"The Farnsworth Invention" by Aaron Sorkin is on at the New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney until 13 August 2011. Sorkin is the writer of The Social Network, exploring similar issues here with the invention of television and the effects of technology on the inventors and society.
Last night's performance looked like a preview, rather than the third night, with the actors still getting comfortable with Sorkin's dense dialogue.
The play suffers a lack of cultural context in Sydney. The story would resonate more in the Broadway production in New York, the home of the Radio City Music Hall, NBC and RCA, which are central to the story and US household names. In Australia, these are less well known. Early in the play, one of the characters dismisses John Logie Baird, as someone any "Brits" in the audience might know, but he would be better known to Australians as the inventor of the world's first practical TV system, than the characters in the play.
The story centers around the development of electronic television in the USA and the conflict between Philo Farnsworth's, a self educated inventor and David Sarnoff, President of RCA, over who invented television. Real and imagined scenes show the process of technical invention and business power politics.
Sorkin tries to do too much with in play and it could do with 30 minutes edited out. The explanation of how TV works is not well handled (I felt like there was going to be a test after the show). The explanation of how the stock-market crash of the great depression occurred is unnecessary to the story.
There are insights into today's explosive growth of the Internet in this play. At the Australian National University Research School of Computer Science and CSIRO ICT Center, I am surrounded by people inventing the future. Just about every week I am shown some new computer gadget, to which I mostly respond: "yes, but what use is it to anyone?". Most of these clever inventions will never leave the lab, but a few will change the world (such as CSIRO's wireless networking patent). It is very difficult to tell at the time which will be the successes and which will not.