History remembers Gabrielle-Emilie du Chatelet (1706–1749) more for her amatory escapades than her magisterial intellect. Like the time she broke up with her lover, the Count de Guebraint. She ordered him to fetch a bowl of broth. He did. She drank. Then gave him a letter to read only after she left. It said: “I am dying of the poison you handed me.” As he raced to her carriage, she vomited (an overdose of opium, they say) and told him to bug off.
Lost amid her many affairs are achievements in math, physics, and the sciences that prompted Voltaire, her lover of 15 years, to say she was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”
She could divide a string of nine numbers by a string of nine numbers — in her head. She was the first woman published by the French Academy. She wrote a commentary on the entire Bible. She translated Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French (still the standard translation) and vehemently differed with him on energy conservation.
But she lived in the Age, allegedly, of Enlightenment. For a while educated women had a club, even a calling: they (and men as well) were “Bluestockings.” But the name evolved into an insult: they were “frumpy,” and intelligent women devolved back into “polite” society.
Though it does little else, Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie retrieves her from history’s gossip column.
She comes back from the dead to ask “Was I right?” and “Was I loved?” and to find out which matters more, love or knowledge? In short scenes, she reviews her life and chalks up points for each side, literally, on a large blackboard.
Most of the scenes have short attention spans. When the play begins to go deep, as when Emilie wants to “take back the world for my daughter,” it recoils, as if afraid to venture below the surface.
The playwright also pulls back by having Emilie touch someone (she can’t, apparently, because she’s spirit, or ectoplasm, or something). When she does, the lights black out and come back in time for the next scene (a device that wears thin) then out.
At New Village Arts, five actors wear Elisa Benzoni’s elegant, cream-colored 1740s attire and recreate Emilie’s brief return to the living. Four pose, form tableaux, and, except for Skyler Sullivan’s persistently leaden Voltaire, help to frame JoAnne Glover’s splendid Emilie.
Glover is our guide. She establishes a personal rapport with the audience and unveils a wide range of emotions — from fragile vulnerability to one feisty pistol — and the range of Emilie’s mind.
And she almost manages to make the play, which reads like an apprentice work suggesting better to come, seem more sophisticated than it is. Emilie is an “important” piece, but not a very good one. Glover’s expertly modulated performance, however, makes it worth seeing.
Playing through March 6.