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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ada and the Memory Engine: Love by the Numbers

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 6:30 PM

click to enlarge Ada Lovelace (Kathryn Zdan)and Charles Babbage (Kevin Clarke*) in Lauren Gunderson’s new play, Ada and the Memory Engine. - JIM NORRENA
  • Jim Norrena
  • Ada Lovelace (Kathryn Zdan)and Charles Babbage (Kevin Clarke*) in Lauren Gunderson’s new play, Ada and the Memory Engine.

“Between zero and one lies a universe,” says Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (the graceful Kathryn Zdan) in Central Works’s Ada and the Memory Engine, which opened at the Berkeley City Club Saturday. Zero and one are a common couple in our times, but in Victorian England, where the play is set, they were not yet known as the pair that makes things happen.

Ada herself was known as the only legitimate offspring of the poet Lord Byron, and, late in her brief life, as a the collaborator of Charles Babbage (played with disheveled brio by Kevin Clarke), creator of the Analytical Engine, a forebear of all the gadgets that talk back to us now. I have to offer kudos to playwright Lauren Gunderson, who manages to make dialogue between two mathematicians “poetical” (to use one of Ada’s terms for herself). Zdan and Clarke make a marvelous pair of zealots, and when they describe a machine bigger than a ballroom clacking and banging, solving problems and making music, their enthusiasm is infectious (whether such a machine is your dream or your nightmare). Their love for one another, which the play suggests was romantic yet unconsummated, is also well played, and serves as the through-line of the plot.

click to enlarge JIM NORRENA
  • Jim Norrena
Yet here is where I wonder something — is it not possible for a play about two geniuses egging each other on to be wise and witty (as this one is) without this particular through-line? It would be a different play — and this one is definitely worth seeing, don’t get me wrong. In the program notes, Gunderson says that Lovelace and Babbage’s “mutual great respect” must lead to love “who knows what kind…but love indeed. The one thing that numbers cannot describe.” I know what she means, but I don’t entirely agree, although my argument is about to get circular. 

What numbers can’t describe (but can serve) is poetry. Poetry and its more obviously mathematical comrade, music, are much discussed in this play. Ada’s mother Annabella Byron (Jan Zvaiffler) has made a point of having Ada study math and music rather than “romantic things” such as poetry. Her hope is to distance her daughter from her wild poet father, so that Ada will marry well. Ada’s friendship with Babbage is a threat to her mother’s plans. Here is a plot device that works as well as the romantic love of Ada and Charles to move things along. Who knows if the real Annabella had such objections. More importantly, who knows if we will ever be free of the question of romantic attachment that seems to arise, in some form or another, in nearly every story we tell. I don’t have the numbers on that, but bear with me.

Ultimately, the weakest scene in this very strong work comes at the end. It is a Schrodinger’s cat sort of scene. Ada, who is dying of cancer at 37, has a vision of zero and one as she steps into another realm — someplace between the binaries of math and music, life and death. She understands the generative power of the binary, and for the first time in the play, she sings. She is joined by a man who might be her father, Lord Byron (Josh Schell), and they have a talk about other binaries, such as “want and ought.” The dialogue is well-written and well-acted, as it is throughout the play, but in this scene most of it seemed unnecessary. This is a play about the coexistence of apparent opposites such as woman and man or math and poetry, and the fact that notions of duality might mask an underlying common essence. I was moved by Ada and the Memory Engine to think of alternative possibilities, including an ending where the music and lights might be hinted at, but are mostly left for the audience to imagine. I recommend that you go see Ada and the Memory Engine and decide for yourself whether or not a little bit of Broadway/Disney suits this very smart and skillful Victorian parlor drama.

As far as I know numbers can’t yet write a play (go ahead AI geeks, tell me I’m wrong). But even if they could, they could not perceive its charm. In honor of where numbers and the intellect fall short, I'll quote Adrienne Rich's poem “The Innocents”:

For apprehension feeds on intellect:
Uneasy ghosts in libraries are bred—
While innocent sensuality abides
In charmed perception of an hour, a day,
Ingenuous and unafraid of time.

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Elizabeth Costello


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