Theater archives

A Disappearing Number Displays Effects That Don’t Add Up to Much


Complicite is a British theater company with, inexplicably, a French name—one that I often translate as “Guilt,” since I blame the troupe for wasting about 18 hours of my theatergoing life in recent years. The company’s preferred form seems to be the overlong, intermissionless one-act, which spares it the embarrassment of seeing audience members stream for the exits at intermission. Its mode of choice is a watery paste of image theater and narrative, usually with some kind of scientific or historical material dropped in to provide a hint of substance, and heavily decorated with multimedia effects. The results always make me think of those restaurants where every dish is elaborately decked out to conceal the meagerness of the portion.

The meager portion of theater that Complicite has served up for this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, A Disappearing Number, toys with two stories, one historical and one fictional, both dealing with mathematicians. The historical segments concern the improbable bonding of the Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy (1877–1947) with Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920), a largely self-taught young Brahmin who, while earning a meager living as an accountant’s clerk for the Madras Port Authority, evolved, working alone, theories, particularly involving number sequences, that have had a lasting effect on mathematics and physics.

Hardy, one of several prominent Cambridge scholars to whom Ramanujan sent his early work, was at first the only one to recognize it as the product of a genius rather than a crank. He invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work in tandem with him; this took elaborate persuasion, since the Brahmin caste then had severe restrictions concerning travel across water. Though deeply religious, Ramanujan nonetheless isolated himself from his caste in 1913 by joining Hardy at Cambridge. The outbreak of World War I kept him there for the next six years, under extreme difficulties. The two men’s collaboration was intense and fruitful, but Ramanujan had great trouble coping with the English climate and adjusting his vegetarian dietary habits to his new situation.

Both men were notably eccentric figures: Ramanujan, a loner and dreamer, underwent shock and confusion from English cultural patterns, with which Hardy, a chronically shy and self-deprecating man who made friends only with difficulty, could barely help him cope. In 1920, Ramanujan returned to India, where he died soon after, in part from malnutrition and ailments acquired in England. Hardy, deeply grieved, later wrote that he viewed their work together as “the one romantic incident” of his life.

For those who can’t understand the larger implications of the mathematics involved—which means most of us, myself included—this is a small, poignant story that might have made an effective (small, poignant) two-character play. Thinking in more grandiose terms, Complicite doesn’t so much dramatize the story of Hardy and Ramanujan as announce it, in tidbits and flashes, out of sequence, bolstered with projections, and sound effects, and onstage images. They supply few details about the two men; one can actually learn more from the brief Wikipedia entries on them than from sitting through A Disappearing Number‘s intermissionless 115 minutes.

Little or no attempt is made to delve into the depths of these two contrasting personalities or to sketch the background, highly remote from audiences now, of Cambridge during World War I, with its antique traditions cracking under wartime stress and privation. Unanswered questions abound: Weren’t there other Indians at Cambridge with whom Ramanujan could find some kinship? Given Ramanujan’s dietary difficulties, couldn’t Hardy, whose few close friends were Bloomsburyites like Maynard Keynes, have linked him up with some English vegetarians, such as Bernard Shaw?

Instead, Complicite carpenters up a patchy contemporary story, partly to parallel the Hardy-Ramanujan saga and partly to funnel us information about it. In this second plot, Ruth, a mature mathematics professor fascinated by Ramanujan’s work, is courted by Al, an Indian-American hedge fund trader who is equally apathetic, for reasons never made clear, about his Indian heritage and the mathematical passions of the woman he loves. (One of their bitterest quarrels is about his ongoing refusal to read Hardy’s memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology.) In scenes that criss-cross those of Ramanujan’s story, and, like it, are often presented out of chronological sequence, their relationship cements, breaks apart, miscarries, and is disrupted by travel ending in death. (Perhaps unconsciously, the show seems to equate going to India with preparing to die.)

Though charmingly, and often movingly, played by Saskia Reeves and Firdous Bamji, these scenes fail to come off because their presence in the event feels too patently rigged. We never really learn what could bring this oddly matched couple together, or how the scrambled scenes of their relationship—each chosen, in the way of actor-created pieces, for whiz-bang theatrical effectiveness rather than meaning—add up to a narrative. Its nebulous substance tends to make their whole drama look like another multimedia gimmick, another distraction to keep us from noticing that the ostensible subject—what Hardy and Ramanujan created together—is being asserted rather than explored. Audiences, ever good sports, cling eagerly to such assertions; as a result, you might come away feeling rather indignant at how little they get for their efforts.

A famous quote from Hardy, reiterated in the show’s text, says that “a mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns.” But surely this statement, while handily revealing the Romantic-Victorian side of its author’s temperament, contains a logical flaw: Mathematics, being a scientific system that exists, however abstractly, as an underpinning to reality, its patterns must already exist. Scientists don’t create them but discover them; they are, as Hardy was able to show Ramanujan, subject to proof. This is not the same as writing Leaves of Grass or painting Guernica, works that did not exist, except as the unformed impulse to create, until the artists had produced them. Their worth cannot be proven, as theorems can, by scientific means applied objectively. In trying to transform a relationship based on mathematics into art, Complicite has slipped through the gap in Hardy’s reasoning. Its pretty patterns may all mean something mathematically; artistically, they don’t.