seldom deeply involving. Scenes play out like brief vignettes from a History Channel biopic (the story was originally intended for the big screen) without stirring emotions." & "Des McAnuff, who did wonders with "Jersey Boys," has his hands tied by Sorkin's short scenes, which are intended to build momentum toward a showdown that ends up being a letdown."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "It all makes for a decent night out in the theater - especially if you can imagine you're watching a movie."
    Clive Barnes
    New York Post

    "Vintage Sorkin and crackling prime-time theater. Breezy and shrewd, smart-alecky and idealistic, the quick-moving drama presents two sides to the still-contentious story behind the invention of television." & "Satisfying new drama."
    Linda Winer
    NewsDay

    "Sorkin demonstrates his mastery of fluent dramatic structure, his ability to depict characters vividly and, perhaps best, his slick way with dialogue. "
    Michael Sommers
    Star-Ledger

    "Mr. Sorkin has brought over some unfortunate habits from the left coast, including a tendency to create dramatic parallels where none exist and a weakness for soupy background music. But he has also imported his shrewd ear for plotting and his unmistakable flair for well-crafted paragraphs caroming off the halls of power."
    Eric Grode
    New York Sun

    "A lively, extremely engaging new play" & ""The Farnsworth Invention" is one of the plays whose opening was delayed by the stagehands' strike. It was worth the wait. It's a great yarn, masterfully told."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "Intelligent and featuring plenty of witty dialogue, it also suffers from occasional smugness and a tendency toward clunky dramaturgy that detracts from its overall impact. Superbly acted in this ambitious production, it certainly merits respect if not adulation."
    Frank Scheck
    Hollywood Reporter

    "The subject matter here is engrossing enough to yield a multi-episode docudrama, and its content ensures that "The Farnsworth Invention" is never uninteresting. But when the playwright enlists his two protagonists to talk the audience through both the human drama and the scientific back story -- pointedly indicating what's important and what will be later on -- the dramaturgical laziness undermines even the most robust narrative"
    David Rooney
    Variety