Originally published Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 2:27 PM

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Preview: 'Emilie' at ArtsWest shows an 18th-century female scientist's remarkable life, loves

ArtsWest stages playwright Lauren Gunderson's account of the amazing true story of Emilie, the Marquise du Châtelet, who was a scientist, aristocrat and lover of Voltaire's.

Seattle Times theater critic


'Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight'

By Lauren Gunderson, directed by Susanna Wilson, Wednesday-Feb. 20, ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $10-$32 (206-938-0339 or


Emilie, the Marquise du Châtelet, was a remarkable woman for her time. Or any time.

Among those fascinated by the life of this unusually emancipated 18th-century aristocrat, scientist and longtime lover of the writer Voltaire, is playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose bio-drama "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight," opens next week at ArtsWest.

Gunderson said by phone, from her home base of San Francisco, that after devouring biographies of Emilie, she wanted to learn "everything I could think of about her. Then gradually, I began crafting a play.

"Emilie's story is so grand, and the work she did was so fundamental and brilliant, you can really let theater do its magic with a story like hers. So I did."

What about Emilie excited her? "Her sexiness, brilliance, feisty ability to take on the world, and her legacy of being ahead of her time, in lots of ways," the 29-year old dramatist enthused.

The historical facts are colorful indeed: Emilie was born in 1706, into a wealthy Parisian clan close to King Louis XIV. Intellectually precocious, she was (unusually for a girl) home-tutored at a very high level, learning several languages and advanced mathematics. She also led a glamorous life at court, and while not yet 20, wed a military officer.

Children, and several extramarital affairs, followed. So did Emilie's bold defiance of gender roles: She not only studied and wrote about science, but also dressed as a man to join with male scientists at roundtables barred to women.

At 27, Emilie fell in love with the playwright and poet Voltaire, and collaborated with him on his scholarly book "Elements of Newtonian Philosophy."

In a supremely tolerant arrangement, her husband allowed the lovers to share a country château he owned, where they amassed a huge library and supported each other's research and writing projects.

"She did experiments, and wrote several books for the masses on physics, on astronomy," marveled Gunderson. "But her major contribution was her translation of a mathematical tract by Newton, from Latin. She added in her own comments and corrections — the gall! I love it!"

After her death in 1749, from complications of childbirth, Voltaire wrote of Emilie, "It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made."

To conjure her life onstage, Gunderson portrayed it from several angles. "I use the word prismatic to describe it. The play starts, then spreads out. That was the only way to tackle her heart, her legacy, her mind, the world she lived in. I think she'd appreciate that I created a universe for her."

Depicting Emilie's bond with Voltaire was essential. "Their relationship was just awesome — hilarious and sexy, weird," Gunderson asserts, noting that the romantic and scientific aspects of the play "are as accurate as I could make them."

"Emilie" debuted at Southcoast Repertory in California, in 2009. Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty found the play "has much in it that is current and true, particularly the difficulty that brainy women have in gaining acceptance from their male peers and balancing intellectual ambition with emotional hunger."

The ArtsWest outing, directed by Susanna Wilson, will be only the second full staging of the work, and Gunderson plans to see it.

Meanwhile, she's been busy with other scripts — most with a scientific and/or feminist bent. One is the new "Silent Sky," about female astronomers. Another is a school-touring stage version of Bill Bryson's popular book "A Short History of Nearly Everything."

She says the latter play is "a constantly shifting flow of information and high energy. It hits on evolution, particle physics and solar systems, all sorts of stuff. The ideas are communicated with models, sheets, twine, balls. It's like a circus!"

Misha Berson:


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