It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Farnsworth “Controversy”

Dave Sikula, center of controversy.

Ever since I was a wee small child, I wanted to direct a controversial show.

I don’t mean just a show that some people might like and others would feel non-committal about. (“Yeah, it was okay, I guess …”)

I wanted fistfights. I wanted riots. I wanted a production that was interrupted by shouts and blood and police being called.

Now, I didn’t want extreme bloodshed or extended mayhem; I wanted something like the opening night of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” where the shouting of the two rival factions in the audience drowned out the orchestra, or the opening of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” which caused actual riots and which was dismissed by the head of Sinn Féin – not exactly the most sensitive of groups — as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” (And who wouldn’t want to seethat show?).

Booooooooo!

Booooooooo!

While I’d prefer not to go to the extent of the Astor Place riot of 1849 (where at least 25 people died because of groups arguing over which of two actors playing “Macbeth” was better), I’d still have settled for the nightly police raid that greeted Cal State Fullerton’s production of “The Beard” in the 70s (mentioned earlier on my own blog).

This was apparently supposed to make people not want to see it.

This was apparently supposed to make people not want to see it.

The problem is, given the nature of the plays I’ve directed at the companies I’ve worked for, that kind of reception is unlikely. Is anyone really going to get that upset over “Run for Your Wife” or “Copenhagen” or “Long Day’s Journey?” People may leave if the show isn’t to their tastes, but they rarely rise to the point of fisticuffs.

Okay, the wigs aren't that good, but we didn't use them in the show, and they're not worth rioting over.

Okay, the wigs aren’t that good, but we didn’t use them in the show, and they’re not worth rioting over.

I always thought it would be hopeless. Until last week.

It finally happened, and who knew it would be Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” of all shows?

 There are a lot of bad theatre publicity photos out there (see above). This isn't one of them.

There are a lot of bad theatre publicity photos out there (see above). This isn’t one of them.

When I was approached to do the show a year ago, I thought it might be problematic for artistic reasons. The script started life as a screenplay, and, as anyone who’s read my Facebook comments about “The Newsroom,” “The West Wing,” or – especially – “Sports Night” knows, I’m not Sorkin’s biggest fan. In fact, I downright loathe his television work. It’s been demonstrated how he repeats dialogue and phrases from show to show and how he has trouble writing for character; everyone on his shows sounds like everyone else. His biggest sin (in my opinion) is how he can’t end things; but lets them drag out long past the point at which they should have been resolved. Long-form is not his forte.

His stage- and screenplays are different animals, though; they’re much tighter and taut, and the character differentiation is clear. I think it’s, like the prospect of hanging, the prospect of knowing he needs to get an audience out in a couple of hours focuses his mind wonderfully.

The plot of “The Farnsworth Invention” deals with Philo T. Farnsworth, a farm kid from Utah and Idaho, who devised the first practical electronic television system. There had been previous successes with mechanical television – which involved a spinning disc that gave a blurry picture at best – but Philo’s system scanned an image electronically, a method that’s still used today, even with high-definition equipment. Philo’s arch-enemy (in the play and in life) was David Sarnoff, the head of both RCA and NBC, who had an obsession with controlling broadcast media, especially television. He wanted control over all the patents involved, and if he didn’t employ the scientists who invented the necessary equipment, he’d either buy out the original inventor, take that inventor to court and either break them financially or wait out the patent’s exclusivity period of 17 years, or just outright steal the invention.

Mechanical television. Yeah, it didn't work well.

Mechanical television. Yeah, it didn’t work well.

When Farnsworth wouldn’t sell his patents, Sarnoff flat out stole the technology. Philo took him to court, and was eventually declared the inventor of television. The problem with the play is that Sorkin has the judge in the case declare Philo the loser.

It took me forever to figure out why Sorkin did this. It’s a clear break from the historical record, and makes little sense in the overall context of the play. When I finally did understand his motivations, I got it, but still questioned his methods. Regardless, even if I were allowed to, I wouldn’t have changed the text. I’d have had to rewrite the last fifteen minutes, which would be illegal, impractical, and (frankly) inept. I can write, but not as well as Sorkin. We actually approached Sorkin and his representatives to try to get an explanation (not a correction, mind you; just his reasons) and were met with silence.

What we (meaning myself and Palo Alto Players, who are producing the play – at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto – tickets still available here …) didn’t realize until just before the play opened was that there’s a group that is dedicated not only to making sure that Philo Farnsworth has wider recognition as the inventor of television, but that theatres don’t do “The Farnsworth Invention” at all – or, at the very least, that they don’t do it without warning the audience as to its historical inaccuracies. (It may seem contradictory that they’d want to suppress the play, given that it gives so much credit to the unfortunately-mostly-unknown Farnsworth, but as near as I can tell, they find the whole thing too fatally flawed.)

I’ll continue this saga of suppression next time — when there’ll actually be new details.

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One comment on “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Farnsworth “Controversy”

  1. Lennon Smith says:

    I thought he did respond…I read one, didn’t you post it? Someone from the PAP production did.

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