The heart or the mind? This unanswered question, left at the end of a turbulent life led by Emilie Du Châtelet, is finally put to rest by Lauren Gunderson’s new play.
“Emilie—La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life At the Petit Théâtre at Cirey Tonight” is performed at South Coast Repertory from April 19 until May 10. The play is a highly enjoyable exploration of the life of this legendary French physicist.
“Nothing is the definition of everything,” said Du Châtelet, played by Natacha Roi. “…Why does absence weigh so heavy on the heart?”
The play centers on Du Châtelet: a brilliant mind, a rebel and a beauty, a woman that has it all. But most of all, she is a passionate being and an independent spirit that knows how to glide through a society ridden with misogynism, yet still win respect and admiration.
During the play, Emilie is given a second chance to understand what her existence was all about: “I died thinking what was the point? All of my heart or all of my mind? Feeling or knowing? Passion or reason? Love…or philosophy?”
Gunderson uses the three classic modes of persuasion in rhetoric. The constant narration done by Emilie Du Châtelet establishes ethos – her history and moral character. Monologues are used to invite the viewer to see her essence, the soul. The switches to dialogues explain her past actions and interactions that provoked her mind and heart.
It is not her husband or her children, or our society that opposes experiencing the passion of being in love, but rather knowledge – how French! All those aspects of Emilie’s life are just a second thought that works out on its own, without antagonism.
It is her pursuit of knowledge that takes center stage when love is fleeing. Emilie’s contemplations are always very reasonable and logical; thus logos sways the opinion of the viewer to follow the mind.
For the purpose of playing out pathos, and appealing to the viewer’s emotions, Gunderson portrayed only three of Emilie’s many lovers. Each one has a different type of love for Emilie. Her husband is supportive. François-Marie Arouet, the famous writer and philosopher better known by his pen name Voltaire, played by Don Reilly, is intellectually stimulating. Her last lover, an unknown soldier-poet, is infatuating and easy to be in love with.
It is Emilie’s romance with Voltaire that becomes the opposition to her personal exploration of the universe. It also holds the answer to her life’s question. The lack of attention to their love due to Emilie’s obsession with finishing velocity theory pushes Voltaire away and leaves her heart broken.
It is hard to tell when people function solely with accordance to the mind or the heart. Everything that humankind does comes from passion, which belongs to both, and it is passion that drives action.
The play makes philosophy and physics simple for the viewers. The clever technique of tying love and desire with joy and pain, are themes that most can relate to. While this plot is too simple for real life, it is perfect for a life set on stage.
In choosing to dramatize the historic life of Emilie Du Châtelet, Gunderson brings out the strength of women in making history and claims the Age of Enlightenment as a female victory.
The play is shown every day (except Monday) beginning at 7:45 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays a matinee is also shown at 2 p.m. Students get a $10 discount. Those on a limited budget can arrive a few minutes before the play starts on any day (but Sunday matinee) and buy tickets for as little as $10.