Aaron Sorkin Gives 'Farnsworth Invention' Its Due

Jimmi Simpson i i

Speculation and Invention: Aaron Sorkin's new play showcases Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) — the self-taught inventor who scored the first all-electronic image transmission in 1927 — in an imagined conversation with his greatest nemesis. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Jimmi Simpson

Speculation and Invention: Aaron Sorkin's new play showcases Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) — the self-taught inventor who scored the first all-electronic image transmission in 1927 — in an imagined conversation with his greatest nemesis.

Joan Marcus
Hank Azaria i i

Hank Azaria plays David Sarnoff, the ambitious radio and television pioneer who became ensnarled in a patent dispute with Farnsworth. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Hank Azaria

Hank Azaria plays David Sarnoff, the ambitious radio and television pioneer who became ensnarled in a patent dispute with Farnsworth.

Joan Marcus
Aaron Sorkin

Farnsworth marks the Broadway return of writer Aaron Sorkin, whose play A Few Good Men premiered there in the late 1980s before being translated for the big screen. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Aaron Sorkin is best known as a television writer and producer — most notably as the creator of the Emmy Award-winning series The West Wing. But he got his start on Broadway 19 years ago, with the play A Few Good Men. He's back now with a new play, The Farnsworth Invention, which happens to be all about television.

About the television, that is — as in the box itself. And why not? It's hard to think of a more ubiquitous device. They're in our living rooms, our dens, our bedrooms, even in our kitchens and baths sometimes. Some houses have more TVs than people.

"I make my living in television, I love television, I'm a TV addict," says actor Hank Azaria, who stars in The Farnsworth Invention. "I was raised on television — and I didn't know about this story until I read this play."

The Farnsworth Invention is based on the true story of the birth of television and the battle to control the patents for it. Core to the play are two strong characters.

Philo Farnsworth was a self-trained scientist who grew up on a farm in Idaho; he came up with the first workable idea for television. David Sarnoff was the Machiavellian visionary who was one of the founders of RCA and NBC.

Convinced of the potential power of television, he tried to steal Farnsworth's invention.

Aaron Sorkin says that, according to his research, Sarnoff clearly won the battle.

"There are about a half-dozen books written about Sarnoff, about half a dozen written about Philo," Sorkin says. "If you read any of the books about Philo, Sarnoff is a huge character. He's a Darth Vader character in these books.

"If you read any of the books about Sarnoff, if Philo is mentioned at all, he gets one sentence."

But each man, in his own way, was essential to the development of television.

"They were able to see things that others weren't able to see," Sorkin explains. "Primarily, in this case, they were able to see what television was gonna be. Where everyone else just saw, as they say in the play, that it was just gonna be "a parlor trick for a bunch of rich people," these two saw that, one day, every house was gonna have one. And this was gonna be, simply, part of our water supply."

Sorkin says he was initially approached to do a movie about Farnsworth. But a few days after he signed with the studio, he realized the story could be told more effectively as a play.

"Philo and David Sarnoff never met each other, so in the movie there was no way to get them talking to each other," he says. "In a play, you can do whatever you want. So I came up with the notion of the unreliable narrator — in this case two unreliable narrators, each narrating each other's story, accusing the other of lying, of getting things wrong ... and kind of dueling it out through the end, while their stories were being played on a stage.

Hank Azaria plays Sarnoff. He says that normally, doing a play with so much direct address to the audience would be a huge challenge.

"What you hate as an actor is exposition," he says. "You hate having to deliver it; we call it 'laying pipe.' I mean, it sucks.

"And you fight it, and you try to find ways to make it interesting, and you busy it up with an action or with something going on," he continues. "In this play, it's almost — it's probably more than 50 percent exposition — and it never feels like I'm delivering an expository line. I think that that's Aaron's ... dare I say genius? It's at the very least his expert craftsmanship."

And Sorkin has crafted a play of epic size. The Farnsworth Invention employs a cast of 19 actors, playing 150 different roles. Director Des McAnuff stages the play on an ever changing two-tiered set, but one thing is conspicuously absent: a television screen. McAnuff says that was a very conscious choice.

"Clearly, we all know what a television screen looks like," McAnuff says. "So it's much more interesting to see the faces of the people who are witnessing television for the first time."

The Farnsworth Invention was in previews when the stagehands' strike shut down Broadway. After a three-week hiatus, the show opened last night. Producer Michael David told NPR late last week that he was nervous about the effects of the shutdown. Momentum, in particular — that elusive quality, hard to earn and impossible to buy — had David worried for "our little show."

One thing that his little show has going for it is Aaron Sorkin's marquee value, something he has earned with his work on television, where he created Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in addition to The West Wing. He admits it has taken him a while to return to the stage.

"I would have preferred to have come back much sooner with a play, but I didn't have an idea for one," he says. "At the moment, I'm averaging an idea every 19 years. And I'm hoping in the second half of my life, I'll pick up the pace a little bit.

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