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Television's Birth is Dramatized in The Farnsworth Invention

Through Saturday, May 7 at Visual Arts Collective


In actor, comedian and banjo ninja Steve Martin's first full-length play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein meet in a bar in the early 1900s, debate their views on the nature of genius and creativity, and offer predictions for the 20th century.

"I think we'll see images sent through the air, and the receivers will become so popular that taste will diminish their potential," says one character, predicting television and quickly being poo-pooed by the other characters.

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing and writer of A Few Good Men, sees it differently. In his play The Farnsworth Invention, he says quite explicitly that the invention of television changed everything in the 20th century. And like all revolutionary technologies, it was about getting there first.

The inventor of the electronic television was a resident of Rigby: Philo Farnsworth. The man who took credit for it was David Sarnoff, the president of RCA.

The Farnsworth Invention, which Alley Repertory Theater premiered at Visual Arts Collective on April 29, is a dramatization of the race not just to be the first to invent the technology, but to claim sole credit for it.

"If we make him an offer, it means he invented television," Sarnoff says to another character, explaining why they can't buy Farnsworth's patents.

Sarnoff and the corporate powerhouse RCA were so effective at taking credit that in 1957, when Farnsworth appeared on the television game show I've Got a Secret as Dr. X, none of the contestants knew who he was. Though he eventually won his lawsuits and went on to invent critical components of nuclear fusion reactors, he lost it all and died in 1971 in obscurity.

Sorkin's play is a David vs. Goliath tale of one man, hopeless, outmatched and battling for what he knows is right with his future on the line. It sizzles with Sorkin's trademark banter and manages to teach the audience a thing or two about history in the process.