Legacy of What?

Voltaire, Father of the Enlightenment


Last night I saw the play Legacy of Light, which I had previously mentioned on the blog. It follows the story of Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet as she struggles to finish her work upon discovering a pregnancy (not by Voltaire) that she suspects will lead to her death.  The play parallels her story with that of 21st-century Olivia, an astrophysicist married to Peter, a schoolteacher.  Olivia, a middle-aged cancer survivor, wants to have a baby after many years devoted mainly to her work, so the couple hires Millie, a young girl who wants to be a fashion designer, to bear a child for them.


Emilie du Châtelet, mother of three children

I was tempted to see this play by past good experiences with Arena Stage (South Pacific, Damn Yankees) and the possibility of an engaging story of an eighteenth-century women scientist and the “father of the Enlightenment” (a phrase used to describe to Voltaire about 47 times), as well as the play’s claims to a feminist, or at least nonsexist, perspective.  Alas, it pretty much struck out on both counts.  The most distracting element was the playwright’s embarrassing misreading of Voltaire.  Both du Châtelet and Voltaire chirp throughout the play that they live in the “best of all possible worlds.”  When Emilie dies, Voltaire repeats this line with a bit of sarcasm, but this is the only glimmer of recognition of the profound irony of those words.  The play explains du Châtelet’s complex personal life (married, but also living with Voltaire and sleeping with a younger poet as well) in one line: “We’re French!” 



The modern plot digs a little deeper into the characters but also disappoints by suggesting that Olivia will not become truly valuable until she becomes a mommy.  Olivia conceives the idea for a child in the midst of a car crash.  As the baby grows inside Millie, however, Olivia becomes more and more reluctant to compromise her pursuit of science and face motherhood.  She becomes fearful of how the baby will change her life to the point of backing out of the adoption, a possibility she announces hysterically after climbing up a tree (where she meets Voltaire, the father of the Enlightenment) to hide from Millie.


Millie’s plot offers the greatest complexity.  Grieving over the recent loss of their mother, Millie and her brother struggle to keep their family home out of foreclosure.  Millie tells Olivia and Peter that she wants to have their baby to earn money to go to fashion design school, assuming that her true motive (avoiding homelessness) would come across as unworthy.  There is more potential here for the analysis of middle-class values around family, education, reproduction, and bloodlines than the play takes advantage of, but it is nevertheless a poignant plot. The play also creates an ominous sadness around Millie’s apparent attachment to the unborn child.  At the same time, even Millie’s intricacy felt a bit manipulative as it was pitted against Olivia’s resistance to maternity that must be broken down before the end of the evening and the sense that du Châtelet’s legacy, unlike that of Voltaire (father of the Enlightenment) ultimately must rest with her offspring rather than her science.

14 responses to “Legacy of What?

  1. Dave Mazella

    Well, historical caricature is just another mode of historical interpretation, and it sounds like there was plenty of it in this play. Any ideas why this author chose this particular story, and the Enlightenment, more generally, to caricature?

    It sounds as if there’s some kind of dim idea going on about how the motherhood/Enlightenment opposition is worked out, even if it’s not thought through very well. It’s actually unclear to me why these two themes should be in opposition, but fine.

    So why juxtapose these narratives, and what do you think it says about her beliefs regarding Enlightenment etc.?

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    That’s a really interesting question: in other words, why not just write a play about Olivia, who might prefer to throw herself into her research, and Millie’s, whose story truly raises fascinating questions about children, financial exchange, kinship and property? Why not mine these intriguing questions and leave the father of the Enlightenment for another play?

    One possibility is that the play was apparently commissioned, so the Enlightenment part might have been part of the assignment.

    I think also there were some undeveloped threads that could have made more interesting Enlightenment connections. For example, the issue of technology was raised: we can now make babies in different ways, a fact of modernity that one might see as part of the Enlightenment’s legacy. I think the Enlightenment was in there as the origin of a modern control over reproduction (that ladies in the Enlightenment did not themselves have), an apparent control that raises all kinds of new issues. But then again, the actual science discussed was physics and not medicine, so this possibility did not really come through. WHat came through was that women in the 18th century got cut off from their life’s work by death in childbirth and that women in the 21st century, when they come down from the tree, will put aside their life’s work when the opportunity to raise a baby comes along. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

    But I haven’t fully answered your question and will think more about it.

  3. Laura’s given a great and insightful analysis of the play. I’d add that it was disappointing initially as a lost opportunity — here is this amazingly significant though under-appreciated historical figure (and I don’t mean Voltaire) who could offer some very interesting inspiration to work through issues related to science, its practices, and its implications for gender and sexuality.
    The sentimentalism of the play I at first found grating in part because it falls flat (that’s always the risk with sentimentalism, of course). But it also misses the richness and complexity of the early 18th century — before sentimentalism and its offshoot, sentimental maternity. This could be the complaint of a specialist, but I think that there is more at work than mere anachronism. The play ends up valuing both scientists for their maternity, which is ultimately rendered natural; in the case of Olivia, the contemporary scientist, she quickly figures out how to buckle the child’s car seat after her kind-hearted and nurturing husband can’t. The women’s intellectual curiosity and contributions are therefore comparatively denigrated as distracting from their maternal roles. So the play ultimately seems less like a missed opportunity (that was my initial, more generous read) and more like a conservative corrective to the intellectual woman under the guise of celebrating and defending her (Volatire mouths off about the injustice of world in which women suffer from inadequate health care while canons are improved by leaps and bounds). This is also my answer to Dave’s interesting question: the Enlightenment seems to be presented here as an ‘origin’ and justification for modern-day maternal ideologies that define women through their mothering.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    Or maybe the Enlightenment is defined as the originary moment for women becoming frustrated by the biological limits that maternity places on them but then Olivia, apparently freed from those limits by the Enlightenment’s scientific legacy, finds her back to motherhood through the same scientific legacy. But Tita is right: either way, it is the mothering that is represented as the legacy of these women.

    The car seat scene is interesting, as the husband (Peter) is represented as a nuturing and fully qualified primary caregiver, but it has to be Olivia who steps up to the plate.

  5. Karen Zacarias

    First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to come and see the play. Second, I am delighted by the discussion the play has engendered. Never in my life have I responded to comments or blogs about my work…but the depth and nature of your blog has inspired me to reply. Since there seems to be a lot of speculation as to “why” I am happy to give you my reasons… I respect the experience and opinion you formed seeing the play. Perhaps my notes will shift your perspective, perhaps they won’t…since no piece can be all things to all people. I connected to Emilie’s story on a visceral level. A couple of years ago I found myself pregnant with my third child, and I was convinced it was the end of my artistic career. I threw myself into my writing, knowing I only had nine months to get everything done before my life became chaos. (I already had 2 under the age 4). I wrote 3 plays…hoping they would be my legacy. Two weeks before I was due, Arena called and offered me a commission to write anything I wanted . My perspective shifted and I knew that I would somehow find a way to continue my work. I knew I wanted to write about Emilie…and something else that I was seeing. I have many friends that have chosen not to have children…but I also have dozens and dozens of very accomplished friends who have chosen to undergo exhausting fertility or adoption procedures to become parents. Why? Maybe it’s society, maybe it’s biology, mostly, I believe, it is women’s free will. Many of us want to have the option of having both experiences…work and parenthood and have them be fulfilling. But it is a tricky and ambivalent enterprise…

    I think your discussion may be overlooking the will of the women on stage. Olivia wants to have a baby and chooses to have one…but she loses confidence in her abilities to be a good at that job. I hope no woman should have to give up an opportunity she really wants because of fear…. But when she descends the tree to help Millie…it is her first evidence to her that she does have what it takes. When she sings her “science lullaby” to the baby…it’s acknowledging that no woman needs to fit a certain mold …that each of us can be mothers diffently and succeed…if that is what we choose for our life. And by no means do I think she’s going to give up her work”the planet vega B”. She will have both. Millie chooses to be pregnant but chooses not be a mother and finds her “work” complicated and fulfilling. And Emilie struggles with her love for her children and her desire to change the world.

    And she does both. But not in her lifetime.

    And the whole second part of the play is a metaphor for Emilie’s scientific contributions. When Emilie returns…she is energy…she is light…she and her scientific work have not disappeared. In fact, the play sheds light on HER. The energy of the play is squared. And all the dramatic action is science (What must go up must go down (the tree) nothing will change unless a force acts upon it , every action has an equal and opposite reaction, time is malleable). My intent is to show the value of ALL women’s work…our intellectual work, our physical work, our emotional work… and the value of our choices. Does that mean we need to have children to be fulfilled or valued? NO! But it does mean all of us need to nurture an idea, an institution, our work, and/or other people to leave a contribution to the world.

    At the end, she gives her great grandaughter an apple…an apple that is knowledge, temptation, sin, and science as a gift and responsibility to follow her dreams and always do “something that matters.” whatever that may be for Millie.

    As for the science and philosophy…I wanted the play to be accessible and inspire audience members to want to learn more. I wanted the play to also be an introduction to the elements of the Enlightenment… how the era was triggered by the concept of cause and effect…how science became the basis of philosophy. You are all experts…but many people have never read “Candide” or know little about Dark Matter. Arena has been selling many copies of Candide and other Emilie books in the lobby…and the Arena website with all the background information on the Enlightement and the Science and History behind the play has received HUNDREDS of hits.

    And lastly just some clarifications: “All is for the best in this best of possible worlds” is said positively only by Emilie…because she was one of the first people to use the term “optimiste” in her writings. Voltaire only says it twice , both bitterly, as he explains the inspiration for writing CANDIDE. Second of all, the phrase “Father of the Enlightenment” is said twice in the whole play.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. As Voltaire says: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say them.”

    Best to you all,
    Karen Zacarias

  6. Laura Rosenthal

    Thank you for noticing and commenting on our blog!

    I think the “why” question was for us more about “why the eighteenth century”, for surely lots of women in many historical periods have faced this challenge. The sense of urgency to get things done before the baby really came through in the play in both plots. As I mentioned, I thought the modern plot raised many fascinating social conflicts that could have themselves taken up the whole play.

    I think in your play, though, will is lot more complicated than you are describing here. Was it du Chatelet’s will to have another baby? My impression in the play was that this was not the case. Olivia’s will was confused–she wanted to have a baby, then she didn’t. Artistically I don’t think this is bad since most human motives are complicated, as you represent them to be. I thought, actually, that letting Olivia have second thoughts was brave, but that at the end it didn’t feel like the possibility of her not wanting the baby, though raised, was actually honored. Ambivalence in the other direction, however, was indeed honored: Millie doesn’t want to have a baby per se (in order to raise a child) and wants the money (for reasons sympathetically rendered), but starts to become maternal while she is pregnant and seems to feel some loss in giving it up. So women’s choices in this play were honored only to the extent that they were maternal.

    So I apologize for exaggerating how many times Voltaire was called the father of the Enlightenment (harder to say when only relying on memory!), but it felt significant in a play about being a mother. I still think he was a more optimistic Voltaire than I would have imagined, but you are certainly entitled to imagining a different one.

    And yes, it is sometimes distressing to see how much women go through to have babies and I certainly hope that everyone who wants a baby gets the chance to raise one, or two, or three, or more. I also hope that women who chose not to pursue motherhood for any reason (not just work) can do so without any diminishment.

    So to echo your statement: Clearly your play is rich and interesting enough to spark a discussion of these issues, even if I found myself resisting what I perceived as some of the assumptions behind the play.

  7. Laura Rosenthal

    PS I wonder if maybe you wouldn’t see so many friends going through such pain over fertility if there were more alternative models in art and culture.

  8. Yes, thanks to the playwright, Karen Zacarias, for adding to the conversation! It’s always interesting to learn about a writer’s intentions and the thinking that goes into producing art. And welcome to the Long 18th.

    Along those lines, I’m interested that there was a desire to represent ‘free will,’ I suppose because it seemed to be evoked and denied — perhaps because the way that the play imagines the science and maternal influences are so ambivalent.

    But I want to underscore Laura’s P.S.–it would be really imaginatively and culturally valuable to have more alternatives available. A wonderful contemporary novel, *The Pharmacist’s Mate*, grapples with some of these questions really powerfully and imaginatively.

  9. Laura Rosenthal

    I had some more thoughts on the issue of will, which I think is rather complicated in the play. Millie, after losing her mother, is about to have her house foreclosed on. Yes, she freely chooses to have a baby to get the money to avoid homelessness, but her choice is highly constrained by her vulnerability. Du Chatelet’s choice in her pregnancy is ambiguous: as represented in the play, she seems to know how to prevent a pregnancy with Voltaire, but nevertheless gets pregnant by Saint-Lambert. Was it her will to get pregnant? Did she do it to please Saint-Lambert? It doesn’t seem to have been fully in her control. Of the three, Olivia seems to be the only one able to excercise her will over reproduction, having the medical technology unavailable to du Chatelet, and the financial resources unavailable to Millie. And as mentioned earlier, her will is itself a mixed bag. So I don’t see any of these women as exercising their will in an unconstrained or uncomplicated way.

  10. Karen Zacarias

    There is a line in the play where Voltaire exclaims “Anyone can be a mother, you have so much more to offer.”

    Emilie replies, “You praise me and belittle me in the same sentence.”

    Why the 18th century? Because despite advances and technology, the crux of Emilie’s dilema still lives today. Emilie’s choices were limited, she was trapped by her pregnancy, her free will lies in the how she shined light on her predicament. She chose to use the last months of her life on her work, and preparing her family for her absence. Free will is never in a vacuum. Millie doesn’t have to be a surrogate mother…no one if forcing her or begging her…her circumstances make it a more viable option to her…but it is still a choice. “Unconstrained and uncomplicated free will” is neither dramatic nor realistic. Olivia choses to study planet formation because she gets tired of trying to know the unknowable Dark Matter. We all make choices that are limited by circumstances, attitude, capability, and perception.

    Out of the 50 surrogate mothers interviewed..all of them cried when they gave up their baby…not because they regretted their choice…or because they were sad…but because it was a full and complicated journey that was coming to an end and a new beginning. Plus, hormones are a real and scientific part of pregnancy.

    Olivia is confident about her work. She is cutting edge…she tackles her critics.
    If Olivia was up in a tree screaming “I don’t know if I am smart enough to finish my PhD” and she eventually climbed down the tree and discovered that she was capable of doing what she feared she couldn’t …and made it part of herself…does that make her weak? Does that dishonor her?

    Should she have left Millie alone at the base of the tree? Would this have made her happier?

    Theater is not a profession conducive to childbearing, and out of the 50 people involved in the production, only 4 of us are parents. This is a very woman driven project, the director is a woman, the scenic design is by a woman, the costume designer , the stage manager, the production manager, the dressers, etc. etc. etc. are all amazing women and all of them have elected not to have children. Almost all of the men involved, have also elected not to be parents. Their legacy is the art, bulding the institution that is Arena, to cultivating and mentoring a generation of new audiences and artists, to babysitting friends in need, to babysitting their friends babies. I would not be the artist or the mother I am today, if it was not for their support, talent, and help. Like Voltaire, their legacy will ripple through time and space.

    And I have written many plays were my protagonists are women and motherhood is of no consequence. My play THE SINS OF SOR JUANA is a researched fantasy on the life and times of the Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. No moms there. At all.

    But this play is about motherhood across the centuries. And about work. It’s about Legacy. And what is Legacy? It’s what we leave behind. Our work. Our ideas, our writings, Our planets. And yes, our children.

    And although not all of us are mothers, all of us are daughters…we are part of what our mothers and fathers have left behind…and what we do with our lives is a reflection of where we came from and where we hope to go.

  11. Laura Rosenthal

    Re your last point: Please do not think that any of my critique of the text and performance of your play is directed at you personally. I would never presume to suggest that you are personally intolerant of any woman’s choices. Tomorrow I am teaching Aphra Behn’s *The Rover,* and one point that I always make to students is that just because Behn was a passionate royalist (we know she was) doesn’t mean that every royalist in her play will be represented in only positive ways. I am only commenting on how the text and performance came across to me, and doing so on an obscure and informal blog mostly of interest to specialists and our students (although we are absolutely thrilled to have your contribute!). Most of the texts we write about are by dead people who usually don’t write back, so this is an interesting new experience.

    Having said that, I will respectfully disagree that Emilie’s dilemma is the same as the one we are still facing. In fact, I’m not sure she faces a dilemma at all. She has become pregnant not by choice (as I take it, but that’s a little vague in the play), so she is not really choosing whether or not to have a baby. A dilemma is a choice between more than one imperfect option, but in the play Du Chatelet is not represented as being in such a situation. Women today (in the US, in the middle class) have much more control over reproduction (and thus more potential for dilemma in this area), although they are certainly not entirely free either. Death in childbirth is now dramatically lower, although it still happens. Unlike women in the eighteenth century, women today in the US can seek an abortion with minimal risk of death, although that right is being eroded and is of course contested. Also, most women of Du Chatelet’s class would not be expected to raise their own children. So I don’t see Du Chatelet as facing the “work/life” balance in ways that women do today (in the US; in the middle class).

    Re Millie: I believe you that surrogate mothers weep when discussing their experiences. I would like to help build a world in which women have more choices than work that brings them to tears.

    Re Olivia in the tree: Mostly people working on a PhD at some point metaphorically climb up a tree and scream. Some come down and finish, but others walk away–an entirely honorable and respectable choice given the massive social disinvestment in higher education in this country which has lead to a paucity of tenure-track jobs. (In my discipline, about 50% of those who finish their PhD will get a tenure-track job. )

    But to return to your play and your comments: yes, women throughout the ages have faced motherhood. If we recognize, however, the great differences in the cultural practice of motherhood throughout history and in the world, we become able to put our own experience in perspective as just one possibility among many, a strategy that can open up ways of thinking about alternatives. Part of my critique of the play is that it elides those differences, a point that your comments support. They are probably not differences that most people care about and I understand that a playwright seeking an audience needs to make the material accessible, but they are differences that I spend a lot of time researching, thinking about, and teaching to students, so I take the opportunity to point them out when I can because they matter.

  12. If you think the odds of gaining tenure are slim, imagine the odds of having your original play about the Enlightenment produced at a major regional theatre! 🙂

  13. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, I’m sure it’s just as difficult as discovering a new star. Olivia would have a lot of good company up there.

  14. Dave Mazella

    Hi everyone, I think we’ve pretty well exhausted this thread. Comments are closed. DM