Flowers that Fly: Abrams and AMNH Publish Titian Peale’s “Butterflies of North America”

Cattleheart Swallowtails (left and right) from Mexico and northern South America: artful science from the hand of Titian Ramsey Peale

After two centuries, the “Audubon of butterflies” at last gets his due

Strange but familiar obsession kept this unluckiest of lepidopterists resolute in the face of terrible setbacks

Carefully painted images capture Nature’s tiny canvases, matched by live hothouse observatory now open for year

Butterfly man Titian Peale and his good ship The Peacock which foundered off Oregon in 1841 along with all his precious specimens

Few men seem to have been as harmlessly productive as Titian Peale, yet few as violently abused by Destiny with uncalled for personal disasters.

The pioneering American lepidopterist (butterfly scholar) field researcher and artist was born in 1799 into a distinguished family in Philadelphia, where his father was a natural historian and painter who founded the nation’s first public museum, the Philadelphia Museum.

By the time Peale took over the Museum from his father in 1827, he had firmly established a lifetime of pioneering fieldwork and butterfly chasing which would ultimately result in his seminal work, The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera: Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do. But publication eluded him during his lifetime.

Complete with 100 hand colored lithographs of butterfly and moth species in his own, very personal artistic hand, its pages languished more than 100 years in the drawers of the American Museum of Natural History.

Abrams have gone to some lengths to present Titian Peale's work in the style and appearance of the original manuscript, eschewing gloss and other artifacts for paper and reproduction close in spirit to the originals carefully preserved in the holdings of the AMNH since 1916.

Abrams have gone to some lengths to present Titian Peale’s work in the style and appearance of the original manuscript, eschewing gloss and other artifacts for paper and reproduction close in spirit to the originals carefully preserved in the holdings of the AMNH since 1916.

Only today, Sept 1 Tues 2015, are they finally published by New York’s art book publisher Abrams. The attractively complete and unglossed book has proud commentary from the Museum’s president Ellen V. Futter, David A. Grimaldi, curator of the butterfly conservatory and of invertebrate zoology, and Kenneth Haltman, professor of the history of art at the University of Oklahoma, who called Teale an “artist-scientist”.

The Tiger Swallowtail with a chrysalis on the left, and on the right, the Two-Tailed Swallowtail from North and Central America, where it feeds on trees and has a scarlet caterpillar, drawn by the hand of Titian Ramsey Peale, “presenting scientific data informed by artistic sensibilities and a delicate, sure sense of pictorial decorum” (Kenneth Haltman)

The artistic quality of Peale’s work provokes a lyrical effusion from art historian Haltman to end his essay in the book: “His painted butterflies, scrupulous mimetic, meticulous detailed, place compositional inventiveness in the service of thematic ambition at nearly every turn… a sympathetic imaginative mapping of both his own psyche and one of the great wonders of the natural world.”

The American Painted Lady (left, southern US, Mexico and northern South America)) and The Buckeye (right, US and Mexico) ) with caterpillar, chrysalides and larvae.

The American Painted Lady (left, southern US, Mexico and northern South America)) and The Buckeye (right, US and Mexico) ) with caterpillar, chrysalides and larvae.

Butterfly therapy

David Grimaldi, who with Haltman introduced the volume to the press on Tuesday, acknowledged that Teale’s was a “sad story,” and said he took especial pride in finally releasing his masterpiece to the world after so many years.

Those drawings on the table in front of David Grimaldi are tokens of the state of “flow” that overtakes those who make detailed images of butterflies and other marvels of Nature, which may act as a palliative to those such as Titian Peale who have many undeserved blows to contend with throughout a long life.

Having drawn many illustrations for his own scientific publications – he brought some examples of his drawings of insects caught in ancient amber, one of his specialties – he said “I know personally the kind of solace and therapy that you derive from losing yourself entirely in doing these detailed renderings.”

A closer look at Grimaldi’s therapeutic copies of insects caught in ancient amber

Destiny’s hard blows

Unable to raise enough pledges from subscribers to get his beautiful handiwork into print during his lifetime, Teale’s career was marked by other huge setbacks. Yet nothing stopped him in his pursuit of a passion which when it grips is one of the strongest in science, offering both preoccupation and solace amid life’s vicissitudes.

Butterflies collected: some idea of the infinite variety of colors and camouflage these fabled insects offer can be drawn from the drawers of the AMNH on the fourth and fifth floors where white painted filing cabinets hold two and a half million specimens from far and wide

In the four years that he joined the first US South Seas surveying expedition he collected as many as 400 specimens, kept behind when sending the rest of his collection to dry land, for fear of losing them. But all were lost when his ship The Peacock was wrecked off Oregon in 1841, a grievous destruction which included his private library and many of his notes.

To compound this disaster, when he returned to Philadelphia he found that all the butterfly specimens he had entrusted to the Academy of Natural Sciences had been lost in a storage fire, the family museum was also lost, and his wife, a son and a daughter had all died.

A profusion of color and camouflage in a tray from another (the Hayden) collection in the museum’s cabinets.

The result of all this misfortune was only to drive Peale deeper into his preoccupation with butterflies, however, and he never let up. He took a job as a patent examiner in Washington to get by, and remarried, buying a house which he filled with painting tools and butterfly specimens. He ended his life in Philadelphia after retiring, as fascinated as ever with Nature’s tiny mobile canvases.

Yet during his lifetime of devotion his proposed masterwork The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera: Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do failed to attract enough subscriptions to finance publication, and both his illustrations and his manuscript were eventually presented to the American Natural History Museum nearly one hundred years ago (1916).

The pleasingly unglossy volume is a fine memorial to America’s First Lepidopterist, and the many thousands of others who share his preoccupation with Nature’s harmless and pretty “flowers that fly”, as Robert Frost put it.

His lovingly painted illustrations of flying flowers are bolstered by adding his companion text on caterpillars with more than a hundred of his detailed paintings of these creatures or larva, pupa and a few adults in watercolor from Peale’s album with its marble paper-covered boards which also, until today, was available for viewing only in the AMNH Rare Book Collection.

Beauties briefly alive

Meet a live butterfly - five hundred of them will inhabit this leafy hothouse for much of the year from Sept 5 Sat to next May 29 Sun, offering a chance to inspect some of the 45,000 known butterfly species in all their glory as they flutter about aiming to land on an orange slice or other rotting fruit, their favorite supper

Meet a live butterfly – five hundred of them will inhabit this leafy hothouse for much of the year from Sept 5 Sat to next May 29 Sun, offering a chance to inspect some of the 45,000 known butterfly species in all their glory as they flutter about aiming to land on an orange slice or other rotting fruit, their favorite supper

Meanwhile live versions of many of Peale’s favorites will soon be fluttering around in the warm, moist air of the museum’s Butterfly Conservatory, whose Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter. The show will be open from Sat September 5 to Sun May 29 2016, featuring about 500 tropical specimens from around the world feeding on orange slices and settling on flowers, plant leaves or visitors hands or shoulders.

A visit to the AMNH’s butterfly greenhouse is for all ages, and perhaps even the smallest can be encouraged by the insect’s triumphant and unexpected metamorphosis from mundane caterpillar to dashing beauty of the air.

The one that you make friends with will not be around in three weeks, however, since the insect’s life span is limited. The Museum imports more from its Florida farm to keep the stock up throughout the winter.

With its large “eye”s staring back at you from its wings, this little “sky-flake” (as Robert Frost called it) feels secure from the large humans surrounding it as it attends to sucking up the orange juice at hand, which it enjoys especially if it is slightly rotten.

The encounter with lepidoptera in the Conservatory is the same as in the sun in a field or maybe jungle environment, and maybe this one will drop on to your wrist if you hold a slice of orange. But is it rotten enough for its preference?

Press sees hidden trays

After the introduction of the Peale book curator David Grimaldi took a select group of the press to the museum’s upper floors where corridors of white painted metal file cabinets and their trays bring order to the two and a half million lepidoptra specimens the museum has so far accumulated.

One case of maybe one hundred thousand or two?

Grimadli holds a drawer aloft for the assembled newshounds who crowd the narrow passageway between the long corridors of white metal cabinets that hold drawer after drawer of neatly pinned lepidoptra, all two and a half million of them.

The butterflies are regimented in death in a way that seems entirely the opposite of the freedom to flutter every which way which they enjoy in their brief life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Met Brings Huge John Singer Sargent Show Over, With Striking Theme

Revealing How Creatively He Portrayed Famous Friends

Endless Display of Genius Stimulated by Personal Admiration

Freedom to Invent After Abandoning Formality

If you appreciate the finest painting from the past and are stuck in Manhattan over the July 4 weekend, consider yourself blessed. Walk over to the Metropolitan Museum and view the outstanding show it will offer the public for three months from tomorrow (Tue Jun 30 to October 4 2015) of the great turn of the 20th Century portraitist John Singer Sargent, which it has brought over from the National Portrait Gallery in London and topped off with with some additional works.

This Sargent sketch in charcoal of W B Yeats, recognized as Ireland's finest poet at the age of forty, shows all the inspiration that Sargent found in his friends among distinguished contemporaries in the arts.  The Met show has a huge abundance of examples in its new show Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

This Sargent sketch in charcoal of W B Yeats, recognized as Ireland’s finest poet at the age of forty, shows all the inspiration that Sargent found in his friends among distinguished contemporaries in the arts. The Met show has a huge abundance of examples in its new show Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

Singer’s shining talent in portraiture was fully developed from the start of his career but this exhibition has a striking theme – it shows vividly how much inspiration Sargent (1856-1925) found in portraying his friends from the theater, art, music and literature of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, many of them equal in stature to Sargent himself.

The very fine portrait of Henry James with its penetrating gaze and vivid presence reflects the long friendship and mutual admiration between artist and subject

Above for example is his charcoal sketch of Yeats, a good looking forty year old in 1908, done six years after Sargent gave up painting formal portraits of stuffed shirt ladies and gentlemen as too confining. Yeats was pleased with the dashing air of the sketch, which was used for the frontispiece of his first volume of Collected Poems that year, and noted that Sargent was “very good company”.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood was sketched in 1885 but kept and treasured by Sargent all his life, possibly reflecting the truth that it is a self-portrait in part, as many of his studies of friends who were artists share that character.

Many of the paintings are partly self portraits in spirit which refer to Sargent’s own methods and approach.

An Artist in His Studio (Ambrogio Raffele) shows the various stages of work on a finished painting.

Sargent’s self portrait is reckoned as more buttoned up and less revealing of himself than his pictures of other artists and musicians (Sargent was reportedly a concert-level amateur pianist.)

Sargent’s Self Portrait of 1906, at the age of fifty, is said to be less revealing that the studies he did of his celebrated friends among actors, writers and musicians of his time.

Every work in this historic assemblage reminds us just how extraordinarily gifted was this chronicler of major Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries, and the experience of walking into the vast main gallery that starts the exhibition off with his earlier portraits in the grand manner is a little like walking into the anterooms of heaven.

Garden Study of the Vickers Children John Singer Sargent (American, Florence 1856 – 1925 London) Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884 Oil on canvas 54 – 3/16 × 36 in. (137.6 × 91.4 cm) Flint Institute of Arts

The show offers a chance to contemplate the beauty of his Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884), a daring and sensual masterpiece which so scandalized the Parisian bourgeoisie at the 1884 Salon with its plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and off-the-shoulder dress strap that French commissions dried up (even though he put back the strap) and Sargent moved to London. The magnificent work occupied pride of place in his studio until Gautreau’s death in 1916 when he sold it to the Metropolitan.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) shocked the Paris provincials in 1884 but has long been recognized as “the precise image of a modern woman scrupulously drawn by a painter who is a master of his art”, as Judith Gautier, Sargent’s fellow Parisienne poet and novelist put it. (Click the image more than once to examine it in detail).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Burst of Color at Frick: Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June Takes Pride of Place for Summer

Victorian era’s sexy masterpiece scorned, lost for decades, now revered

Discovered in 1962 in British house hidden behind wood paneling, ravishing beauty was acquired by Luis A, Ferre, founder of  Puerto Rico’s art museum

Enthroned in original frame design, hung beside Frick’s Whistlers for telling comparison: Incomparable Splendor!

This flaming beauty is now at the Frick for the summer, prized beyond compare after decades when it was scorned as Victorian sentimentalism at a peak

This flaming beauty is now at the Frick for the summer, prized beyond compare after decades when it was scorned as Victorian sentimentalism at a peak

The exquisite charms of Frederic Leighton’s final masterpiece of 1895 seem undeniable today, but after being hung at the Royal Academy of Art in London and celebrated for fifteen years as the height of Victorian classicism, Flaming June was toppled from its summit of admiration by the revolutionaries of modern art, and quite literally vanished from view for decades.

Only in 1962 did it resurface.  Workmen at a British house removed wood paneling to reveal the masterpiece hidden away, not even in its original gilded frame.   But a year later it was acquired by Luis A. Ferre, the clear eyed founder of the Ponce Museum of Art in Puerto Rico, where it is now the flagship canvas.  Now it will be at the Frick for three months.

Report has it that the young Andrew Lloyd Weber would have bought it for a pittance, but his grandmother refused to lend him the money for such a ‘mistake’, and the failure remains one of his greatest regrets.

Why the long phase of ignominy?   Viewed through the distorting glass of changing critical fashion, Flaming June was written off as sentimental trash, a shallow monument to the aesthetic vulgarity of an age which loaded art with artificial moral and historical signals, much as the Nazis and the Stalinists later harnessed art in the service of political ideals.

But the story of its misguided critical death and rebirth adds to the excitement that many feel now at the chance to see this sublime work in its full glory, enshrined in  a regal but provocative presentation that perhaps only the Frick could manage to pull off.

Whistler’s Harmony in Pink and Gray:Portrait of Lady Meux 1881–82

Whistler’s Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, 1871–74

For this time, on either side of the huge gilt frame which once more ennobles Flaming June, spaced a respectful distance away along the wood paneled wall (an irony, that wood paneling!) are two magnificent tall standing portraits of women by Whistler.  Both are owned by the Frick: Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux 1881-82 (Oil on canvas, 761/4 x 36 5/8 in) and Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland 1871-74 (Oil on canvas, 77 1/8 and 40 1/4 in).

In some ways the relatively drab coloring of the Whistlers and their static poses couldn’t be more different from the spiralling colorburst of Flaming June, but the Frick senior curator Susan Grace Galassi, and the Associate Curator of the Musee de Arte de Ponce Pablo Perez d’Ors, who cooperated on the unprecedented exhibition and wrote comprehensive essays in its small but thorough catalogue, use the contrast to point up the achievements of both contemporaries.


There are two more current shows at the Frick:  landscapes for the summer, and porcelain until next spring.

Antoine Vollon (1833–1900), View of Dieppe Harbor, 1873. Watercolor and graphite on laid paper. The Frick Collection; Gift of Carol Forman Tabler in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander A. Forman III – Landscape Drawings in The Frick Collection
June 9, 2015 to September 13, 2015

Depicting quotidian life in the country, urban scenes, and imagined views of timeless Arcadian realms, this selection of rarely exhibited landscape drawings from the Frick’s small but superb collection of works on paper reveals thematic continuities across four centuries. The presentation features the Frick’s newly acquired View of Dieppe Harbor of 1873 by Antoine Vollon, the generous gift of Dr. Carol Forman Tabler. The watercolor finds an ideal context among drawings by Vollon’s contemporaries and forebears — including Claude, Corot, and Whistler — with whom he shared a drive to investigate the technical possibilities for representing on paper the textures and intangible atmospheric effects of the three-dimensional world.

The presentation is organized by Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Research Assistant at The Frick Collection, and will be on view in the Frick’s Cabinet gallery.

From Sèvres to Fifth Avenue: French Porcelain at The Frick Collection
April 28, 2015 to April 24, 2016


Between 1916 and 1918, Henry Clay Frick purchased several important pieces of porcelain to decorate his New York mansion. Made at Sèvres, the preeminent eighteenth-century French porcelain manufactory, the objects — including vases, potpourris, jugs and basins, plates, a tea service, and a table — were displayed throughout Frick’s residence. From Sèvres to Fifth Avenue brings them together in the Portico Gallery, along with a selection of pieces acquired at a later date, some of which are rarely on view. The exhibition presents a new perspective on the collection by exploring the role Sèvres porcelain played in eighteenth-century France, as well as during the American Gilded Age.

The exhibition is organized by Charlotte Vignon, Curator of Decorative Arts.

Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, Pot-pourri ” à Vaisseau,” ca. 1759. Soft-paste porcelain, with later addition of a gilt-bronze base, 17 1/2 × 14 7/8× 7 1/2 in. (44.5 × 37.8 × 19 cm). The Frick Collection; Henry Clay Frick Bequest (1916.9.07)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ordered Nature: Peter Neumann’s Photographs at City Hall

“Architectural Abstracts” Bring Regularity to Profusion

Photos Shown in Manhattan Borough President’s Gallery

This week is the last chance to see photographer Peter Neumann‘s month long show in the gallery on the 19th Floor of 1 Centre Street, which will close at the end of May.

Peter Neumann favors orderly patterns of trees and other scenes in his current selection at Boro Hall

Currently under the stewardship of Gale M. Brewer, the reigning Manhattan Borough President, the Gallery displays selections from Neumann’s Architectural Abstracts series, as well as works from his New York Reflections, Botanical Abstracts, and Landscape series.

Mixing architecture and window display through reflection is a favorite approach in Neumann’s current work

The opening on Friday, May 1, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m, was attended by fellow members of the artist collective Feast for the Eyes, and other deeply rooted New Yorkers, including concert guitarist and writer John Lehmann-Haupt, landscape painter Jacqueline Sferra Rada, collectible retailer turned drawer and painter Jon Rettich (who hurried home to catch the cherry blossoms in Washington Square early the next morning) and celebrity portrait photographer and adman Lance Evans with his young son Max.

Johyn Lehmann-Haupt, Jon Rettich and Peter Neumann ignore the sunset on the Hudson

Johyn Lehmann-Haupt, Jon Rettich and Peter Neumann ignore the sunset on the Hudson

The show collects work by Neumann in the last five years, when he transitioned from film cameras to digital, after leaving behind the rigid “disciplines of commercial still life photography and years of shooting landscapes using the Zone system (to) just playing with a visual sense of joy and wonder”.

Neumann shot of a window and mannequins against the reflection of buildings opposite

Peter’s father was a still-life painter of Polish heritage who took him to art museums in the 1950s. He opened a commercial still-life studio in New York in 1982, serving advertising agencies and magazine publishers, and he spent weekends and vacations shooting black-and-white landscapes with a large-format view camera in the tradition of Ansel Adams. In the 1990s, he created digitally generated 3D illustrations for magazines, work included in the 2001 Brooklyn Museum exhibition Digital: Printmaking Now.

In 2010, he returned to working with digitally enhanced photography to produce his Botanical and Architectural Abstracts series. His work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum as well as private collections and those of numerous corporations, including John Hancock, Simon & Schuster, TD Ameritrade, and the NYU Langone Medical Center. His web site is

Manhattan rooftops form a painterly impression in Neumann’s shot

More (unedited) images of the art and the opening at Photocalendar TalkInNewYork.

Max gets playful with Lance Evans, portrait photographer, and adman supreme

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Remarkable Marie Curie Saluted in Alan Alda’s Drama of Science, Love and Feminist Politics

Ewa Maria Wojcik Vibrant in Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie

Swiftly Tilting Project Proves Intimate Joria Space Compresses Explosively

Triple Theme of Rescuing Human Potential Still Shockingly Relevant

Marie Curie extends the olive branch to the frustrated wife of her working colleague without realizing that she will betray the friendship in the end

Vast themes of human triumph and tragedy in scientific progress, love and loyalty in domestic entanglements, and the still tragically wasted potential of the female half of the human race are all built into a new play about a famous scientist that a local New York acting group managed to squeeze into the smallest possible stage on the West Side this weekend.

The Joria Productions Mainstage Theater at 410 W. 47th St has room for a stage and seats hardly greater than the average New Yorker’s apartment living room, but the momentous creation that Alan Alda has come up with in his script about the Polish scientist Marie Curie expands it in the imagination to a full size Broadway stage, with all seats almost part of the action.

The astonishing Marie

Alda has realized what many others have overlooked, for some reason possibly to do with one of his themes, the neglect of women’s talents, that the life of this famous Polish scientist embodies an extraordinary combination of social and emotional issues of the first importance in history, difficulties which still torment people in societies throughout the world.

Marie Curie is of course the very famous Polish born (1867, Nov 7, Warsaw) woman of science who sought to clarify the number of elements that make up the material of existence and succeeded in discovering two which were radioactive, winning her two separate Nobel prizes (still a unique achievement) despite huge resistance at that time to taking women seriously in science, a prejudice which continues in the 21st Century.

A woman of passion: Marie Curie doing her thing – finding new and dangerous elements, falling in love and bringing up children from whom separation during the day was made inevitable by her pioneering work

Fleeing Poland in search of fulfillment withheld from women in her native country, partly because it was occupied in partition at the time, or similar, Marie Curie at the age of 27 arrived in Paris and managed to pursue her studies in science far enough to win an unprecedented Ph.D.- the same year she won the Nobel. She planned to return to Poland but met Pierre Curie, a Frenchman who married her and became her admiring colleague in pursuing her scientific curiosity, who eventually shared the Nobel prize with her.

Played with vibrant energy and conviction by a young actress whose very name reveals that she is of Polish origin also, Ewa Maria Wojcik, this is the heroine whose triumphs and travails are the grist of Alda’s unusual script, one of the first contemporary efforts to dramatize the potentially vast consequences of keeping half the human race barefoot and pregnant when their numbers include women of ability and intellectual ambition in science and other demanding fields who can make life changing discoveries to transform society if they are released from male prejudice and repression.

Alda Hits Bullseye

Professional science buff and explainer Alda has done a science play which surely has broader appeal than anything done to date, because he has recognized that the story of Madame Curie has huge resonance in more than one aspect of modern life – not only the continuing surge in scientific progress an discovery, but also the still handicapped empowerment of women, and the eternal human struggle between love and family life and the demands and triumphs of important work, a struggle which handicaps any of us if we aim at great accomplishment in any sphere, but especially in intellectual work.

In all these ways the story of Curie is not only relevant but inspiring, not least because it is a saga of overcoming cultural resistance and prejudice against women taking on one of the greatest challenges of the outside world and beating men at what they consider their own game of scientific discovery worthy of a Nobel – two Nobels in Curie’s case, which is still a record.

That, and defeating the kind of social repression of women that had most of them suffering the torments of the damned when they were discovered in adultery or pregnant outside marriage. Curie’s affair with her friend and colleague nearly lost her the second Nobel prize she won for her work, so busy were the supposedly bedroom-wise French in condemning her adulterous affair, though it was after her own husband died, and with the husband of a jealous wife in a relationship that was already emotionally broken.

The story is so appealing to the pen of any playwright that it is something of a mystery why Alan Alda is apparently the first to see its golden literary nature. There have after all been quite a few biographies of Curie, and at least one film made by the British. But the recent success of one or two plays concerned with science and even mathematical discovery have shown the way with their fair success in attracting audiences.

This juicy drama incorporates all the emotion of the social and sexual politics which swirled around this Polish-born heroine, however, whose very presence in Paris reflected her determination to leave behind the provincial disrespect of women in her native city.

There is so much lively conflict of ideas and personalities in this script that not surprisingly it easily surmounted the handicap of its excessively modest stage, which was hardly more than a large room in a tenement brownstone on 47th Street just off Ninth Avenue, which is busy with traffic on weekends in its numerous restaurants with tables or open walls onto the street.

Small theater, big impact

So how does this story play on the stage? Previous tries in Los Angeles and London have met with quibbles and lacklustre appreciation, but it seems pretty clear that much depends on the director.

On the Saturday night we just attended about sixty chairs were filled around a patch of floor on the second level of the house at the back, and actors were only a few feet from those of us in the first of three rows. Moreover, it was a hot night and as the lively stage manager explained to us the air conditioning could be switched on only after the heating was inactive or somesuch, so hand fans of every kind were essential throughout.

But the sound system worked and the hand of the director was deft in arranging the actors on stage so that the limitations of scale vanished, and the unfolding of the tale was as effective as it might be on any larger platform, which it might well deserve.

If anything the vocalization was a bit more strenuous than needed in the beginning but as the play moved along all settled into their roles until by the second half with no diminution in drama all were convincingly present as figures from the past reliving on stage the events of another time as if today.

Some will object that the process of discovery is oversimplified, perhaps childishly so, by Alda’s script, which as staged either breathlessly anticipates the triumph of proving out Curie’s theory that tiny levels of radioactivity in polonium or radium would emerge from her suggested process or celebrates her success with hugs and cries of joy – “You did it! You must be thrilled! This is fantastic!”. One gathered that Marie had been inspired by watching the slag being separated from the molten metal in some factory, and asked that the pitchblend be dumped in the back garden without warning husband Pierre of just how many truckloads would be involved. “That is the first truckload. There are twenty more!”

But no matter – the grubby details of science are hardly the topic for any playwright anyway. What grips our attention very soon is the fact that all her work was initially credited to her husband by the Nobel Committee, and he had to insist that she be included in the award – and even then she was not allowed on stage to share in the limelight of the acceptance.

“I don’t understand. Does being a woman demand invisibility” Marie asks, but without succeeding in changing the ruling. How hard did her husband fight for her? Alda does not make this clear, since he moves from one episode to the next very rapidly.

He does make clear however that her hugely supportive husband’s tragic death in the street in the rain under a 30 foot wagon was due to the poisonous radioactivity of the polonium and later radium they worked with. Pierre Curie’s legs were just too weakened to jump out of the way of a heavy horsedrawn cart whose back wheels ran over him after the horses knocked him down.

The adulterous affair she eventually is blessed with to comfort her after Pierre’s death provides the cliffhanger of the second part of the play, since it brings down on her the wrath of the mob and demands from the Nobel Committee that she deny it publicly before they can hand her her unprecedented second prize.

There is enough here to support a TV drama of several segments, and we understand that there is another movie currently in the works. One thing is certain: this production deserves a much longer run than a weekend on a bigger stage in New York, and with luck will get it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment