The famous Voltaire and his less known lover Emilie du Chatelet were brought to life in a wonderfully entertaining play featuring City College students and faculty in the Saville Theatre Nov. 14.
The event was a showcase of City College’s artistic talents and a celebration of professor Laurel Corona’s novel titled, “Finding Emilie. Published in April, the fictional book tells a story of Emilie’s daughter Stanislas-Adelaide and her search to learn of her mother who died six days after giving birth.
Emilie, a scandalous intellectual of her time in 18th century France, grasped all too well the constraints women faced in the scientific community.
Known in history as daughter to the Baron de Breteuil, the principal secretary of ambassadors to Louis XIV, and as Voltaire’s assistant, she had other roles: that of habitual gambler, squanderer, and seductress helped to mold the legacy that is Emilie du Chatelet.
She enjoyed intellectual debate, but being a women she was barred from the Academy of Sciences as well as coffeehouses where such conversations took place. Losing no courage, she simply dressed as a man in order to participate.
During her time, women did not receive recognition for contributions to science. Eventually, though, she came from behind the shadow of Voltaire and published a great scientific work, the translation, commentary and mathematical appendices for Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Her inspiring tale motivated Corona to publicize her achievements.
“Women in history have contributed so much more than they’re given credit for,” said Corona, a City College humanities professor and an award winning author.
The performance began with an informative introduction by the Department Chair of History and Political Science, Sofia Laurein. Her witty presentation helped the audience gain a clear image of who Emilie was.
The show was a staged reading in which actors portrayed the relationship between Voltaire and Emilie. Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was played by Jeff Smith, who said he could relate to his character.
“I am actually married to the woman who plays Emilie, she is my wife. We hope this show will awaken people about the book,” he said.
Smith’s wife, Sally Tinker Smith felt it was important for the audience to take with them an important moral concerning the role of Emilie.
“Women finding their voice and having an interest in science makes me feel grateful. If you have something to say, than say it, you’re free to,” she said.
The character of Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon was played by a familiar name on campus: Terrence Burgess, president of City College.
Buffon was a French naturalist and encyclopedic author in the 18th century. The scene included Buffon and Lili conversing about the classification of a butterfly. Being his first time on stage, Burgess felt he filled his character’s shoes quite uncomfortably.
“I practiced wearing high heels. My white wig made it very hot. I was definitely in character. What a great experience. My first time acting in high heels and a wig,” Burgess said.
The play was an elegant display of the romance that lasted for fifteen years. Corona’s goal was to bring to life the two famous characters in a way that inspired audiences.
“It makes me wonder how many other Emilies there are out there. I would hope for women in the audience to become their own Emilie,” Corona said.
Copies of “Finding Emilie” were sold at the show and all proceeds were donated to the City Works publication. Copies of the book are on sale now at bookstores.