A Q&A With Playwright Lauren Gunderson
By Amy Holzapfel, Associate Professor of Theatre, Williams College
What inspired you to write a play about Emilie, Marquise Du Châtelet?
I read a great book called Emilie Du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, by Judith Zinsser. Emilie’s life story encompasses so many riveting and profound subjects: love, sex, physics, feminism, history, what life means, what love means. I like writing about historical characters because there is such grandiosity to re-imaging and resurrecting a real person onstage. There is simple magic in listening to her journey, and rooting for her, and falling in love with her, all the while knowing that she is based on a real woman. So the real reason I wrote about Emilie is because I’d like to hang out with her.
What was your writing process like for Emilie?
Writing, for me, begins long before typing. I usually start writing a new play with a lot of reading and daydreaming. When I understand my idea enough to talk about to my friends (or my cat, who was christened Emilie La Marquise Du Châtelet, with all respect), I always start at the beginning. Emilie begins with her first monologue to the audience, her arrival in this space and time. She finds herself, she starts to remember her life, and then she pretty much starts her play for herself.
The rest of the play came to me sans filter. The rules invented themselves, and I pretty much just said “sure!” The play shifts when she meets Voltaire and we get their chemistry and romance. Then it shifts again when her heart breaks, and she must become her own support system. Emilie herself never lingers, never apologizes, never slows. In the end, I realized that I had to have the whole play turn against her as she approaches its end. She is not fighting herself or her society, she is fighting her medium. That was fun to write. How does one turn a play against its main character?
In the end, I realized that Emilie’s greatest proof of her value is herself. I had to craft an ending that lets her say goodbye to her world, her story, and her self with confidence and a full heart. That means that the play ends in a similar (though much deeper, truthful, satisfying) place where it ends—dark into light into dark.
What, for you, is the central story of your play?
It is a story of Emilie, who, looking back, wants to know if her bold life full of love and discovery actually mattered and how. She’s a scientist so she needs proof, even though it’s impossible to quantify a life’s meaning. The play starts when she is given one chance to “defend” her life and scour it for meaning. In the end she is met by two realizations: her science did matter to the world (she was right about squaring speed), and that the only person who needs to believe that she mattered is herself. We live (and die) best when we are sure of ourselves and fight for our truth.
What has Emilie taught you?
What a great question! So much so I’m stumped as to how to begin. I’d love to know what she’s taught others first…
In your play, what do you think Emilie gains from her relationship with Voltaire? What do you think he gains from her?
I think they both gain a best friend. Even though they were lovers they were, more than anything, friends, like minds, twin inspirations for each other. From him, she gained adventure and boldness and humor. From her, he gained an avenue into legitimate scientific discourse, a steady companion, and a person to look up to. I think they both allowed each other to live life fully, with all its complexity and curiosity.
Are you or have you ever been a “science geek”? What do you love most about science?
I accept the mantle of science geek! Though I’ve never been a scientist, I am definitely a science enthusiast. I discovered a love of asking big questions about life and found a home for that in science as well as art. What I love about science is that everything is up for debate all the time. You are never done with science. It’s always moving, expanding, confirming, re-confirming. Scientists are never satisfied, but ever hungry for the next technology to prove the next theory. Science continues to surprise us, upend us, challenge us to be better. Science continues to make impossible things possible.
What do you consider to be Emilie’s bravest act?
Her bravest act was probably the very first time she spoke up for her right to have an education. Her father acquiesced even when the idea of education [for?] women in the sciences was uncommon. As a girl being groomed for marriage and child rearing, something about Emilie made her speak up and ask for what she wanted: a tutor. She was ridiculed for her intellect, asked to be quiet when she had a pertinent thought to share, mocked for writing the first popular science book in Europe. But all of that bravery started when she was a child with one request
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for women in our age?
A lot of the challenges we have faced in the past aren’t gone. Gender and racial discrimination within and without of the feminist movement, for one. Pervasive and excessive violence against women across the world. Extremism that continues to assume women’s abilities and thwart their natural rights and freedoms. Women in professional sciences, in politics, in business are still underrepresented in positions of power. Even in the performing arts, a generally progressive field, a play about men is considered a universal story, but a play about women is often a “women’s” play. We still see more male directors, writers, and even male roles than women’s. This all amounts to fewer women’s stories defining our half of humanity…. The power of women’s stories to inspire understanding and acceptance and empowerment for women (and men too) all over the world is vital.
Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Rick Hammerly
Starring Sara Barker as Emilie
October 12 to November 12, 2017
Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two
2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206