The Swellesley Report: Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight

By Deborah Brown

Jan. 16, 2017

At a time where I’m exposed to so many tweets I’d just as soon ignore, this one from Wellesley Repertory Theatre (WRT) was welcome: “We are SOLD OUT for today’s matinee…” of Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.

Phew. Because when I attended WRT’s Saturday evening performance of Emilie, “sold out” was not the adjective I would have put before the word “performance.” Call it the Tom Brady effect. When he takes the field, as he dared to do smack dab during the WRT’s Saturday night performance of Emile, I don’t care how handsome the swoon-worthy Woody Gaul, who plays Voltaire, is (and he really is very handsome), or how how much fight Emilie had in her. It will always be Patriots 34, cool play 16.

But football games end, and the shows go on. Emilie, the lead played with intelligence, wit, and sheer force by Molly Parker Myers, would understand. Emile, too, was one to keep score. Love was on one side of the stage, Philosophy and Science were on the other, each written in capital letters on a transparent walls, and Emilie had a tally going. And I’ll confess, there’s a whole lot of science covered in this play that I just didn’t get. When I think of Newton, I envision him lolling under an apple tree, about to discover gravity. When Voltaire comes to mind, which is only ever at at a WRT performance, I think, “Oh yes, French.”

Then, when the characters got going on mass, velocity, and the equations that explain it all, yup, well, I couldn’t quite keep up. Even if I’d had a nurse on hand to raise my kids, as did Emilie, I definitely still wouldn’t have had a triumph of science under my belt, as she did (just a profound contribution to the E=mc2 theory, among other accomplishments, that’s all). But I’m at peace with that. All I have to do here is review a play.

It was Emilie’s night, after all, and this 18th-century scientific genius was all about the big juxtapositions: love vs. science; the life of the mind vs. the emotions of the heart. She’s confident. She’s curious. Her dramatic updo has hairs that dare to be out of place, just as she, a woman working in the scientific realm, dares to be. She’s got money, and a married woman of her station could count on the indulgence of society and her own husband when it came to extra-marital affairs. Voltaire, leading thinker and writer of the Enlightenment, just happened to be available for such an indulgence. How lovely.

The spectre of Emilie’s mother, played by Charlotte Peed with stern Gallic practicality, appears every now and then, reminding her headstrong daughter that a lady doesn’t laugh too loud, or feel too much, or flaunt her brain potential. But Emilie is around 40, the time of life where mom just doesn’t tune in as well as she used to. She finds science to be far more fascinating than the intricacies of proper behavior at court, and is ready to give her full attention to her passions, both romantic and scientific.

I found it depressing that Emilie refused to give her daughter the intellectual opportunities she grabbed for herself, insisting that her life would be the easier for it, as if Emilie actually believed that easy was some kind of worthy prize instead of something that she was forcing upon her daughter. Where was the woman who credited and thanked her father for his recognition and encouragement of her intellectual gifts? Emilie paid that forward to the world, but not to the smaller sphere of her own domestic life.

Emilie du Châtelet was born in Paris in 1706, and died at age 42 following complications from childbirth. Some of her accomplishments: mathematician, physicist, translator (she shepherded Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” from the Latin into French), and writer. She has also been credited with helping pave the way for  Einstein’s E = mc2.

As you can imagine, a character like this needs a lot of lines. There Meyers is, on stage for the entire 2+ hours of the play. When intermission hit, my companion and I  got up to stretch our legs in the hallway and look at the photo portraits of Wellesley College luminaries. When we returned to our seats, there was Emilie, still at her desk, scratching away with her quill, working, not only hammering away at her passion, but reminding the audience that it was all about the WORK, dammit.

At times, playwright Lauren Gunderson  simply shoved too much “you go, girl, grab that brass ring straight away from that brass-balled set” dialogue straight down the audience’s throat. You get out there and get that career, all you Wellesley College women (who, although on winter break, still seemed the target of lectures about high expectations) and gosh darn it, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Such dialogue felt forced at times, its verbal propaganda every bit as didactic as its polar opposite suggestions that corset plus flirtatiousness equals a rich husband and an easy life.

Still, as a Frenchwoman, Emilie was no slouch at witty banter when romance with Voltaire was going delightfully, and emotionally draining knock-down, drag-outs when the work (the work!) was going frightfully.

Producing Artistic Director Nora Hussey has been blowing me away with the quality of performances that she has brought to Wellesley. She has brought the company along from a small non-equity company to its current status as a New England Area Theatre member of the Actors’ Equity Association.  Emilie included five Actors’ Equity Association members, meaning that they are part of the American labor union that represents the world of live theatrical performance. It’s a big deal, as my great-aunt, a lifelong member and working actress in New York City and beyond in the 1940s – 1970s, would have told you (God rest her drama-queen soul). Think of it as Fair Trade for actors. They are guaranteed certain wages, working conditions, and benefits including health and pension plans for its members.

In 18th-century France, life held no such guarantees. Emilie strived, Voltaire swaggered, and Newton’s spirit hung in the air, as heavy as an apple ready to drop from a tree. The play itself literally crackles with electricity and all of the power that implies, as the characters dash from the side of love to the side of science. There was plenty of both in the play, yet whenever the twain met, crackle went that electricity, right through the actors and straight into the audience.

Directed by Marta Rainer; Producing Artistic Director Nora Hussey; sets by David Towlun; costumes by Chelsea Kerl; lighting by Graham Edmondson; sound by George Cooke; stage manager Lindsay D. Garofalo; music composer Alexander Rainer; Choreography by Catherine Piner; interns Diana Loboutia, Kim Burton, Maggie Lees, Kerry Lydon.

With: Molly Parker Myers (Emilie); Charlotte Peed (Madame); Caroline Parsons (Soubrette I); Catherine Piner (Soubrette II); Woody Gaul (Voltaire); Charles Linshaw (Gentleman).