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‘Emilie’s Voltaire’ – An Affair of the Heart and Mind

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‘Emilie’s Voltaire’ – An Affair of the Heart and Mind

Amy Lynn Stewart and Michael Medeiros

Photo courtesy of Living Image Arts

Arthur Giron’s new play, Emilie’s Voltaire uses the 16-year affair of the French genius and his lover, Emilie, to explore the transformative power of intellectual and sexual passions and the constraining effect of class and gender on them.

What ‘Emilie’s Voltaire’ is About

Emilie’s Voltaire opens with the French genius of letters and philosophy, Voltaire, in his bathtub writing. He’s just been scorned (and caused to be beaten) by the aristocracy he disdains in his work and from whom he longs for acceptance.

Enter a masked woman, Emilie Marquise Du Chatelet-Laumont, a member of that aristocracy and a brilliant scientist in her own right. To avoid displaying her genius, which no 18th century woman could safely do, she’s just allowed the queen of France to cheat her at cards and is on the run until she can cover her losses.

From that meeting, evolves a 16-year affair of the heart and mind between Emilie and Voltaire. There is no coincidence it begins with him as exposed as can be and her masked. As a commoner, he openly challenges the established order; as an aristocrat, she covertly flaunts its convention.

He yearns to be accepted by the Academie; she longs for the education her brilliance deserves, but her station won’t allow. He is volatile and yet pragmatic. She is controlled and yet controlled by her passions. Voltaire sees himself as the embodiment of the saying, “Knowledge is God’s kiss.” Emilie laments that she has “a man’s mind in a woman’s body.”

Ironically, it is Voltaire’s passion for her, not his knowledge, that reduces him from master of the relationship to her captive. Ironically, it is Emilie’s body, not her mind, that in the end betrays her.

What You’ll Like About ‘Emilie’s Voltaire’

Kudos to Michael Medeiros and Amy Lynn Stewart as Voltaire and Emilie. This is almost a two-hour show, and Medeiros stepped into the lead role about 10 days before opening when the original lead left over artistic differences. Medeiros is fascinating to watch as he slowly transforms from Voltaire the dominating intellectual giant, to Voltaire the fussing, jealous, impotent lover of a younger woman.

Stewart plays a woman of equal parts physical and intellectual passions with the courage to put conviction into action, but not quite enough courage to fully break with 18th century societal conventions.

There is a scene in Act I in which Emilie looks at the stars through a telescope for the first time. Her laugh, at once childish in its delight and sensuous in the pure pleasure of the moment, embodies Stewart’s fine portrayal of a woman with appetites and abilities, who was born in a century where neither can be fulfilled.

It was no surprise to see that scenic designer Jito Lee assisted on the Tony-nominated sets of Broadway’s Seven Guitars. He transforms Samuel Beckett Theatre from the Paris apartment of a wealthy but common man to the decaying country estate of a poor but aristocratic woman.

Who Created and Produced the Show

Arthur Giron has been working eight years to turn a true story into a stage work, and if you didn't know the story was true, it would be hard to believe. There are challenges to handling so many themes in one evening. The play touches on the nature of passion, the repressive effects of society, the odd contradictions of genius, the use of sex as a weapon in relationships, the place of the characters in history, the elucidation of the mindset of that period in history, and more.

At times, the dialogue tends to become pedagogy; less entertainment and more education. Still, Giron skillfully brings the audience to understand the infant state of scientific method in the 18th century and the intoxicating wonder, to those of open and able minds, that science offered. To them, it was a gift from God, helping them better understand things eternal by studying things temporal.

Emilie's Voltaire was produced to launch the fifth season of Living Image Arts Theatre Company, and was directed by Kevin Confoy.

Promotional material styles the show as "An 18th Century Sexual Symphony," which is unfortunate. Such a tag line is liable to attract the wrong audience and keep the right one away. Don't misunderstand. There is plenty of sexual tension, but this show is far more about passion - both physical and intellectual - than sex.

Emilie's Voltaire

  • Where: Samuel Beckett Theatre
    410 West 42nd Street
    (Theatre Row)
  • Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (plus intermission)
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