The Farnsworth Invention, a play about the fight over patent rights to television broadcasting has left Broadway and come to the TimeLine Theatre, at Wellington and Broadway in Chicago. I have to admit I have not had time to see the play myself. But when I tell Chicagoans that I am a patent litigator, I an increasingly met with questions about whether I have seen The Farnsworth Invention and recommendations to see it. And an excellent review of the play by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin’s Jerry Crimmins prompted me to write about it. Crimmins’ review is reprinted below with permission. The play ends its run at the end of next week. So, get to the TimeLine soon. Tickets are still available.
Review: Play on patents will entertain those new to the story
By Jerry Crimmins
Law Bulletin staff writer
There’s a play on the North Side about a spectacular invention and the fight over the patent between a hick genius and a New York corporation.
The play was written by the man who created TV’s "The West Wing."
Yet hardly any patent or intellectual property lawyers in Chicago seem to be know about this play.
"The Farnsworth Invention," by Aaron Sorkin, is about the creation of television.
Formerly on Broadway, its Chicago premiere is at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ. The play will run only through July 24 and must close, TimeLine says.
"I was unaware of such a play," said a member of the Chicago Intellectual Property Alliance (CIPA), a common response from attorneys contacted. The play has been here since April.
Another member of CIPA said he could "confirm that many patent/IP practitioners are not aware of this play. …"
"The Farnsworth Invention" combines elements of a docudrama and a biopic with the frenzy of a Marx Brothers movie.
The "play" element, meaning what children do, is prominent in this production, directed by Nick Bowling. Yet the thrust of the play is serious.
It tells the lives of Philo T. Farnsworth (played by Rob Fagin) and David Sarnoff (P.J. Powers).
Half the story opens at the turn of the century with the child Sarnoff — a Russian Jew who would become president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) — meeting the Cossacks.
The other half begins when Farnsworth, who was born in a log cabin in Indian Creek, Utah, meets his high school science teacher.
Farnsworth tells the incredulous teacher about Farnsworth’s detailed plan for a way to transmit moving pictures through the air.
Teenager Farnsworth gives the science teacher a sketch, and the teacher saves it. That becomes a key element in Farnsworth’s court fight with Sarnoff in the 1930s about the patent rights to television.
"The Farnsworth Invention" has almost 40 scenes, lightning scene changes, and 16 actors who play nearly 70 characters.
It takes place in the early days of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention, radio, along with the sinking of the Titanic, Vladimir Zworykin’s application for a patent in 1923 for "mechanical" television, and Farnsworth’s application in 1927 for a patent for his "electronic television."
Farnsworth’s cheap laboratory employs his friends, sister and brother-in-law.
Zworykin, a minor character here, goes to work for Westinghouse and then for the mogul Sarnoff at RCA.
Farnsworth’s success in 1927 in transmitting the first electronic image to a screen is portrayed — great props here — with panic and verve by Fagin and all hands involved.
Farnsworth was then 21.
Sarnoff’s vision of what was to come with both radio and television — his business prowess, drive to be first no matter what and incredible gift for self-promotion — is well-portrayed in Powers’ strong performance.
Farnsworth (Fagin) and his wife, Pem, played by Bridgette Pechman, get the love story. Fagin makes Farnsworth an everyman genius.
The historical sweep of the play also takes in some early legal controversies involving radio, the 1929 stock market crash and its effects on Sarnoff, RCA, and, separately, Farnsworth.
The story covers Farnsworth’s personal problems and a version of the later lives of Sarnoff and Farnsworth. Part of this sweep is achieved through narrations by the Farnsworth and Sarnoff characters.
The play is controversial. This reviewer suggests that anyone who goes to see it avoid all advance study of the lives of Farnsworth and Sarnoff and the court battle.
Sorkin’s play seems intended to entertain and educate people who don’t know the story and want to hear it. The needs of the stage and the compression of this story into two hours and 20 minutes, including intermission, requires dramatist’s tricks.
Once the play has rolled over the viewer in the way the author intended, only then should one read the playbill (an extremely good story in itself), the Wikipedia entry on the play, and comments on the Internet by Farnsworth’s descendants, Kent Farnsworth and Linda Farnsworth.
Chicago attorney Steven G. Parmelee of CIPA, who said that neither he nor many other IP lawyers were aware of the play, said the play needs to appeal to "the spouses of patent/IP attorneys … as they might be fearing a night trapped in a virtual CLE presentation."
In answer to that, this is a real, lively show by one of the leading dramatists of our time.
As a Chicago note, Allen H. Gerstein, a retired name partner of Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP, said he started with the firm in 1962 when it was named Merriam, Smith & Marshall. Name partner Samuel B. Smith "was former head of RCA’s patent department" and "very familiar with the litigation and Zworykin, who Sam considered a genius," Gerstein said.