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.