Art and History

** Note: A few spoilers ahead if you have not yet seen The Farnsworth Invention **

Philo T. Farnsworth examines an image dissector

Frequently at TimeLine we grapple with the issues surrounding the intersection of art and history. The act of dramatizing some part of history is already an act of interpretation, and any two-hour play will not give a full historical representation of events. Some historians might argue that historians have to leave out events as well.

Throughout the early discussions of The Farnsworth Invention with director Nick Bowling and assistant director Bridget Dehl, and later during the rehearsal process, we discussed how many changes playwright Aaron Sorkin made from the actual details of history. We were all reading various histories and biographies and it was clear how many major differences are in the play. Much of our discussions and the actors’ reading of various historical sources influence the performances in this production of The Farnsworth Invention.

There are many details that are changed or streamlined in the play, plus characters who are invented or condensed from real people. The major difference between the play and the history is the outcome of the patent lawsuit.

The lawsuit did take a long time and RCA certainly benefited from lengthy legal proceedings, but Farnsworth did win in the end.  Until his patents ran out, RCA paid licensing fees to Farnsworth. However, because of the lawsuit, and time lost during World War II building radar equipment rather than televisions, Farnsworth was only able to reap the financial benefits of his labor for a few years before the major television patents expired.

April 20, 1939 – David Sarnoff introduces television to the public at the site of the World’s Fair.

It is also important to note how successfully a large company with a broadcast arm could manipulate the new media it was helping to create. Years after Farnsworth had first demonstrated his television, Sarnoff and Zworykin presented television at the World’s Fair. Publicity stunts like this and Sarnoff’s continued presence in the television industry contributed to the lack of recognition Farnsworth received for his invention.  That would be a much more complicated story to tell in a two-hour play.

Sorkin has responded to critics of his work that his role is not that of the historian or the teacher. His role is to entertain. He is quoted in a September 27, 2000, interview with Terrence Smith on the PBS program NewsHour:

“It raises a question, and it also raises a problem, which is that, as I said, my first, if not only, obligation is to entertain. A news organization has a much different responsibility. I might not be telling you the whole story. I might not be telling you a story in a manner that is properly sophisticated. I would hate for anyone to limit the scope of their education on a subject to me. And, frankly, every teacher I’ve ever had in my life would agree with what I’ve just said.”

Sorkin does not see himself as bound to deliver a history lesson, in spite of the amount of information he gives in the play.

Playwright Aaron Sorkin

In fact, in the play, Sorkin raises questions about the history being presented on stage. Sarnoff questions the story about Farnsworth starting George Everson and Leslie Gorrell’s car. Farnsworth questions Sarnoff’s claims about receiving the names of the survivors of the Titanic. Later in the play, after the trial, Sarnoff says, “It might not have happened like that.” After the imagined meeting between Sarnoff and Farnsworth, Sarnoff turns to the audience and says, “I never met Philo Farnsworth. I just made that part up.”  The play itself engages in a story of competing histories and questioning motives and the source of a story.  The play cues the audience that they might not be getting the whole story.

Because of TimeLine Theatre’s mission, this is not the first play we have produced that has a complicated relationship to the history. Tesla’s Letters, Hannah and Martin, The General from America and A Man for All Seasons all engage in the imagined conversations of historical events to tell a story. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen goes through three different imagined versions of a conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg that was known to have taken place but not recorded, and which was the subject of much discord between the two physicists later in life.

This is not to minimize the importance of history. This is why we devote so much effort at TimeLine to discussion of the historical resources, and why we develop information for the programs and lobby and online in the study guides. All so that these are conversations we can have not just in the rehearsal room or production meetings, but also with audiences.

Maren Robinson is the dramaturg for TimeLine’s The Farnsworth Invention.

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Comments (0)

  1. driver49

    I have posted my response to “Art & History” at

    Yes, it’s a bit of a read, but all the points need to be made.



  2. Masha Peacocke

    Yes, it’s a bit of a read, but all the points need to be made.

  3. John Sterling

    To Driver49 –

    Thank you for pulling together an extensive history (and defense) of Philo Farnsworth and his inventiveness. A noble cause…

    Your critque, however, of both Ms. Robinson’s blog post here, and of TimeLine’s production appears to miss the point both she and the Theatre (via its extensive study guides and lobby displays) are making here. They are pointing out quite directly that Sorkin’s play is not true to the historical facts. They have gone to great lengths to provide those historical facts to interested audience members. TimeLine and its dramaturg have done – in as close a proximity to the play as they could – exactly what you are asking for. Namely, they have set the historical record straight for all to see.

    If on the other hand you believe that small theatre companies should re-write the scripts of Tony and Academy Award winning playwrights, you may be harboring unrealistic expectations. Or, perhaps your larger point is that the inaccuracy in Sorkin’s play is so egregious, that no one should produce it at all.

    Frankly, I found the play both compelling and entertaining as presented by TimeLine. As a subscriber, I was aware of the inaccuracies before ever taking a seat. And, the fact that children can tell you who invented the telephone and the radio, but not the television, is all you need to know about how successful Sarnoff was in muddying the waters regarding who invented television.

  4. Tom Brennan

    A playwright who writes about historical characters while turning the real story on it’s head and then pleads “he isn’t giving a history lesson” is being dishonest. To be honest he must leave the basic core of the true story intact. Either that or write about fictional characters.