Jyl Bonaguro’s four-year quest for Enlightenment
Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
Jyl Bonaguro works in a variety of mediums. Using drawing, painting and sculpture, she explores both landscapes and the human figure. But she started out as a writer with a focus on history and poetry. Recently, these practices came together at Loyola University Chicago (where Bonaguro also earned a BA in creative writing) for the staged reading of Bonaguro’s play Urania, an intimate look at Enlightenment mathematician Émilie Du Châtelet. Hosted at the Mundelein Center for the Fine & Performing Arts, the reading of Urania represented the full merger of Bonaguro’s artistic interests and the culmination of her four-year quest to understand the woman and her chaotic, dynamic culture.
Urania takes place at the advent of the Enlightenment. Many of the period’s great minds make an appearance—Bernard Fontenelle, Moreau de Maupertuis and Voltaire—but the focus of the play is the life of Madame Émilie Du Châtelet (1706 – 1749), a visionary in the field of mathematics during a time when women were not considered capable of great intellect. While Émilie is often remembered more for her connection to Voltaire than for her accomplishments, she was a prodigy in her own right. As a scientist, Du Châtelet made contributions to her field, and to history, most memorably by translating into French Newton’s Principia and by analyzing theories that would later figure prominently in Einstein’s special theory of relativity.
Bonaguro’s play explores the full spectrum of Châtelet’s life, emphasizing her work in the sciences and her increasingly turbulent personal relationship with Voltaire—a relationship that both freed and destroyed her. CAR Theater Researcher Aeneas Hemphill corresponded via email with Bonaguro to learn more about her development as a playwright, and the challenges of bringing history to the stage.
A good education is very wearing. Four years of an excellent Jesuit education guaranteed that my only desire after completing my creative writing degree was to never again write another paper. For over ten years I wrote next to nothing. But I lived. I traveled around the world, scribbled a bit in journals, trained in painting and sculpture, and experienced life.
I discovered Judith Zinsser’s book, Émilie Du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, while reading about the famous equation, E=mc2. Châtelet’s work to mathematically determine the capacity for an object’s work by squaring its speed was a prerequisite for Einstein’s work. After I completed Zinsser’s amazing book, I realized I finally had something to write about. I launched myself onto a difficult four-year path, unwittingly recreating the university research experience I had so gladly abandoned.
I began by writing a letter to Zinsser requesting permission to use her book as a basis for my play.
August 10, 2009
“Perhaps, Émilie will then gain more recognition or at least be saved from the chopping block of cinema like the Duchess of Devonshire,” I argued. “I would not like to portray her as a victim of fate, but as a woman who made choices.”
Judith was very kind to an unpublished stranger without credentials. She gave her permission, agreeing that “her life cries out to be dramatized.” She pointed me toward three other plays written on the life of Du Châtelet, as well as Zinsser’s own role as dramaturge for one of them. I read the other plays. No one had attempted to recreate her life. Certainly I could have a rough draft ready by December!
May 13, 2010
“I hope this email finds you well. I am still working on the play. I suffer from perfectionism.”
I had decided to travel to France. I headed for the Château de Cirey, the country estate that was home to Voltaire, who fled Paris after publishing Lettres Philosophiquesin 1734. Joining him there, Du Châtelet helped repair the decrepit castle. They established a theater in the attic, at which guests would play various roles. To really understand Du Châtelet’s story, I had to experience this part of her life. I arrived at the Château to a locked door. A woman opened the door; the Château was closed, she explained. In broken French, I breathlessly explained that I had flown over from America; my flight would leave tomorrow; I was writing a play about Émilie Du Chatelet; I had to see the interior. Climbing the stairs to the theater overwhelmed me. I cried in front of my little tour guide, the housekeepers’ son.
“I have tried to do her justice. It has produced quite a strain on me, but it has been worthwhile in every way,” read a letter I sent with my rough script.
Judith’s corrections and suggestions arrived in January, 2011.
I began working on a more polished draft. Condensing Zinsser’s 400-page book full of historical fact into a 100-page play is very difficult. Her novel had all the aspects of an epic, historical drama. My challenge was telling De Châtelet’s personal story—her scientific and mathematical accomplishments, her relationships with so many characters—and making the historical period relevant to a modern audience. The science was problematic. Some parts of 18th-century science are profound; others seem childlike from a modern-day perspective. Affairs, frowned upon today, were more or less expected amongst 18th-century aristocracy. How to tell a life from youth to death in one hundred pages meant there had to be time jumps that didn’t confuse people.
“I read your play with great pleasure and am in awe of how you managed to make so much interesting action and dialogue for all of these characters,” wrote Zinsser. “I am excited to think when you might find some actors to do a reading for you—keep me posted.”
I had spent three years writing a play while working for a living and practicing my studio art. Not being connected in the theater world, I was not entirely clear what to do next. No one was particularly interested. It was really frustrating. I wrote the play because, as a female, I wanted the world to know about this amazing woman, and no one would listen.
One day I received a postcard in the mail from Loyola University Chicago, my alma mater, requesting donations for their newly restored theater. I called the number.
“I have never donated to Loyola because I don’t really make any money,” I stated into the phone, “but I have written a play and would consider finally making a donation if you would consider listening to me about my play.”
Jason Osborn returned my phone call. Meeting over coffee, I explained my play—my life’s mission—to the director of development at the College of Arts and Sciences. He agreed to introduce me to the chairperson for the department of fine and performing arts at Loyola, Sarah Gabel.
“I think you need to hear it aloud,” said Sarah over coffee. “It’s good, but it’s long. A reading would help you tremendously.”
Thus began another year of on-again, off-again negotiations with Loyola that finally culminated in the public reading on January 19, 2014.
Finally: life is easy. A reading! But when one writes a play with over 20 characters, actors need to play multiple roles. Role assignment took 14 hours of miserable work tracking scenes and page numbers. At one point I had to color-code names. At other times I quietly cursed myself.
We had four rehearsals. After the first rehearsal, I cut whole scenes. Following the second, I cut more scenes, killed a character and trimmed dialogue. The third: cut more dialogue. The day before the public reading—the fourth rehearsal—I cut dialogue as the actors were rehearsing it. The initial draft clocked in at three-and-a-half hours. I brought it down to a bit under two-and-a-half hours. Additional culling is in the works.
I began to see the play as a commercial for Émilie rather than an historical epic that could put viewers to sleep. I picked up the pace of the play and stripped out elements that dragged it down. I also invited plenty of non-theater people. If they could get into it and enjoy it, then anyone could.
A public reading is invaluable, especially if it’s more formal. Having your friends read aloud in a coffee shop does not compare to preparing for a reading to which you have invited the general public. It was an adrenaline rush, and it forced me to make quick decisions that otherwise seem hard to do. The play took over three years to write. Sacrificing scenes that took so much work to write the first time was the beauty of perspective and pressure. Enough time had passed that my inner amateur historian could drop its guard. After all, if the audience really wanted to learn more, they could read the book.