Wellesley Repertory Theater Gives Émilie du Châtelet a Voice
In the 1700s, women were expected only to marry and have children. Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749), who married the Marquis Florent du Châtelet at age 19, also became a renowned mathematician and physicist. She published books, wrote multiple essays with the writer and philosopher Voltaire, and helped introduce Newtonian physics to France by translating and providing commentary on Isaac Newton’s Principia, which summarized his discoveries about terrestrial and celestial mechanics. Despite those achievements, she is often remembered more for being Voltaire’s mistress than for her intellectual prowess.
Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, playing at the Wellesley Repertory Theater (WRT) through January 29, presents a more complete version of her story. The drama opens with Émilie, who has just died at age 42, reviewing her life and wondering what her legacy will be. She begins to recount the many challenges she faced—such as pursuing an education despite her mother’s resistance, and convincing scholars of the value of her research. She also considers the personal choices she made as she balanced family, love, and her work.
“The performances illuminate a very personal struggle, specific to Émilie being a trailblazing woman in the Age of Enlightenment, yet we are simultaneously able to recognize elements of our contemporary struggle in her experiences,” said director Marta Rainer ’98, a lecturer in Wellesley’s theatre studies department and associate director of WRT.
She continued, “Audience members have responded to the play by weeping or standing to applaud the performers. I think they feel connected to Émilie’s story, and I hope that the play inspires people to expand their ideas about the marvels humans are capable of.”
In the play, Émilie wonders whether the “work of her head or her heart,” as she calls it, will endure after her death. To help viewers explore that question and others raised by the play, the WRT has held two “talk backs,” where members of the cast and crew or special guests lead discussions and field questions from audience members; a third one will take place after the 2 pm matinee on January 28.
The first talk back, which was open to the entire Wellesley community, featured assistant director Diana Lobontiu ’18 interviewing Elena Shaw ’15, an engineer with experience in technical theatre that she gained as a work-study student at the College.
During their conversation, Shaw, a big Émilie fan, highlighted some of the differences between Émilie’s day and our own. Most notable, she said, was the fact that in the 18th century, “science” was considered part of the field of philosophy. Émilie’s generation, along with those directly before and after her, helped change that by focusing their research and writing on observable facts.
Émilie’s was also the first generation to start thinking about the paradigm of heart vs. mind, Shaw said, a notion that had not existed before. Émilie herself believed that those dualities were not separate but two sides of the same coin, just as her life was shaped by both those she loved and her commitment to advancing science.
Those ideas resonated with attendees at the talk back, including a woman who posited that “‘philosophy’ means love of thought, so it’s really a love vs. love battle! All love!”
Another issue that arose was the fact that many historians continue to downplay Émilie’s contributions to science while lauding Voltaire’s, as was the case in the 18th century as well, when her work was relatively unsung while his was praised by the public.
Rainer said the play gives Émilie the credit she is due and feels especially timely as many women continue to struggle for recognition in STEM fields. “Her ideas about physics and other subjects were remarkable, as was her ability to find ways to publish them, at a time when women didn’t have access to university education or the training/debating that was considered essential for a capable mind,” she said. “Even today, Émilie’s translation of Newton’s Principia, which includes her own commentary, is considered and utilized as the standard French translation.”
While Émilie was always inquisitive and a seeker of knowledge, she didn’t begin her scientific work until she was 28, after she’d had children—quite late in life for the time. Émilie’s contributions include the enduring reminder that it is never too late to pursue a passion.
Final Wellesley Repertory Theatre performances of Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight are this weekend, January 26–29, with 7:00pm shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 2:00pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For reservations, call 781.283.2000. Tickets are $20 general admission, $10 for seniors and students. Guests are invited to stay after the Saturday matinee for the talkback: “Women in Science.”