Farnsworth vs. Sarnoff, Fact vs. Fiction

Farnsworth vs. Sarnoff, Fact vs. Fiction

by David N. Rogers, Production Dramaturg

Philo T. FarnsworthThe Farnsworth Invention is about a struggle over a legacy. Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff are locked in a struggle about history and what it will remember. But the play itself injects all sorts of unfactual elements into the story of the invention of television, which exist seamlessly alongside careful biographical and historical work. What kinds of fictions exist in the play, and why? And what are our responsibilities, as theater artists and audiences, to plays dealing with history that, for some of the people affected, is all too recent?

The play includes various small inaccuracies, inventions, and omissions alongside truthful details - most of them innocuous. But some changes are drastic and surprising. In fact, the play’s climax, the moment in the script right at the end where the victor of the conflict between Farnsworth and Sarnoff is determined—and if you’re reading this before seeing the show, you’ll know the moment when it happens—is based on a real historical event. Except, in the play the outcome is completely reversed. What happens in the script is actually the opposite of what really occurred.

Why such a major diversion from history? Because the play is about the entire rivalry between Farnsworth and Sarnoff, and their ultimate fates. The struggle between them played out in the press, in the marketplace, even at the World’s Fair. The play doesn’t touch on all of these, but it uses part of the story to communicate the whole. It’s a distillation of complex events into a fast-paced, punchy play—not accurate, one might say, but still true.

But, if we take the question of who invented television seriously, is that sort of treatment really enough? After all, the principal characters aren’t inventions. Philo Farnsworth’s wife Pem passed away in 2006, and her husband’s legacy was a huge part of her life up until the end. Pem never saw this play, but her surviving family don’t like it, in large part due to historical inaccuracies, including the one at the play’s climax, which (they argue) denigrate Philo and his contribution to television—one more insult after 80 years of contention over his legacy.

Not everyone agrees with the Farnsworth family’s estimation of the play, and no one is obliged the join in their verdict—especially as artists and audience members drawn to Aaron Sorkin’s well-crafted script. But we do have an obligation, perhaps, to be aware of what we watch or create and what we take away from it.

In the play, the character of Sarnoff sees in television and radio an incredible potential for education and enlightenment, but underestimates the danger that people would use these new media to manipulate. Theater has always had the same power, and the same dangers, and as audience members and artists we should take stories like The Farnsworth Invention as the start of a conversation about history, not the last word.