An alien civilization coming upon human cultural history might think that until the 20th century, only men could be scientists. In fact, at least since Hypatia’s day, many women have contributed to the fields we now abbreviate as STEM. It’s just that history has tended to overlook them.
The first half of the 18th century was a time of scientific ferment in Europe. What was then called “natural philosophy” aroused great passions among the leading intellects of the Western world, spurring international competition, formal and otherwise. Among the male figures we associate with that intellectual milieu – Newton, Leibniz, Bernoulli, Franklin – one woman stands out. She was celebrated in her time but later mostly relegated to footnotes. Happily, the important contributions and fascinating life of Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749) have re-emerged into the limelight in recent times. Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson is just one of the artistic treatments this fascinating figure has received.
The illuminating and finely chiseled NYC premiere of the play is now at the Flea Theater through April 30. With Broadway-worthy skill and imagination Kathy Gail MacGowan directs a superb cast of five, eliciting performances that measure up to the production’s high bar.
Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet
The conceit, while far from original, serves well a centuries-old subject whom we can really only know through her writings and documented relationships: Émilie (a bravura turn by Amy Michelle) looks back from beyond the grave at her life, work, and loves. The dramatic foci are two: Voltaire, Émilie’s longtime lover and collaborator (a vivacious, elegantly randy turn by Nigel Gore); and the concept of force vive, or living force. Force vive was an important element of the contemporary debate about measuring and explaining the forces of nature, the field we now call classical physics.
Period music dances into a hushed sonic landscape. Subtle lighting cues distinguish rapidly advancing events and changing moods. Mathematical equations glitter against the backdrop, where Émilie keeps a running tally of points scored by love and points scored by philosophy as her story plays out. In the end (or so it seems), she concludes that the only thing you can count on “to be there for you – is physics.”
But then there’s a soft-focus, feel-good ending, which feels deserved (by Émilie) but a bit cheap and treacly from an audience standpoint. Happy ending or no – and it wasn’t, she died in childbirth in her 40s, a dangerous age for pregnancy back then – the life portrayed in the play is a rich one, if over too soon.
The term “natural philosophy” was a good one, as the realms of science and what we now think of as philosophy were far less distinct than they are now. The Marquise’s best-known works are her French translation of Newton’s Principia and her own 1740 book Foundations of Physics. Yet even Wikipedia calls the latter her “philosophical [emphasis added] magnum opus.”
Gunderson‘s nimble script has Emily‘s husband and the other less central characters – the actors play several each – darting in and out of the action with kaleidoscopic but focused momentum (angular and otherwise) as Emily lays out the highs and low points of her life story. The excellent and droll Erika Vetter plays the “living“ Emily – the “force vive“ version, you might say – in the vignettes where she must physically interact with the other characters, notably Voltaire.
But it’s Michelle, who is on stage pretty much the whole time (including, in a clever bit, part of the intermission), who plays opposite Gore in the scenes of intellectual and emotional importance: their long extramarital affair, their scientific collaboration, the betrayals, the falling-out and reconciliation.
Voltaire and the Marquise
The play depicts Émilie as the scientific mind, Voltaire’s as the artistic. One funny exchange shows her trying to teach him calculus. Tellingly for the times, their different skillsets did not prevent them from working together, conducting and documenting experiments, such as attempts to prove that fire lacks mass. Gunderson envisions their relationship in compelling complexity, even amid the script’s light touch and pinpricks of humor.
Fine touches abound, both obvious and subtle. Vetter’s umbrella character designation, though she is usually playing the still-alive Émilie, is “Soubrette,” a type of soprano voice – and operatic vocalizing represents sexual bliss. A line drawn on a board draws a connection from Émilie’s “force” equation to one made famous by a famously wild-haired scientific descendent of hers. Closet doors open to reveal a theatrical tableau. Zavien Ovian ducks behind a sofa to put on a hat and rise as a different character. Bonnie Black limns the personality of Émilie’s haughty, repressed mother with a single repeated phrase.
If there’s a moral here, perhaps it’s this line from the play: “Happiness is having time and space to wonder.” But this is far from a morality play. Instead it’s a chance for a seminal woman of science to get, if only in fiction, the luxuries of time and space that real life doesn’t normally give us – and that most cultures have withheld from women since time immemorial. Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, was in many ways an admirable exception. This thoughtful and highly entertaining production is a great chance to meet her.
Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is in its New York City premiere at the Flea Theater through April 30. Tickets and schedule are available online.